Unworthy Creature: A Punjabi Daughter’s Memoir on Honour, Shame and Love
Aruna Papp with Barbara Kay
Freedom Press, 214 pages, $21.95
Reviewed by Mark Milke
As Irene ran towards the church-bound bus one morning, the eight-year-old girl spotted crows circling above a heap of garbage, and fighting over something discarded in the trash. As Irene moved closer, she saw that the crows were tearing at the flesh of a naked baby girl, abandoned by a family that wanted a boy.
Growing up in her native India, Aruna Papp (—Irene, before she changed her name) learned early that being a girl in a traditional culture was a curse. “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t understand that even shiny, sophisticated girls were a burden to their families” writes Papp, in Unworthy Creatures: A Punjabi Daughter’s Memoir of Honour, Shame and Love, co-authored with the National Post’s Barbara Kay.
Indeed, there would be many more reminders about the status of females in her native India. The girl that perished on the garbage heap would not be the last to suffer the deadly effects of the curse.
When Papp was fourteen, Kiran, a young lady who lived in the apartment below Papp’s family, (and had graduated from university with honours), made the fatal mistake of falling in love with someone at the American hotel where she worked.
Kiran’s brothers had promised their sister to a wealthy man twice her age who had agreed to help the brothers in a business venture. Thus, when she instead insisted on marrying the man she loved, the murder was set in motion. Kiran, “tall, with a beautiful figure” with “glossy black hair, crowned with a garland of white flowers,” had her wrists bound with thick rope and was set ablaze in her red bridal sari. By the time the police arrived, the “beautiful” and “happy” woman Papp envied and admired had “subsided into a charred heap of smoking rubbish.”
Papp, who emigrated to Canada four decades ago, is now a social worker in Toronto. She first swept into Canada’s national consciousness two years ago with her study on the cultural factors behind “honour killings” in Canada.
That accomplishment has now been followed up with a well-written narrative on her own life, one that should be read by anyone who wants to understand how cultural beliefs can often be the greatest barrier to women’s emancipation abroad and even in Canada.
Thus, the high wall against integration into Canadian society, as Papp points out with unflinching courage and clarity, is not traditional “European” culture—the predictable and nonsensical accusation that originates in government-funded lobby groups and academics too wrapped up in their own intellectual mud puddles to see the obvious. In fact, Western culture has long been the most tolerant of worldviews and able to incorporate a rainbow of diverse peoples. Papp, who has no anti-Western blinders, thanks the vague God she believes in for Western values.
In a book whose official launch was given a boost by Conservative Rona Ambrose, Minister responsible for the Status of Women, Papp makes clear that the real reasons some immigrant women have trouble integrating into Canadian society: too often, their own families. For some, the extreme version of honour that treats girls and women as private property is so deeply embedded in some families that even the women will defend group “honour” at all costs, even if it means siding with men who beat and kill their wives, daughters, and sisters.
Or they will side with those who abuse in other ways. When Aruna was 11, she was raped by Aalim, a relative seventeen years her senior. But Aruna could tell no one. “There was no question of telling anyone what I had experienced. I had nobody I could trust to keep such a horrific secret,” writes Papp, a mistrust that had to extend even to her mother and father. The honour code that existed in segments of Indian society meant her own parents “would have killed me on the spot and, whether they believed me or not, they would have apologized to Aalim for my vile accusation.”
Papp, as the last paragraph indicates, is open in her book about her life thus far: about her earliest years in India; about her husband Ralph—the Anglo-Indian 11 years her senior whom she was forced to marry at age 16; about the beatings from the fists and the belts of her pastor father—one attack split the skin on her back and knocked her unconscious for two days. She is honest about her Seventh Day Adventist faith and the deeply scarring fundamentalist strain to which she was exposed; about the extreme and deadly form of “honour” which bound not only Indians of Hindu or Muslim persuasion in India but also her own Christian circles; about her eventual abandonment of faith for a more generalized belief in God; and about her deep, suicidal depression long after she met a new husband in Canada and long after she thought her past life was behind her.
Despite the abuse, Papp is not anti-man; far from it. The author is also frank about her own failures: she preferred to stay away from home, especially as her career advanced, a decision that hurt her own children. She is straightforward about the need to bribe officials in India and how she lied to immigration officials in Canada.
If nothing else—and there is much else—Unworthy Creature is a reminder of the power of self-actualization, to the realization that slowly, but surely, the only life one knows is not the only life possible.
