Say Uncle 

Two Indian sisters get a crude introduction to American life.

Maybe if it were years down the line, further along her slow crawl toward Americanization, she would have done something. Maybe she would have climbed out of the pickup truck, leaving her uncle to wonder. Or maybe she would have thrown her body into the driver's seat, yanked the gearshift into drive, and peeled off onto Pearl Road, watching that shitty little motel shrink away in the rearview mirror.

There'd always been time to do something like that. Whenever Jagwinder found herself in the parking lot of one of those motels, it took Uncle a few minutes to pay for the room, pick up the key, and come back to get her. Plenty of time to do something. But what?

She had been in this new country for mere weeks. Except for her sister, she didn't have any friends in Cleveland. Didn't speak English. Didn't know how to drive. Her life -- at least this new American one -- didn't come with a contingency plan.

Besides, she owed Uncle a lot, like so many of the people from back home. Life in Village Kara had been fine. Her father farmed wheat and cotton, a stable living in the crowded Punjabi village of devoted Sikhs. But she wanted to come to America as much as anyone else. To "see this place," she says. And her uncle, Pritam Brar, had helped her family do it.

Brar -- a small, cleanshaven man now in his 60s -- came in 1968. He studied mechanical engineering in India, but wanted to get his degree here. He enrolled at Cleveland State, graduating in 1973. The next year, he went back to India to get married, then returned to start a family and a career.

Over the years, Brar built himself a modest but successful life on the West Side. He started MicroPlus Computer, a home-based computer-sales business that provided him a spacious brick colonial in North Royalton and two nearby investment properties. His wife was a psychiatrist; his two sons were on their way to becoming doctors.

Over the years, Brar helped members of his family emigrate from India, including his younger brother, Muk. The process was long and arduous. Brar first filed Muk's paperwork in 1988, but it wasn't until August 2003 that Muk and his family -- a wife and two daughters -- boarded a plane to Cleveland, with Brar as their guide and sponsor.

The family moved into the finished basement of his North Royalton home and stayed for eight months. Brar began helping his nieces, Jagwinder and Gurbinder, learn English and look for work.

The girls were 17 and 19 at the time. They were tiny, less than five feet -- 90 pounds of arms, legs, and hair. Their deep chocolate skin, thick black ponytails, and toothy smiles gave them away as Indian emigrants, and their personalities reflected their new status in a new land. They smiled and nodded a lot, but said nothing.

Because Mom was a traditional housewife and Dad was nearing retirement age, the sisters were the family's best hope for quick work. Uncle piled them into his truck and toted them around town in search of jobs. He would do that a lot over the next year. Sometimes, when Jagwinder was sitting in that motel parking lot, waiting for him to return with a room key, that's what she had thought she would be doing that afternoon: filling out job applications.

The second time their car was burned -- that's when the girls finally told someone about Uncle and his trips to the motel.

It was spring of 2006. The sisters had moved from Uncle's basement to a sparse two-bedroom apartment on a busy thoroughfare in Parma. A cop knocked at the door.

Your car, he said. Someone torched it.

Gurbinder went outside and found her Dodge Neon a blackened mess.

Brar hadn't bought the girls that car, but he had bought the previous one, a Hyundai Elantra. That one was burned the summer before.

He'd bought the girls plenty of other things. The three had been inseparable since the sisters had landed in Cleveland. In his basement, Brar slowly built up his nieces' English by writing out words from books in Punjabi. He took them to parking lots to teach them to drive and paid for their lessons. He drove them to jobs at McDonald's and a nursing home. Brar often brought Gurbinder Indian food and tea -- she hated American food -- and sat with her on her breaks, eating and studying English.

When they did go out -- to eat, to the mall, anywhere else that cost -- he paid. And if they were apart, it wasn't long before they were together again. Brar would just call on the cell phone he bought them. Or show up wherever they might be.

So last spring, when the police responded to the fire and started asking, Who would do this?, the sisters were slow to point the finger. Brar had given them so much. But he had taken his share too.

It began almost immediately after they moved into Uncle's basement, Jagwinder told the detective. They were supposed to be studying English, but he started to touch and kiss her. Don't tell anyone, he said. Don't tell anyone, or I'll kill you.

Soon, he drove her to the Metroparks. He found a secluded, wooded corner and laid a blanket under the trees, stripping off his clothes. She said no, Jagwinder told the cops, but Uncle said yes. They had sex. It was her first time.

Or I'll kill you.

She'd been in the U.S. less than a month when Uncle first pulled his truck up to the Village Motel, a no-star hole-in-the-wall on Pearl Road in Strongsville. She sat in the car and watched him walk into the office. He bartered for a lower room price, the motel manager would later recall. They would only be there a few hours, he said. The room cost $15. She walked behind him, head down and stone-faced. He was rough this time, she told the cops.

Or I'll kill you.

It went on like this for a year. There were different rooms in different motels, but what happened inside never changed. When she and her family moved into their little apartment, Brar took her there, saying they would hang new drapes. They had sex instead.

