Memoir: Aruna Papp reflects on the abuse she suffered at the hands of men
I never questioned the abuse I suffered from my father and husband, nor did I have any reason to think life had treated me unfairly. Until I secretly went to school
One night, in Delhi, when I was 14, I heard a horrifying scream and leaped from my bed. On the street below, I saw our neighbour, a young woman named Kiran, in a glittering red bridal sari engulfed in flames. Head thrown back, wrists bound with thick rope, she reached her arms beseechingly to the stars and then collapsed.
Kiran and her family lived below us, on the first floor of our apartment complex. She was tall, with a beautiful figure, and educated. She worked in one of the posh American hotels. We later heard that her brothers had killed her. They disapproved of the man she wanted to marry.
Growing up, I had always known that, like Kiran, I was expendable—an “unworthy creature,” as my mother and grandmother would remind me over and over. I never questioned the privileges that sons could expect. I never resented my father for the beatings I frequently endured at his hands, nor did I resent the disparity between my mother’s warm indulgence of my brother’s wishes and the grudging scraps of attention that were my portion. Until I followed my extended family to Canada, a young mother trapped in a loveless arranged marriage, I had no reason to believe life had treated me unfairly.
My husband, whom I’ll call Ralph, was Anglo-Indian. I was 17 when we married; he was 28. Ralph was not by nature unkind, but he didn’t handle stress well, and whenever my father made fun of his inferior, non-Punjabi origins, or his superiors at work criticized him, or he saw me talking in a friendly way to another man, he would lash out at me, sometimes with a severe beating.
In 1980, with Ralph’s permission, I got a job as a short-order cook at York University. My shift ran from 5 a.m. to noon. I found a second job, from 4 to 11 p.m., as an attendant in the women’s locker room at York. As an employee at the university, I was entitled to free tuition. I enrolled in the sociology program, because the department was next door to the locker room. Neither Ralph nor my parents had any idea I was taking courses. They felt that any free time I had should be spent in the service of my husband and three children.
Over the next two years, I continued to take undergraduate courses in secret, and my knowledge of the world beyond my ethnic and religious borders grew exponentially. I met people involved in community outreach in the Jane-Finch area, and helped launch a program for South Asian women who’d been victims of domestic violence. I gave my heart to my studies and my work, which were uplifting, while my home life was depressing.
One night I arrived home close to midnight to find my husband waiting for me. “Where the hell have you been? Who have you been with?” he yelled. My 16-year-old daughter, Mina, came running down the stairs. She told me my parents had been over that evening, and that they’d told Ralph to beat me because that was the only language I understood. My husband was in a rage. I had just enough time to get back into the car and lock the doors before he reached it. He tried to stop me by banging on the hood. I threw the car into reverse, drove to York and parked in one of the residence parking lots, where I spent a sleepless night.
I lived in the car for two weeks before I found a bachelor apartment. I decided it was best to leave the children at home so that they could follow their usual routines; I knew Ralph would never harm them physically. Once he’d cooled down, we met a few times to talk about the kids. He asked me to come home. He said he thought we should start couples counselling, and I was somewhat buoyed. One day I mentioned that I wanted to come by and pick up some books, and he pleasantly agreed.
When I got to the house, Ralph said he had something to show me in the backyard. I stepped outside and my knees buckled. He had started a bonfire and was burning my books.
Suddenly I recalled with lurid clarity that night in Delhi when I had witnessed beautiful Kiran writhing inside her furnace, and I was filled with shame. I had watched a human being burn to death. Only now, as my books turned to ashes, did I feel the moral outrage I should have felt for Kiran. Back in Delhi, I hadn’t judged the people who burned Kiran. Since nobody around me appeared horrified at the injustice, it seemed an acceptable thing to do. Now I was educated. My books contained the thoughts of people for whom the fate of Kiran would be an obscenity. I was aligned with them now.
As I watched the fire in my backyard, I knew I could not share my life with Ralph anymore. I turned and asked him how he could do something so vile. He was grinning. He shrugged and said, “I am glad you’ve decided to stop all this foolishness. Come on home and we will all be fine.”
I was shaking as I ran back to the car. I pledged then and there to leave Ralph forever, even though I knew it meant burning bridges with my parents, my kids and my community.
I paid a huge price for my independence. My relationship with my children remains strained to this day. But I would eventually find real love with my second husband, David, with whom I have another daughter. I’ve had a rewarding career as a counsellor and therapist. And while I’m proud that the South Asian Family Support Services, which I co-founded, has grown into one of the city’s largest social service agencies, with a budget of $4 million and 65 staff, I long for the day when such agencies are no longer necessary. I long for the day when girls born into an honour-based culture don’t have to spend every waking moment sustaining that honour.
Aruna Papp is the author, along with Barbara Kay, of Unworthy Creature: A Punjabi Daughter’s Memoir of Honour, Shame and Love, to be published this spring by Freedom Press Canada.
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