But such a dawning did not occur without the kindness of others. In her earliest years, Aruna was the only Christian in a school where a certain Master Singh was in charge. Singh, aware the other girls were getting the best of Papp, told her to be less gullible and also to stand up for herself. It was the first time she ever considered it was possible to demand better treatment.
Later, one missionary from the United States, Pastor Streeter, had egalitarian ways which while they offended her patriarchal father, probably saved Papp’s life. When Pastor Streeter brought Aruna home to Delhi from the boarding school she was then attending (she was sick and in need of a hospital) Aruna’s father thought his daughter’s return would shame the family as he assumed that she was pregnant. Neighbours might think the girl had done something to warrant expulsion. So her father refused to let his daughter even enter the house and go the washroom. The pastor was so angry with Papp’s father that he ensured the removed appendix—the source of her illness—was given to the father as proof.
The kindness of others were seeds that eventually flowered and allowed Aruna to escape her cosseted life and her own demons. After another beating from her husband Ralph, young girls from a barrister’s family next door introduced themselves with a gift of food and gently inquired as to her condition.
Later, when she was again attacked by her husband, the girls’ mother, Anita Behan Ji, came over immediately to intervene, and threatened to have her lawyer brother arrange for Ralph to spend a few nights in jail, “where he would undoubtedly learn to what it felt like to be beaten himself.” The intervention and kindness overwhelmed Papp, in part because of it how it defied conventional expectations about caste in Indian culture. “I was dumbfounded that high-caste Hindus would even think of crossing my threshold, let alone treat me with such kindness,” she recalls in one particularly poignant part of her memoirs.
After the entire family eventually emigrated to Canada, the kindness continued. There, Aruna met women who insisted the couple get help—and that her husband be made to account for his violence. “This was my first foray into the realm of ‘women’s rights’ notes Papp, who points out that while the Adventist omen would have been hooted down by the feminists of the era, what they [the Adventist women] propounded was an equality of human value.”
She also encountered paragons of kindness: Elspeth Hayworth, a petite, posh British-accented social worker who helped Aruna first rescue herself and then other women and children in the heavily immigrant Jane-Finch area of Toronto.
Another example of tender charity came after Papp’s first foray into public speaking, and where she first shared the travails of immigrant women. After, thinking she had embarrassed herself with her limited education, she made a beeline for the washroom and threw up. After berating herself in the stall, Papp emerged to find “a white woman of patrician good looks, older, with piercing eyes”, who encouraged her to stand up straight and breathe deeply—“she made me do this three or four times” writes Papp. The woman told her that the honest recounting of what was occurring in the cloistered homes of new immigrants meant Papp had “done something no one else in his country has ever done before” and congratulated her on her bravery. The woman gave Papp her business card; the name meant nothing to Papp at the time but she would soon call June Callwood, the famous Toronto feminist, to thank her for her kindness.
The humanity shown to Papp would later be returned by her to others, including a reconciliation with her father and mother. But perhaps the most touching kindness in the book is how Papp, still in India at this point, passed by a woman sitting near a stream one early morning in the city of Pune. Thinking it odd that the woman was resting by the stream so early, Papp wondered whether she had been there all night, as indeed she had. The woman, married 23 years but unable to conceive had been thrown out of her house by her husband; in her late thirties, she had nothing but her clothes and was calmly waiting for death.
Papp, working at a bakery in the early mornings to help pay the bills but who also had two young children at home, persuaded the woman, Shanta, to come live with them. While unable to pay her, Shanta was offered room and board in exchange for watching over Papp’s daughters, something that proved invaluable one day when Papp’s husband, in a fit of rage, grabbed their youngest daughter, baby Bina by one arm, and flung her to the ground. “Shanta, hovering over the baby as always,” writes Papp, “lunged at her and managed to break her fall.”
When, some years later, Papp had moved to Canada, she would send Shanta money every month until Shanta passed with cancer in 1978.
Unworthy Creatures is not a perfect book. The design is not as sharp as it could be; the back-cover descriptions run right to the edge of the cover and the inside of the book is similarly cluttered. Still, as the cliché goes, it would be a mistake to judge this book by its (back) cover and those secondary standards. The writing is crisp and Papp’s life story pulls you in; the personal stories pull the reader ahead. Moreover, with so much initial tragedy in Papp’s life and from her earliest age, that Papp survived the horrors of such maltreatment is a small miracle. Not all women do.
Mark Milke is the editorial board chair of C2C Journal, and commissioned Aruna Papp’s study on culturally-driven violence in 2010, which can be found here: http://www.fcpp.org/publication.php/3352?print=yes.