Witness to the Gadar Era

Question: Please tell us something about your father Bakhshish Singh who perhaps was the first from Punjab to arrive in the USA. Was he the first?

Kartar: Certainly, from Punjab, for all that I've known, he was the first to arrive in the USA.

Question: Well, what was Bakhshish Singh's past before he landed in the USA? It's important to know what made him come and settle here.

Kartar: He came from the village ‘Sursingh in Amritsar district. His was a farming family. He left home early, perhaps before he was twenty, to earn a living for the family. He was the younger of two brothers. It was a desperate situation for the family as the British had levied heavy taxes, some of which were as much as 50 percent. On top of it, these taxes were sometimes demanded in cash. The only recourse was for one of the two brothers to seek employment elsewhere. Now the irony of the situation in Punjab was that the only employment available was in the British army. This is how my father happened to enroll in the British army.

Question: How long was he in the army?

Kartar: My knowledge comes from the stories that I heard in my childhood. He was sent to China by the British to work in the artillery section. He was a man of huge stature, tall and strong which is an advantage for working with the heavy equipment in the artillery. He was 6 feet 4 inches tall.

Question: What kind of a father and husband was he?

Kartar: I suppose everyone thinks his/her father the greatest, but I am convinced that mine was the very best. He was so kind and so devoted to his family, and as far as being a good husband, he was the hardest working man. The only good thing he got from having been in the army was that he had become fluent in the English language. This put him in a position of significant help to his fellow workers.

Question: Tell us something about your mother and her family.

Kartar: My father returned to India in 1910 as his father had arranged his marriage to Rattan Kaur. On their way back to the U.S.A, they spent a few months in the Philippine islands and reached California before the end of the year. And they had their first child. My mother was 17 when she got married. She came from a kuka family, the youngest of seven sisters; it was a very devout family.

Question: Other men from Punjab might have followed your father later?

Kartar: My father was instrumental in starting the migration because the employers in California gave him bulletins to spread around among his people, urging them to come here to work on the West Coast. He distributed these bulletins when he went back to Punjab for his marriage. He urged them to bring their wives with them.

Question: Why didn't other men, when they migrated, bring their families with them?

Kartar: Undoubtedly for economic reasons. No one expected to be gone forever. They expected to come back home in Punjab, and if they chose to stay in the United States, they thought, they would send for their families later.

Question: Was your father satisfied with the kind of life and his earnings in the United States? Did he think of going back to Punjab after he had made enough money?

Kartar: Yes, he did intend to return to India to his home as did all the men who would later join him.

Question: Was there any complaint from your mother about her state of affairs in the United States? Did she ever talk of life back home in India? Did she compare the two?

Kartar: She did compare. She felt that she was living in a very immoral place. She talked about India all the time, and about her home; she was waiting for the day when we would return to India. While she waited, she filled two trunks with toys and clothes and books to take back home to the people in her village.

Question: Considering that you kids, as also the parents, were very keen on visiting India, what was the hitch?

Kartar: Money. And another thing: my parents wanted us to get education so that we became good fighters against the injustice of the foreign occupiers. It was, however, and understanding amongst almost all our countrymen that we would eventually return to India.

Question: How the tide was turned; how the people, who came primarily to earn a decent living, thought of sacrificing everything to liberate their country from the British yoke? How they became active participants in the Gadar movement?

Kartar: After a few years of the migration of several thousand men, the laws were changed to establish a very racist condition in the United States which made it impossible for the men to send for their families even though the wages were adequate to do so, and the opportunity for work was enormous. When our men were confronted by the vicious racism, they realized that their first priority was to kick the British out of their own country.

Question: Tell us more about this racism. What ways did it manifest?

Kartar: This racism was manifest in these ways: if any of these Indian immigrants were to leave the country to go home, to visit his family in India, he could not return to the U.S. because an anti-Asian law had been passed. If they thought of having their families join them here, that became an impossibility because they would not be allowed into the U.S. Having made the sacrifices to come to this country, they needed to continue working to pay off whatever debts had accumulated in the process of getting here. This is how my father happened to have the only Indian family in California.

Question: Was there no other Indian family in the whole state of California?

Kartar: Let me add that in 1910 two or three other Indian women came to California. They were wives of businessmen. These businessmen had settled in San Francisco and I really don't know which part of India they had come from.

Question: Tell us something about your childhood memories.

