Nandita Das

The privilege of choice

  • August 1, 2011

I have always believed that life is about choices. The destiny argument has been of little use to me, for I believe that even if it is true, we’ll never know its role in our lives. Every time we are at a crossroad, we have to make a choice and that path takes us to another crossroad, thus deciding our journey and therefore the destination. I see making a choice as the power to respond to a given situation. 

Of course championing free will in the context of fate is one thing, but to see the ability to choose as an absolute, is another. Recently at a relatives’ place the after dinner chat turned into a heated discussion about choices. Someone vehemently argued that everybody has a choice at all times. No matter how difficult that choice is, it does exist for each one of us. He went on to illustrate his point by saying that, even the woman who suffers an abusive marriage, is choosing it over her freedom, for things that are more important to her. Undoubtedly her circumstances like having small children, economic dependency, fear of shame, lack of support from her own parents, etc. make the choice difficult. He was emphatic, that even though the choice may be between a rock and a hard place, but it is still a choice.

While it sounded logical, it seemed to undermine the circumstances within which people actually end up making those choices. It may seem I am contradicting my own mantra that life is about choices, but speaking for the disadvantaged, I often find myself saying things like, “but she didn’t have a choice”, as I don’t want to judge others through my own prism. Isn’t the ability to make a choice a privilege that we take for granted? Conceptually everybody has a choice. Even if you are committing suicide, you are exercising a choice, but in practice, how can one overlook the circumstances that push a person to take that option? My first field placement while doing my masters in Social Work was with mentally challenged children, and I used to wonder, what choice do they have? Or for that matter even their family? In fact the more vulnerable a population, more limited is their choice. 

Having said that, in human rights’ work one of the main things one does is to make people aware of the choices that exist for them. And when one teaches, more than anything else, one learns. When I feel helpless, I remind myself that I do have a choice, but the challenge is to make the make right one. But to say that everybody has a choice could perhaps be conceived as a way of shifting collective responsibility to individual responsibility, a bit unfair in a world of huge inequalities. Sure as a human race we have choices, especially in the way we use or distribute our resources but as individuals, for many it is akin to choicelessness. While theoretically there is no question that every situation presents a choice, but the fact is that most people are neither aware of all the available choices nor do they have the ability to follow up on the choices, even if they make them. 

But the debate that night did disturbed me much beyond that post- dinner conversation. I was conflicted between what sounded right and what felt right. Anyhow my take away was that while it may not be true for everyone, but surely those of us who are privileged, can make choices that are more responsible. Then there will be less room for excuses and blame-games. No wonder Sartre said “Man is condemned to be free.” And with the “burden of freedom” comes greater responsibility for their decisions. Perhaps it all sounds confusing, but to explore the gray, we will have to resist the temptation of simplistic black and whites. There are times when I find clarity in the exploration of ambiguity.

Virata Parvam


Director: Udugula Venu

Language: Telugu

Character Name: Shakuntala

Key Cast: Kundan Alexzed, Chakrapani Ananda, Banerjee

Feastivals and Awards: NA

Film Stills: 9

BTS: 11