Isabel Allende: An Epiphany in India

Isabel Allende is an acclaimed novelist, memoirist, and humanitarian. Her books include The House of the Spirits, Eva Luna, Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses, The Sum of Our Days, My Invented Country, Paula, and her latest, Maya’s Notebook. She has also written an adventure trilogy for young readers—City of the Beasts, Kingdom of the Golden Dragon, and Forest of the Pygmies. The Isabel Allende Foundation works with nonprofits in the San Francisco Bay Area and Chile to empower and protect women and girls, based on the understanding that empowering women is the only true route to social and economic justice. We are extremely pleased to publish her poignant story below, which is reprinted from the new Lonely Planet anthology, Better Than Fiction.  

Who Wants a Girl?

By Isabel Allende

My daughter Paula died on December 6, 1992, of a rare blood disorder that nowadays should not be fatal, but there was negligence in the hospital, she was given the wrong medication, she fell into a coma and five months later, when the hospital finally gave her back to me, she was in a vegetative state. I brought her home and took care of her until she died, peacefully, in my arms. She was twenty-eight years old. She had been a smart and beautiful girl with a generous heart; her mantra was, "You only have what you give; it’s by giving that you become rich."

Grieving for the loss of Paula was like walking alone in a long and dark tunnel. It took me a few years to reach the end of the tunnel and see light again. Those were years of confusion and sadness; at times I felt a claw in my throat and I could barely breathe. Without even being aware of it, I dressed all in black. I tried to write, but it was a futile attempt: I would spend hours staring at my computer or pacing my studio, blocked. For someone who lives to write, an internal drought is terrifying. I summoned the muses in vain, for even the most bedraggled muse had abandoned me. After three years of emotional paralysis, my husband, Willie, and my friend Tabra decided that I needed to fill up my reservoirs and proposed a trip to India, because according to them, India is one of those experiences that mark you for life, a land of great contrasts, of appalling poverty and extraordinary beauty where surely I would find inspiration. I accepted, although I had no desire to travel and even less to India, the farthest possible point from our home before starting back around the other side of the planet.

Sirinder, our guide and driver in India, had the courage and expertise needed to navigate winding rural roads and crazy city traffic, dodging cars, buses, burros, bicycles and more than one starving cow. No one hurried – life is long – except the motorcycles zigzagging at the speed of torpedoes and with a family of five riding aboard. We didn’t have safety belts, we had karma: no one dies before his time. Sirinder was a man of few words and Tabra and I learned not to ask him any questions, because the only one he answered was Willie.

One late afternoon, as we drove in the country, in a dusty and reddish landscape where the villages were far apart and the plains stretched forever, we saw a solitary tree, probably an acacia, and a group of four women and several children under its branches. We wondered what they were doing there, in the middle of nowhere, far from houses or a well. The sun was beginning to go and brushstrokes the color of fire streaked the sky. We asked Sirinder to stop, and Tabra and I walked toward the women. They started to back away, but their curiosity overcame their shyness and soon we were together beneath the acacia, surrounded by naked children.

The women were wearing dusty, frayed saris. They were young, with long black hair, dry skin, sunken eyes made up with kol. In India, as in most of the world, the concept of personal space we defend so fiercely in the West doesn’t exist. Lacking common language, we greeted each other with smiles and then they examined us with bold fingers, touching our clothing, our faces, Tabra’s red hair and the silver jewelry we had bought the day before. We took off the bracelets and offered them to the women, who put them on with delight. There were enough for everyone, two or three each.

One of the women, who could have been Paula’s age, took my face in her hands and kissed me lightly on the forehead. I felt her parched lips, her warm breath, her smell. It was such an unexpected gesture, so intimate, that I couldn’t hold back the tears. The other women patted me in silence, disoriented by my reaction. From the road, a toot of the horn from Sirinder summoned us: it was time to leave. We bade the women good-bye and started back to the car, but one of them followed us. She touched my shoulder, I turned, and she held out a small package. I thought she meant to give me something in exchange for the bracelets and I tried to explain with signs that it wasn’t necessary, but she forced me to take it.

It weighed almost nothing, it looked like a bundle of rags, but when I turned back the folds, I saw that it held a newborn baby, tiny and dark. Its eyes were closed and it smelled like no other child I have ever held, a pungent odor of ashes, dust, and excrement. I kissed its face, murmured a blessing and tried to return it to the mother, but she ran back to the others while I stood there, rocking the baby, not understanding what was happening.

A minute later Sirinder came running and shouting. He snatched the baby from my arms and started toward the women, but they ran away, terrified at the man’s wrath. Then he bent down and laid the infant on the dry earth beneath the tree, while the women watched from a safe distance.

By then Willie had come too, and he hustled me back to the car, nearly lifting me off the ground, followed by Tabra. Sirinder started the engine and we drove off, as I buried my face in my husband’s chest.

"Why did that woman try to give away her baby?" Willie murmured.

"It was a girl. Who wants a girl?" Sirinder replied with a shrug.

There are stories that have the power to heal. What happened that day beneath the acacia tree loosened the knot that had been choking me, cleaned away the cobwebs of self-pity, and forced me to come back to the world and transform the loss of my daughter into action. I could not save that baby girl or her desperate mother or millions of women like her, but I could at least attempt to ease the lot in life of some of them. I had an account with untouched savings that I was planning to invest in something that would make Paula proud. In that moment I remembered that when she was alive I would often call her for advice – my life as a new immigrant in the US and as stepmother of Willie’s drug-addicted children was rather stressful -- and her answer would always come in the form of a question: "Mother, what is the most generous thing to do in this case?" 

"Now I know what to do with my savings," I announced to Willie and Tabra. "I will start a foundation to help women and children."

And so I did as soon as we returned to California, never imagining that through the years, that seed would become a large tree, like the acacia.

Reproduced with permission from Better Than Fiction: True Travel Tales from Great Fiction Writers, edited by Don George, published by Lonely Planet. Copyright © 2012 Lonely Planet.

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Don George, Editor

Don George is Editor in Chief of Wanderlust: Literary Journeys for the Discerning Traveler. He has been Travel Editor for the San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle and Salon.com, and Global Travel Editor for Lonely Planet Publications. Don has published eight books, including Travel Writing, A Moveable Feast, The Kindness of Strangers, and Tales from Nowhere. E-mail him at don@geoex.com.

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