Kartar: I was born at Simi Valley (Southern California) in 1915. My father, at the time of my birth, I guess, was working at a construction site. I must have been a year old when my father moved to Astoria in Oregon. There he worked in a lumber mill. (It was in Astoria, in April 1913, an association of Indian workers—the Hindu Association of the Pacific Coast—was formed which led to the birth of the Gadar Party a little later.)

Question: How was life in Astoria?

Kartar: It was such a beautiful location. Astoria is at the very northwestern corner of Oregon. There are rivers coming to that corner entering into the Pacific Ocean. There's the Columbia river, one of the most beautiful rivers; we lived on one of the banks of the river. The river is very wide, more than 4 miles. And the beauty of it: the seasons! We've snow in the winter; and we have lots of black berries, beautiful daffodils. And the fact we were children, all we had to do was to play and were taken care of by our mother. My father walked to his work. We were the only family from India. The other people there were Finnish people; there were Germans, Irish, Greek; and us Indians, at the most 400 men, none of them had his family. We were lucky we lived in a town. It was Hammond Lumber Mill where my father would go for work; it's no longer there.

Question: What were the working conditions in the lumber mill?

Kartar: The northwest of the United States is a heavily wooded part of the country; lumber is the big industry. International workers of the world had started organizing the workers. The International Workers of the World, the IWW, had a philosophy that was different from the philosophy of the workers of the American Federation of Labor. The IWW was different because it wanted to go beyond the issue of bread and butter. It wanted to go into what happened to the worker's life after he has earned his living. What is his social life; how does he integrate himself with the outside world. The other Union did not go beyond the bread and butter issue. They did not want any foreigners, anybody who is not white. But the International Workers of the World wanted everybody in their Union. It was a magnificent Union. My father belonged to that Union. And there was a strike call by the Union because the conditions of work were very bad: hours were too long, the pay was too low, and there was discrimination in pay between what the Indians, Japanese or other non-white workers got and what the white workers got. The latter got the high pay. The truth was all workers, including the whites, were immigrants; the only real Americans were the natives called American Indians. So, the strike was called in Astoria and a number of other places. The Union won but it was a hard-won battle. There were better pay, shorter hours. My father was instrumental in educating the Indian workers because he was the only literate person among them. He had learnt English and Punjabi; he could read and write both languages. He was able to keep the Indian workers informed what was happening and why it was important for them to back up the strikers. The whole history of the IWW is very important. So many battles were fought, so many times the government militias were called out. They killed the workers; hundreds were killed. This is the story everywhere: where there are workers there are employers, and there is a clash of interest. For instance, the machinery used in lumber mills were such the workers were in danger of their hands caught and mangled in the machine. It was for safety they were fighting. This is what the fight was about; not only for better pay and better hours but it was also for the safety of human life. And in the process of all that was happening, it was important to educate the workers from Punjab. They had never been in a strike before as they had not worked in mills earlier in Punjab. They were in the agriculture. The workers also had to work in the jungle; they had to be educated how to be free from the danger of falling trees, and how to find their way in the thick forest.

Question: In Astoria, in your early childhood, do you remember having heard of the Gadar Party? This is important because the meeting that led to the formation of the Gadar Party was held in Astoria a few years before your father Bakhshish Singh left Simi Valley in Southern California. He reached Astoria three years later; by that time the place had assumed importance.

Kartar: As I was very small, our life was confined to what was happening at home round my mother. I knew more about what was happening in India as my mother read Punjabi newspapers to my father when he came back home from work. I learnt about what happened in Jallianwala Bagh and atrocities of the British against our people. I wasn't aware of what was happening among our people in the USA because we went to Astoria in 1916, and it was the time when the wave of men from the West Coast to India had gone. I then didn't quite know how it all happened.

Question: Do you remember the name of the Punjabi newspaper your mother read for news from India?

Kartar: I don't really remember.

Question: When did you first hear about the Gadar Party?

Kartar: When we first arrived in California in 1922 and I was then seven we started going to Gadar Party meetings. There used to be two meetings every year in the gurudwara; there was just one gurudwara in Stockton. We lived some 200 miles from there. The meetings in Stockton were for the Sikh prayers and the next day were the Gadar Party meetings. The meetings were combined so that everybody who came for the gurudwara meetings came to the Gadar party meetings. The meetings also would be at different places, wherever Indians were. There would be meetings further down the Fresno valley or Yuba city. Where there were would be Gadar Party meetings. That was the time when I heard about the Gadar Party.