Jagwinder didn't tell her father; the shame it would bring the family silenced her. When she tried to invite Mom or Dad on an outing, Brar told them they would just be in the way.

Gurbinder also grew familiar with Uncle's motel circuit, starting just weeks after she arrived in Cleveland. She tried to push him off, to convince him that she was his niece and that he shouldn't, she told the detective. But time after time, she found herself in another dingy motel room. He slapped her and shook her, she said, and even snapped photos of her frail, naked body.

Brar was more brazen with her, Gurbinder said. He once took her out for driving lessons and forced himself on her in a parking lot. And he twice called her mother, volunteered to pick Gurbinder up from work, then took her to his home in North Royalton. He made her drink rum before he forced himself on her, she said.

Or I'll kill you.

Finally, in 2005, they found the nerve to stop returning his calls and to avoid his advances. When they spurned him, Brar sought revenge, they told police.

He called the FBI to say that his brother Muk -- the girls' father -- was traveling back from India with a bomb on the plane. Muk was briefly detained before being released.

He also called the feds to report his nieces. The girls had used doctored birth certificates to get into the country, he claimed -- ones that showed them to be younger than they were. The FBI called Arby's. Gurbinder lost her job.

But they still wouldn't return Uncle's calls. Last March, he called their house, threatening to do something "bad," the sisters said. A few days later, their car went up in flames.

As he listened, Strongsville Detective Robert Barsa could probably guess how Brar would respond. As unsettling as it is, state law doesn't prohibit an uncle from having sex with his nieces. They were technically adults. What happened between them would be perfectly legal -- if it was consensual.

And if that's what Brar claimed, there would be little evidence to support the girls' version. More than two years had passed between the time they said they were first raped and the day they sat down with police. If any physical evidence existed, it was long gone. They would also have to explain why they waited so long to tell anyone.

Phone records would show they regularly called Uncle during their first year in the States. None of the motel managers remembered Brar dragging the women into rooms against their will.

Ava Sheppard, who runs the Village Motel, recalls him coming with a young Indian woman at least 15 times. "He was very demanding," she says. "He didn't ever want to pay for more than 15 dollars, and he didn't want to sign in." But she never saw him act aggressively toward the woman, who walked behind with her head down. "She did not look scared or nothing like that."

No witnesses, no evidence. Barsa had little more than the statements of the two sisters and confirmation that Brar had, indeed, visited those motels. The detective brought the girls to the motels, the park, the parking lots, and watched their faces when they arrived. In the park, Jagwinder broke into tears.

It wasn't a lot, but it was enough for an indictment. Prosecutors believed the sisters were forced -- or at least threatened -- and that his power over them bred silence. They would just have to hope that a jury would buy the story too.

"This case really hinged on the credibility of those girls," says Assistant Prosecutor Mark Mahoney. Brar was charged with 28 counts of rape, along with kidnapping, attempted rape, and gross sexual imposition.

Not guilty, he pleaded.

Brar went to trial in February. Mahoney, a heady lawyer fond of quoting Shakespeare, tried to defend the girls' behavior by painting their uncle as the puppeteer of their new American lives. Without Brar, they had nothing -- no job, no transportation, no way to communicate. So yes, if he called, they called back, Mahoney says. If he wanted to take them somewhere, they went. "He was controlling, domineering, manipulative."

He also was threatening, according to Mahoney. On the witness stand, with Brar just feet away, the girls were meek, sometimes barely audible. The trial was once stopped as Jagwinder hyperventilated, tears streaming. Gurbinder still understood so little English that the court used a translator.

"Why didn't you tell anyone what he had done?" Mahoney asked her.

"Because he had threatened that if I tell anybody, he would kill me and my family," she said.

When it was his turn on the witness stand, Brar disputed only some of what the girls said. With his wife watching from the gallery, stone-faced and dressed in mournful black, Brar testified that the sex began not long after they arrived, in the basement of his home while he taught Jagwinder English -- just as she claimed. Then Brar's lawyer showed photos of various hotels and parking lots.

"Do you admit that you had sex with these girls in these various locations?" lawyer Gerald Walton asked.

"Yes," Brar answered. "Even more places."

But, he insisted, it was his nieces who "made the advances."

"I was pointing to the book, the words, and she hold my hand," he testified. "I said, 'What are you doing?'"

Jagwinder moved his hand to her chest. He protested: "I'm your uncle." But she persisted, telling him she loved him and that he was "young-looking."

"We can give you everything, two sisters," he recalled Jagwinder saying.

To bolster his case, Brar brought with him meticulous records that he said proved his nieces' love. Receipts and payment logs itemized scores of purchases he made for the girls -- everything from oil changes to a pregnancy test at Planned Parenthood. Grand total: $8,967.21.

He also brought his cell phone records, color-coded for effect, which showed dozens of calls to and from the cell phone he bought for the girls. And he brought a handwritten note.

