LOS ANGELES – On the morning of Aug. 27, when Nina Sloan saw Narinder Virk on her regular weekly visit to the Ventura County Jail, Virk asked, teary-eyed, “Can nothing be done? Can no one come up with the money and get me out of here?”
That did it. “I decided that this girl should be bailed out without any further delay,” said Sloan, 66, a retired county employee who, like Virk, was born and raised in India's Punjab province.
That very afternoon, Sloan offered to put up all her personal property – two rental houses, her bank certificates of deposit and jewelry – as collateral toward Virk's $500,000 bail.
“I did it because I know what a battered woman goes through,” Sloan says, “I know how she must feel because I went through two terrible marriages myself.”
Sloan is one of dozens of sympathizers – in the Indian-American community and outside it – rallying behind the 39-year-old Virk who was arrested in January for allegedly trying to drown her son, age 9 and daughter, 6, and herself in Channel Islands Harbor.
A harbor resident and former lifeguard awakened by cries for help from the little boy rescued the three. At the time of the rescue, mother and daughter were unconscious.
Virk is facing two counts of attempted murder, a charge that could keep her in prison for life. Her attorney, Ventura County Deputy Public Defender Christina Briles, said the trial will probably begin early next year.
Virk's supporters say her action was a result of years of abuse at the hands of her husband, Santokh, a liquor store owner in Port Hueneme, CA.
When called for his comments, an angry-sounding Santokh told this reporter, “I don't want my side of the story in the paper. I don't want my name or my children's names in your paper. You can put my wife's name, but not mine.”
The case has brought rare unanimity to the diverse and somewhat fractured Indian-American community. At every one of her court hearings, community members – among them Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, Parsis and Muslims – have packed the courtroom in a strong show of support.
At one hearing, supporters handed over a petition to prosecutors with 1,000 signatures on it, urging leniency.
Indian-Americans “have a more sophisticated analysis of domestic violence” than they once did, notes Firoza Dabby, executive director of Narika, a nine-year-old support group for South Asian victims of domestic violence based in Berkeley. Dabby said that formerly South Asians living in the U.S. would have either denied that the problem existed or explained it away as culturally acceptable.
Briles argues that Virk was suffering from depression when she attempted the murder-suicide because of the years of harsh abuse she had endured from her husband.
She was trapped in a loveless marriage, kept isolated in their home, Briles said. Virk snapped when her husband left for India telling her he was going to file for divorce there.
Virk came to the U.S. in 1991 from a small farming village in Punjab, sponsored by her husband. Poverty and prejudice kept her from receiving any formal education. Virk neither reads nor writes Punjabi, and does not know any English.
This did not trouble her would-be husband or his family when they entered into negotiations for the marriage in 1978 when she was barely 18 and he 21. All Santokh wanted was someone who could cook, keep house and produce children – a role acceptable to Virk as a young woman reared in India's village culture where female subservience is the norm.
Virk, speaking through an interpreter in a jailhouse interview, said that the first 14 years of her marriage were trouble free. In 1984, Santokh left for the U.S. and found himself a job in Northridge, while she stayed in India with relatives. He would visit them every couple of years.
Virk joined her husband in the U.S. in 1991 and soon became pregnant. She assumed her husband would provide for her, as he had always done. She in turn, would be a dutiful housewife, as she had always been.
But within a couple of years after their son was born, Virk saw her marriage turn into a sinister game. Her husband kept her isolated, blocking long-distance phone calls and restricting her every movement.
“I was unable to speak to my parents or write to them,” she says. “I had no relatives to talk to and the only loved ones I had were my children.”
Santokh began drinking. Then the physical abuse began. “He never abused the children,” Virk said, through tears. “When he got drunk, though, he would beat me in front of the children.”
In 1997, he took her and the children to India and dumped them there, says Virk. “I tried to call him, but he wouldn't take my calls.” She and the children flew back to Los Angeles using their round trip tickets when a friend warned that her green card would lapse if she stayed away from the U.S. for too long.
The next year her husband took off for India for six months, leaving her and the children with no money for food. For two years she poured out her grief to a tape recorder. Four tapes were recovered by investigators from the Virk home after she was arrested. In one outpouring she recounts that “I have two small children, I don't have any right to live, but still he threatens me that I will be killed.”
Virk said hunger and fear drove her to the local Sikh temple where she told the priest of her situation. But for the kindness of her neighbor, Elisa Quezada, and friends from the Sikh community, she and her children would have gone without food many a day.
Quezada, a mother of four, and Virk communicated and bonded, crossing language barriers. “She was afraid they would go hungry,” Quezada says in halting English. “(Every time) he left her and went away, she didn't know when he would come back.”
When Virk's case goes to trial, jury members are sure to wonder why she never called the police or walked out. Briles will have to convince them that Virk grew up in a country where the police are not always viewed as helpful and sympathetic, in a culture where women are told that marriage is forever, that if it fails, the wife – not her husband – didn't do enough to make it work.
Viji Sundaram is a staff reporter for India West, a weekly journal based in San Leandro. A longer version of this story appears in the