My 3-year-old daughter Preeti laughs as I chase her in the park. Suddenly she trips and starts crying, so I hug her. She wraps her tiny arms around my neck saying, “Pretty scared,” (she calls herself “pretty”). As I hold her tight and tell her never to be scared, a vivid image flashes across my mind—the memory of a friend, another Preeti, who was always scared.
I often wonder where and how she is—maybe someday our paths will cross again. I picture her now as I saw her the first time, waiting for the subway at Kipling station in the place I consider my spot. I’m thinking, “She must be new, never seen her before.” She climbs onto the same car and sits across from me. Usually I try and catch a few winks but today I feel myself observing this striking young girl with interest.
She has bright, shiny, black eyes lined with kohl. A perfectly cut face, framed by long silky auburn hair, she wears no makeup but has a smooth olive complexion. I notice she wears a nose ring like me and the palms of her hands are stained red with henna designs. When she moves her hands, her glass and gold bangles tinkle. “A new bride from my part of the world,” I think—jaded at the thought of how many years it’s been since I was a bride sporting bangles and henna. She sees me looking and flashes a shy smile, probably noting that I have a similar ethnic look. I smile back and close my eyes to nap, feeling her eyes upon me. But I refuse to be drawn into idle subway talk—I’ve too much on my mind. My pregnancy is beginning to show, there’s maternity leave to work out, and a decision on when to stop my volunteer work as an interpreter with the Toronto Hospital.
When I open my eyes, she’s still looking at me, sort of wistful. I chide myself for being aloof but my stop arrives, so I ignore my inner voice. Next day she manages to find a seat next to me. She has such an engaging smile that I find myself responding so she says “hello,” and hesitantly asks me if I speak Hindi. When I say yes, it’s as though I turned on a light and instantly, I’m her friend.
In the next few days, my subway companion chatters non-stop and I listen. Her name is Preeti, “but almost everyone calls me ‘Pretty,’” she says charmingly. She’s been in Canada only a month and is learning English because she wants to work. Preeti informs me that her marriage was arranged through a matchmaker in her village in North India, a great honor for her family. Preeti said “yes” over the phone and after her papers were processed, came over to join her husband and his family. He’s a taxi driver, and Preeti lives with him, his two brothers, and their mother in Malton. Although I’m aghast that the practice of proxy marriage still exists, I don’t say anything because Preeti seems quite happy. She has no friends or relatives in Canada and informs me that she was very lonely till she met me!
It becomes routine five days a week, that Preeti waits for me at Kipling station, we sit together and chat till I get off downtown to go to work and she continues to her classes in the East End. Preeti is like a curious child with no idea where to stop asking questions, but her innocence makes her invasions into my privacy acceptable. “Does your husband love you? How many children do you want? How much money does he give you?” Sometimes I answer, at other times I stay silent, letting her guess. Mostly I listen, because Preeti reminds me of my youth—fresh and passionate about issues, full of energy, while I’m weighed down by a difficult pregnancy, my full time work and mortgage payments.
In time, I start looking forward to my chats with Preeti on my one-way trip to the city, since my husband picks me up on the way home. I find her bright and articulate with a deep interest in everything around her and a passion for learning. Taking my cue from her personal questions, I once ask her how old she is, guessing about 20. She smiles mischievously, “on paper or truly?” and confesses, “I’m 16 but in my passport they’ve written 18.” Seeing my frown, she laughs and says, “Oh, you’re so proper Mona—you’ve become Canadian and forgotten how we live back home. If they wrote my real age, people would have said it’s a child marriage.” Her spurts of wisdom baffle my mind.
As the months pass, I notice a change in Preeti—she’s becoming pale, quiet, and withdrawn. Once in a while I notice burn marks on her arms; she says she burnt herself while cooking. One day she says, “I miss my mother,” and I suggest she call her. She replies in a low voice, “I can’t—they won’t let me.” It’s my first inkling that all’s not well in Preeti’s life. I ask her if she’s happy with her husband. Preeti thinks for a while and says pragmatically, “It’s my duty to be happy—they paid a large amount for me.” Seeing the shock on my face, she continues lightly, “You know my parents are very poor and we are 8 children, so when his family offered to pay for all the expenses and some extra, they took it. Mother told me that I have to do what they say, not only because of the money, but it’s the honor of our family and if I do something bad, my sister’s won’t get married.”
On the verge of telling her she’s wrong, something about the intensity with which she believes this, makes me stop. I understand what she’s saying because I’m a product of the same culture and consider myself fortunate to have beaten the system by marrying someone I love and who loves and respects me in return. But I’m apprehensive for Preeti, because I’ve seen similar cases of young girls being forced into marriages of convenience and mistreated. My volunteer work with the community has made me sensitive to the plight of Asian women and the activist in me wants to investigate more but I sense a pride in Preeti that holds me back. I make it a point to advise her of her rights hoping things will work out for her.
One day as I get on the train, I notice Preeti is sitting in a corner looking out of the window, wearing a scarf wrapped tightly around her head. She doesn’t turn to look at me and there’s no response to my “Hi Preeti.” I take her hand, which is ice-cold, and ask if she’s all right. Preeti turns slowly and my heart nearly stops to see that she has a black eye and one side of her face is bruised. Seeing my stricken look, she presses my hand so hard that it hurts, and mumbles out of the corner of her bruised mouth, “Last night I got up to drink water and fell down.” I know she’s lying but her eyes are bright with unshed tears saying “don’t ask me anymore,” so I continue holding her hand and hope that some of my strength will transfer to her.