Question: When did you start reading and writing in Punjabi?

Kartar: I don't do it very well even now; it's like a first grader. When my father became a farmer, he would be ploughing and I would be running along beside him. I was seven years' old. He would make me recite muharni. He took on my education. My mother took care of my sister's education in Punjabi. When I was running along with my father in the field, saying muharni, it was great excitement for me; it was better than being locked up at home. That's how I learnt the alphabet, and, in the evening, father showed me how to write it. And, of course, all of this reading of the Gurbani in the evening, and…what prayer you say in the morning?

Question: Japji Sahib?

Kartar: Yes, Japji Sahib. We would get to read it in the morning. And the first thing a child would do in the morning is to get cold bath, get dressed, and have the privilege of reading it. We didn't understand a word of what we were reading but it was very important, we thought, because we were going to do what our parents were doing. So that was my education in Punjabi.

Question: In your autobiographical short story Parrot's Beak * you write of your mother's nagging/beating etc. When did this unhappy phase start?

Kartar: When we came to California, when I was seven. In Astoria we had our own house. My mother cooked for the family. It was a big family but manageable family anyway. So, when we came to California my mother's work became harder. She would cut brinjals, putting it on the rooftop to be dried up, to be used later in winter. Then achar was a big project. And we made our own dahi and everybody took lassi. So, my mother was always overburdened with work, and there was pregnancy after pregnancy. As I look back, I can see how hard my mother's life was. But the nagging had started in Astoria.

Question: Was it because your mother was over-burdened with work in the family as Indian women generally are?

Kartar: I was the fourth child and four came after me. Imagine eight children in 16 years of married life! Before me, there were three children each with a gap of less than two years. There was five years' gap after me. The first child was born in 1910 and I was born in 1915, four children in 5 years! The four after me were with two years' gap each. The very last child was born about two months after my father had died. Pregnancy itself is an arduous state. Besides, my mother had been doing all the work. I can understand it now as a woman. She had to sew all our clothes, knit our sweaters for all of us.

Question: That's what you feel now. What were your feelings as a child?

Kartar: I felt abused because I didn't know what was wrong. I didn't do anything deliberately wrong. I didn't feel I was a bad child.

Question: It must have lowered your self-esteem.

Kartar: Oh, yes.

Question: Do you remember having carried traces of bitterness caused by this abuse in your later life? Did you ever have bad dreams about this?

Kartar: Of course, I had it. What disturbed me was my mother disapproved of me and in the school the girls considered themselves superior because they were whites and I was not. But the crazy thing is that in spite of all this I never got this feeling that I was less than anybody else.

Question: What do you think is at the back of this feeling?

Kartar: I thought that the reason I felt I was strong was the religious training that I had from childhood, having to say prayers. As against the whites, we had our church right inside our house. There was Guru da Naam, and morality being taught day after day. That was the strong part of our life. Later in life, though, I rejected all religion.

Question: Did you move round with boys those days?

Kartar: No, no. As we grew older, if a boy spoke to us, that was bad. We got punished because somebody said ‘hello'. “What do you mean having him say hello to you? Who is he to you?”

Question: When you went to school your mother must be worried, the school being co-educational?

Kartar: No. Not during my early childhood. But later, in adolescent years, it was a worry to her.

Question: Did you ever try to get out of the circle of your parents' control?

Kartar: Yes, I did. After my father died all of my mother's worries became sharper.

Question: Weren't you properly secure after your father died? There must be Indians around when your father did farming in California?

Kartar: There were always Indians around, yes. My mother didn't worry about them. She worried about what would happen outside our circle. All the Indians were like our family. By the time my father died, we were the only family from Punjab in California.

Question: Let's talk about Indian men who worked and lived in California then. They must have been miserable living away from their families, being uncertain when they would meet them. How did they live their lives? Do you have memories of that?

Kartar: They were the ones who suffered because they didn't have their families with them. They lived together on farms, the group of them; they did their cooking together. Since they couldn't own land, they lived wherever housing was available. It was camp life they lived. They set up cots for sleeping, and all the possessions were in a suitcase under their bed. They worked from sunrise to sunset, and on their one day off, they did their washing by hand. Whoever had a car he would share it with other for transportation.

Question: Wasn't language a problem for the majority of our people?

