In the city/province/country where I live, November 14th, 1997 will always be an infamous day. It was the day a 14 year old girl named Reena Virk was beaten and killed by a group of (predominantly) teenage girls. It was a brutal story and one that thrust the issue of girl violence into the spotlight.
This past weekend the Vancouver Sun posted an exerpt of a new book about Reena called Reena: A Father’s Story. It is written by Reena’s father Manjit. For those who have followed the story for the many years it has dragged on (and continues to drag on in the courts, as a 4th trial has been ordered for one of the accused, Kelly Ellard), you will no doubt agree with me that the Virk family has had the pain of their daughter’s death protracted to such a point that it borders on cruel.
Through it all, however, it has been Reena’s mother, Suman, who has spoken for the family. Rarely did you see or hear an interview with Manjit. Now, it appears, he is ready to speak though this book. Perhaps it is to honour his daughter by remembering her in a public way, but I suspect writing this book was as much a cathartic act as anything.
But this is also the story of being a father, and what being a father means. In Majit’s case, it was being a father while walking in many different worlds where his views often clashed with those around him.The Virk’s were not only immigrant’s from India, but are also Jehovah Witness which meant they not only walked a cultural line between East and West, but secular and religious.
When I’d first come to Canada, I was delighted to find that many husbands and fathers helped with child-rearing and household chores. Back home, such behaviour was rare indeed. Even when I was a college student in India, some people praised me for helping my mother with errands while others thought it was below the dignity of a collegiate male to be doing such menial tasks.
Because it is not traditional in my community for fathers to spend a great deal of time with their children, I was criticized and ridiculed by some family members and friends. The norm was for mothers to look after the kids while breadwinner-fathers headed the household and administered discipline to unruly children.
I particularly remember one occasion when we were invited to a large family gathering in Victoria. The men were having drinks and snacks in the living room while the women and children were in the kitchen, preparing meals, chatting and gossiping. Although I was enjoying the male conversation, my ears were tuned to my one-year-old daughter, who was sleeping in a nearby bedroom. When I heard her cry, I excused myself, picked her up and brought her back to the living room. She shortly fell asleep again on my shoulder.
“It was your wife’s duty to go and get the child and not yours,” said one man who seemed upset by my behaviour. “That is why you married her.”
But how was I to sit and enjoy drinks with the men and not worry about my child? I politely told him that Reena was my daughter too, and that I wanted to take care of her and was under no pressure to do so. The assembled men seemed to assume that I did not understand what it meant to be a real man because I wanted to attend to my child.
I suspect many of us can relate to Manjit. Perhaps not the the extent where we have been verbally told by others that it is our “wife’s duty to go and get the child and not yours”, but I know there have been times where I have felt a similar attitude, but in a much more subtle way. And I suspect that once I am finished the book, the story of Reena Virk will resonate with me at a completely different level now that I am the father of a daughter.
Looking back, I am amazed at how orderly and happy our life was then, how little we ever imagined that everything we treasured could be ripped asunder.