Preeti isn’t on the train the next few days and I’m concerned. I don’t have her last name or phone number to call. Recalling her bright laughing eyes when I first saw her, and how the laughter has faded away, bothers me and brings out the maternal instinct in me. Trying to find some solutions for Preeti, I ask the social worker at the hospital to get me some material on domestic violence and names of services where Preeti can turn for help.
A week later Preeti is at the train station again. Her bruises have faded but she still wears a scarf. I throw caution to the wind, and give her a big hug. She’s listless and gives me a half smile. Suddenly our roles are reversed and I bombard her with questions. At first she doesn’t respond but when I insist, she tells me that she’s being abused by her husband and the family. “He accuses me of attracting other men with my looks and long hair and when I said I don’t, he hit me and forcibly chopped off my hair. I cried out to his mother and she also slapped me and said I deserve whatever he doles out to me.”
The picture Preeti gives me of her home environment is horrifying, but one I’ve heard before. Her husband works long hours, doesn’t make much money and drowns his frustrations in alcohol. His mother and brothers are mentally and physically abusive with Preeti and she feels they’ve only brought her over to be an unpaid maid to all of them. Preeti tries very hard to please, desperate to be loved, but her husband is insanely jealous of her looks, and is constantly trying to disfigure her face. Her sole outing and escape is the ESL class, which she’s allowed to attend only so she can perfect her English, find work and bring home money. I give Preeti the names of the organizations she can call for help and she looks at me as though I’m crazy.
“I can’t complain to anyone—they’ll kill me or worse still they’ll send me back home which will hurt my parents. It’s probably all my fault anyway,” she adds despondently.
“No,” I say vehemently to Preeti, “It’s not your fault but you have to get help before they hurt you more. I’ve see cases like yours before, and I’ve studied the pattern. Abusive people don’t change, you have to get away Preeti.” She looks at me sadly and says, “Mona in your world you can think of getting away, I have no where to go.”
“You can come to my house,” I blurt out. Preeti shakes her head, “Thank you. You’ve been like a friend and sister to me and just talking to you makes me feel better but this is my fate. I hope you don’t have a daughter because she’ll never be able to do what she wants in her life.”
Preeti is not on the train in the next few weeks and I’m scared for her. A few more weeks go by and everyday when I board the train, I say a prayer for Preeti. I’m doing my last month of volunteer work at the hospital before I’m too heavy to do extra work. One day the social worker tells me a very sick patient needs an interpreter. I’m staggered to see that the patient is Preeti. Her face is battered beyond recognition, tubes running into her body, she’s on intravenous. I feel sick and have to sit down. After cajoling the nurse for information, I find that Preeti has internal bleeding and damage plus multiple burn wounds. Preeti slips in and out of consciousness, I call work to say I’m taking the day off and sit by her side. At one point she opens her eyes and sees me—she acknowledges me with a slight smile but her eyes are full of tears. Hospital personnel say she refuses to speak to them which is why they called me thinking she can’t understand English. She was brought in by her brother-in-law explaining that she got dizzy while cooking, burnt herself on the stove and fell down. “Likely story,” I fume.
I’m alarmed at Preeti’s condition. I gently touch her brow and whisper to her, “It’s all right Preeti, I’m here, no one will harm you now.” At this point I’ve made a decision that I’m going to take Preeti away from the horror she faces daily. I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I will. I meet the doctor, social worker, and nurses and tell them all I know. They are sympathetic but need a statement from Preeti before any charges can be laid.
My husband is concerned that I’m letting this affect my pregnancy and he wants me to butt out. I can’t—I’m her only chance. I tell him that I’ve offered to bring Preeti home and he accepts that helping Preeti has become my mission in life. Next day, I’m at the hospital bright and early. Preeti is conscious and I speak to her at length about pressing charges, about women’s rights and women’s shelters. Preeti listens quietly, when I finish, she takes my hand and says faintly, “I was willing to accept anything; he could hit me and abuse me because he’s my husband. I only fought back when his brother came to my room, drunk, one night last week and said that since the family had all pooled money to pay for my trip to Canada, I owed him a good time. I freaked out and yelled for their mother but she chose not to hear me. I screamed and fought, my husband came home and they told him it was my fault. So in the end they all beat me. I can’t share this burden with anyone else because it’s so degrading. I trust you Mona, promise you won’t tell anyone.”
With a heavy heart I promise, on the condition that she’ll come home with me until she can face them again. She accepts in a resigned manner. When I come home that evening, I start having acute cramps and am confined to bed rest for a week. I call Preeti at the hospital everyday and advise her to wait for me, not to leave with her family. “Don’t worry about me, I’ll survive. You get well Mona,” she says weakly, “You have to be strong for the baby.”
As soon as I’m up, I go to the hospital but Preeti’s gone. They tell me she insisted that her injuries were due to an accident and she burnt herself on the stove, so no one could do anything when her husband came to take her home. I wheedle the address from my nurse friend and take a taxi to the apartment in Malton. The building superintendent tells me the family moved out two days ago—no forwarding address.
I never see Preeti again. Her disappearance causes me great guilt for what I could have done. When my daughter is born, I name her Preeti in honor of my short-lived friendship with a wonderful human being. I plan to teach my daughter how to fight injustice and to achieve whatever she wants in her life.
Raheel Raza was born in Pakistan, has traveled the world, and now lives in Canada with her family.