Kartar: Yes, of course, language was the main problem. The educated men and students at the University and businessmen, who had education and command of English, could live a more sophisticated life, but the vast majority lived an isolated life on the farms. I remember one particular thing that has stayed with me all my life; it was an answer to a question by one of our friends as to what was the news in the newspaper today, and then he said with a rueful expression: “I am like a blind person; I have eyes but cannot see because I cannot read.” It was a very tragic description of illiteracy.

Question: How were your family related to such men?

Kartar: They were just like our family members. Anyone who was traveling from one place to another would stop at our house. The Indians at the time were very close to each other. They were the men from Punjab, the Jats. If they had been from the city, it would have been different. But most of them were Punjabi Jats, the Sikhs; they all were a family; and for us, they were a part of our family.

Question: Did you then hear them talk about the Gadar movement? Did they talk about the political condition in India?

Kartar: They talked.

Question: When did you realize the importance of the Gadar movement?

Kartar: From childhood. I sometimes argued with our English teacher. She was a very nice teacher, and I argued with her. I was aware that the English were ruling our country. We had a very strong anti-British feeling and we were against Christianity too, because it were the missionaries who did this work of controlling our people there.

Question: Were you against the whites too?

Kartar: Well, they were against us. They considered us inferior. We didn't go with them. (Looking around) Now, you just saw my grandson; he left with his friends. Did you see the kids with him? One is a black girl, one Japanese girl, and there is a blonde…nothing like that happened in my childhood. We were the Indian family, and we were all alone. Only Indian friends came to our home. We never went to any American's house. We met the kids in the school, and that ended there.

Question: And now about your later personal life. Tell us something about your husband Surat Singh Gill, his background, and his involvement in the Gadar movement.

Kartar: Surat came to this country from a village, Chetanpura, in Punjab when he was 19 years old. He and Sohan Singh Josh were from the same village. Both grew up together and went to school together until college. Then they both applied to come to the U.S. Surat's application was approved but, for some reason, Shan Singh's application denied. Surat came here as a student at the University of California in Berkeley. He enrolled in Pre-med with the idea of studying medicine.

Question: Were Partap Singh Kairon and Achhar Singh Chhena from the same batch of students?

Kartar: Yes, they were both students at the same time in Berkeley.

Question: Did Surat continue with his study of medicine?

Kartar: No. The reason he didn't was that he became acquainted with the Gadar movement in San Francisco and, shortly thereafter, he moved into the Gadar Ashram along with Achhar Singh Chheena.

Question: Do you remember the dates?

Kartar: I don't know the exact dates. They were both residents. Surat changed his major from medicine to political science. During the time that he continued as a student, riding the ferry boat between Berkeley and San Francisco, he took a very active role editing the Gadar newspaper, writing articles and speaking at Gadar Party meetings.

Question: How did you first meet him?

Kartar: I first heard him speaking at a Gadar party meeting in Stockton; it was 1926. I was 11 and he was 26. He had come to speak to my mother to express the sympathy about my father's death. It wasn't until 6 years later, that my mother died, we decided to get married.

Question: Didn't you get married out of the compulsion of circumstances as your autobiographical narrative Parrot's Beak suggests?

Kartar: Yes, of course, it was. I got married because my oldest brother, Kapur, had control of the family now. He was arranging to send my sister and me with the four younger children back to India. Some people, close to my father, raised the money. I was excited because it was a great thing to go to India. All along I had wanted to go there. While all this was being arranged, the passports, etc., something else happened. My sister Karam, a year and half older than me, secretly married a man who was Kapur's best friend. They ran off to Hawaii, and there wrote a letter telling that she got married, and that they were going to Hong Kong where that man's parents lived. That put a dent in my brother's plans because one person had slipped out of his control. It was just me left. Then, my future husband, Surat, suggested that we get married right then because he knew that in India I would have to do my oldest brother Kapur's bidding. Surat said: “I will go to India too. I'll will get on the same ship and we will have the captain of the ship marry us; then your brother can't force you to marry anybody else. Fearful, I agreed, though I didn't want to get married. At the same time, I made it clear to Surat that I intended to go to College. He already had a degree in Political Science from the University of California in Berkeley and I had just finished high school. He agreed.

Question: Where were you living at that time?

Kartar: It was a town in the Fresno area.

Question: Wasn't anybody keeping a watch on you?