"Pritam and Gurbinder love each other very much," it read. "We will live together forever. Nobody will separate us."

The note was signed by him and his niece. Gurbinder said she was drunk when she signed it. Brar swore she signed it willingly.

"We were in love," he testified. "Really."

Brar pleaded ignorance when asked about the burning cars. In fact, he said, they had retaliated against him.

Back in India, Brar and his brothers had inherited a small patch of land from their father. When he came to the States in 1968, he lent his five-acre share to Muk. Later, Brar asked for the land back, dividing the family. The brothers were fighting over the property in Indian court.

The girls, Brar said, "were very mad . . . because I didn't give the land back." They also were enraged that he wouldn't buy them a new car. That's why they were denouncing their love for him and accusing him of rape.

Judge John Russo heard both accounts -- Brar waived his right to a jury trial -- and had little else to consider. He won't discuss the case, but the fact that Brar was their uncle must have troubled him.

It certainly troubled Lindsay Sharpe, who aids sex-crime victims for Cleveland's Rape Crisis Center and watched Brar's trial. As the judge read his ruling, Sharpe wondered why sex between uncles and nieces isn't illegal. The same matters of power and trust exist between parents and kids, coaches and players, teachers and students -- all of whom are barred from having sex with one another.

But on the last day of February, Russo set Brar free.

Walton, Brar's lawyer, won't discuss the case. "I know that he would like to be vindicated, but I'm not sure this is the right venue."

Brar angrily told Scene not to do a story.

"That," he said, "would be harassment."

On a warm Sunday evening, Jagwinder and Gurbinder sit in a booth at an empty McDonald's near their apartment in Parma. It's dinnertime, but they eat nothing. They wince when asked about McDonald's food; they've worked in fast-food kitchens long enough to have developed an appropriate distrust. They still prefer vegetables and tea to fries and Coke, and their figures show it. Neither could tip a scale into triple digits.

They wear almost identical outfits: loose black slacks and long-sleeved blouses buttoned to the neck. They share an obvious sisterly bond, staring at each other and smiling with each question about their life in America. They are still each other's best friends, sharing a car, a bedroom, clothes, and almost everything else.

They worked today, cleaning rooms at an East Side Hilton. They will work most days this week. When not at the Hilton, Jagwinder picks up shifts stocking bread sticks at Olive Garden or goes to nursing classes. The sisters' paychecks cover the family's rent and other expenses. Their parents still know little English. The girls are the foursome's only foreseeable breadwinners.

There is one unintended upside to the sisters' hectic work schedule: It allows them less time for temple, which is where they're most likely to see Uncle.

The girls are deeply religious Sikhs, part of a small and tightly bound community in Northeast Ohio. There are only two temples to choose from, and whispers move easily from one to the other. At a converted Masonic temple in Bedford, men told Scene that while no one wants to get involved in the family's troubles, they feel badly for the young women. Their religion preaches equality between men and women, and teaches men to treat younger women like their daughters, older women like their mothers. Favorable verdict or not, Brar ignored that teaching.

But if other Sikhs are silently supportive, the sisters say their accusations have made them outcasts in their own family. Before Brar was acquitted, the girls' male cousins asked angrily why they were trying to put Brar in jail. Since the acquittal, those cousins have simply snickered and steered clear, they say.

"In India -- and in America -- they always listen to the man," says Jagwinder, the more vocal of the pair. "They always tell the man is right. They always tell the woman is wrong." (Members of the family either refused comment or did not respond to interview requests. "I don't want to make my family upset," said one cousin, who testified on Brar's behalf.)

The family has tried to repair the damage. Before Brar was charged, he and his brothers signed a pledge to put aside their differences. Brar vowed to stop harassing his nieces. They agreed to drop their spat over the land. The whole family signed the document, 16 people in all, pledging to "bring peace, prosperity, and happiness to the family."

But it's done little good. Brar's wife of 33 years filed for divorce just a few weeks ago. His nieces planned to dismiss a lawsuit they filed against him, but they hope to refile it. And they say they feel like outsiders each time they go to temple. No one talks to them.

"Everything is different," Jagwinder says.

The sisters also know that their backstory will make it harder to marry. In a culture that values sexual purity as much as any, finding an Indian husband will mean finding a very forgiving Indian man. For some traditional Sikhs, "Their modesty was compromised," says one young man. "They would have to find someone understanding above and beyond the normal level of understanding."

Before she leaves McDonald's, Jagwinder is asked if she ever wished, on those hot days in Uncle's truck, that she never made it to Cleveland. Or if she ever dreams, when she's working two shifts, that she was back in Village Kara.

"No," she says.

She'll enjoy her brief free time tonight, flipping channels in search of Smallville or some other cable drama. She'll enjoy the long walk home in the cool evening air. It's the most American of walks: from under the Golden Arches, past Colonel Sanders, through Marc's parking lot, and up busy Broadview to her apartment.

Besides, she says, this is home.

"I want to be with my family."

More by Joe P. Tone

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