Kartar: My oldest brother was keeping a real eye on me now. I had to sneak out. We had a portable sewing machine. I took that portable sewing machine and I said: “I'm going to Mrs. Freeman's house for repairs.” My brother let me go. So, I and Surat went to San Jose, where one day you have to ask for marriage license, and then you have to wait for three days. Naturally, I got very late getting back home: it was past midnight, and there he was ready to…. He had gone looking for Mrs. Freeman and there was no Mrs. Freeman. So, I added a few more lies. I didn't tell him I had gone to San Jose for a license. Then we went there after four days. I really didn't want to get married. I did it because it was a situation of being between the devil and the deep blue sea. I made a choice to plunge into the unknown sea. But as I was going to the court house I was absolutely sick in my mind and asked myself what I was going to do. I was voluntarily entering a prison. That is a predicament when your life isn't your own. You can't understand it unless you have lived through the state when your life is not your own.

Question: How was your married life?

Kartar: I had the experience of very happy few years. But all the promises that Surat made to me before when we got married…you don't have to wait for your education, I'll help you etc.… these promises didn't come off. That was the worst thing.

Question: Did Surat as a man turn out to be contrary to what you had expected?

Kartar: As I look back I have great admiration for Surat. I understand what caused him to become rigid as he did. He came from India with great aspirations. He changed his career completely to work in the Gadar movement, and then he was confronted with my frustrations in my life. I felt very sorry that I had to leave him.

Question: What went wrong with your marriage?

Kartar: First thing you have to know is that we lived in a country, isolated on farms. There was no intellectual life at all. If we lived in a city, I could have taken classes or worked with some progressive movement. But all there was in the country, in the farm, was cooking, child-care, and waiting for something to change. But nothing was happening. Our dream in the beginning had been to go to India to take part in the freedom movement there. This, of course, took money, but we didn't have money because we were impoverished farmers. After a number of years, we finally had a little money left over after paying off the farming expenses. So, we immediately applied for passports, but the government office said that because the U.S. was at war (the Second World War) no civilian travel was permitted on the sea. The travel was only by ship in those days; there was no air travel yet. That ended that. After that I was determined that we should live in the city closer to a University, and this we did in Los Angeles, and I started working. It was a good feeling to earn money. It wasn't for me; just that this money helped us survive in the city where expenses were much greater than at farms. That was the period that I decided that it was time for me to study at the University. But that was a point at which my husband realized that I was determined, and he absolutely refused.

Question: You had kids at that time?

Kartar: Yes, two daughters and a son.

Question: When did you decide to walk out of the marriage?

Kartar: It was when I wanted to go to cover a strike that was happening, and as I was arranging for a ride with the labor paper that I had been doing some work for, that Surat because very agitated; he said there was violence happening at that strike and that there was danger of arrest by police. “What if you get arrested; who's going to take care of your children?” They were suddenly my children and not ours. So, I took my children and left. That was the end of the marriage.

Question: How did you manage to live after that? There were kids with you, you said.

Kartar: It was war time, and there was a heavy demand for labor. I got a job as a machinist in an aircraft plant. Then I moved to San Francisco, and by this time, I worked on the labor paper. The pay was low; so I worked as a waitress also. In San Francisco I was able to start my education, and the children had the advantage of all the things that are in big cities: good schools, libraries, theatres.

Question: After you walked out of your husband's home you remained cut off from the Indian community for a long time?

Kartar: I got into the larger context of the working-class movements. Then, of course, making a living for four people occupied me: keeping the kids in school, looking after their needs, giving them a decent surrounding. My children became politicized also in the course of my political work.

Question: Did you have any complaint as you were leading a hard life?

Kartar: I never thought I had a hard life. It was a very fulfilling life as I had my children; I had many progressive friends; I was my own person.

Question: Your views on marriage as an institution?

Kartar: Marriage is a very confining and unnatural relationship because it engenders possessiveness, jealousy. A person loses independent identity. Until we become more civilized people, where we learnt to be equals, we are going to suffer from either being boss or victim in the married situation.

Question: You seem to have had a deep regret of not having had the University education; do you still carry that feeling?

Kartar: Yes

Question: Let's talk about your brothers. Were they conscious of the political reality around them?

Kartar: The oldest was Kapur who was born in 1910; and because my father had promised his first-born son to his own brother who did not have a son, he and my mother taught their son Kapur to call them chacha and chachi. They had emotionally given that first child away. As a result of this, the next-born brother Budh called them chacha and chachi too. So, eventually, all eight children called them chacha/chachi. About Kapur, I have compassion because he was made to feel that he was not the important son in the family because he had been promised away to an uncle. So, his position became weak in the family and the next-born son Budh became the strong presence. And about the political awareness, it was in the home twenty-four hours a day. We were getting newspapers from India, Punjabi papers. So, our political awareness was first and foremost about imperialism, what Britain was doing to our country. Soon after the Gadar paper was established, and that became the source of political information. My father being the only literate person amongst his Indian fellow workers, he acted as a teacher and interpreter of political events. This had an effect on all of us. We felt we had a very distinct mission in our lives to free India.

Question: So, it was this motivation that led Budh to leave home and sail with the jatha as directed by the Gadar Party? He was 12 when he left home. * Was there any reluctance from your mother or father?

Kartar: I don't think so. They supported him. My father had left his village in India when he was in his teens; so, there was a precedence for a young son going out for a purpose. Although all of us were born in the United States, we expected to be going to India as soon as our parents could get us there. That was our real home.

Question: Isn't it amazing that the parents of a 12-year old son sent off their son willingly for a task that was bound to endanger his life?

Kartar: I have told you about how religious my parents were. How they had the image of Guru Gobind Singh and the sacrifice of his sons. They didn't think that they were any more heroic than the Guru.

Question: Or was it some sort of an adventure or romanticism?

Kartar: Definitely not. Budh was very much aware of what had happened to men who had gone from the West Coast in 1916 to join the revolution in India. He knew that they had been put to death or put in prisons; so, he was not an innocent. All the men of the jatha had this knowledge and were prepared for whatever would come. The only romantic turned out to be Raja Mahindra Partap. The fact that they were not mere adventurers. Most of the men in the jatha went on to China to work with the Indian soldiers in the British army to get them to mutiny. Budh continued on, with the direction of the Gadar Party, to study in the Soviet Union.

Question: How many times you have been to India?

Kartar: Once. It was in 1972. I went on my own. I wasn't invited by anybody or any institution. I got my passport and went to the Indian Counsel in San Francisco to get my visa. I wasn't told that they wouldn't give me a visa, but I didn't get one, and the reason they gave me that the counsel wasn't available, that he was away on a trip or something. So, finally, I asked them to return my passport to me after a week or so; they returned it and it had been stamped “visa applied for.” I had thought that I would go to Vancouver where my sister lived, who traveled all the time, and get the visa there. But with the stamp on the passport I would have trouble getting the visa anywhere. So, I decided to go to India without any visa. I had read in the PanAm brochure that any one arriving by sea or air could remain in India for 12 days without a visa. Once in India, I went to the Immigration Office to ask for a visa because I wanted to stay four months. The man in the office wouldn't even talk to me. He said it wasn't possible. I had a friend in India who took me to Ajoy Bhavan in Delhi; the CPI headquarter, and there Sohan Singh Josh asked me if I knew Surat Singh Gill, and when I told him “yes”, I know, and I was planning to go to your village to meet you and Surat 's family. He said: “I will take you there.” Josh took me to his and Surat 's village where I met Surat 's family. Later, the next day, he took me to Bhakna where there was a public or political meeting where Sohan Singh Josh spoke.

Question: Did you also speak there?

Kartar: Very briefly, in Punjabi.

Question: And you eventually got the visa?

Kartar: As I was telling everybody about my problem in getting a visa, one man said: “Why don't you talk to Swaran Singh?” Swaran Singh, I learnt, was the foreign minister. I said: “How does one meet a foreign minister?” He said: “He is my friend; I'll take you there.” And he did some days later. When I met Swaan Singh, the first thing he said to me: “Why should we give you, American, visa? How many do you give to our people?” Before I could answer, the two men who were with me, his friends, and Dr. Jiwan Singh Bedi, my host in Patiala, jumped in and said: “No…no…no…she's not an American, she's an Indian, she was only born there.” And they told him about my family's connections with the Gadar Party and about my brother Budh, and he had heard of my father and brother already. Then he told me to go back to the Immigration Office the next day and they would take care of me. And that's how I got the visa. But it wasn't until a month or so, after I had returned to the United States, that Swaran Singh happened to come to San Francisco, and there was to be a big dinner for him. I wanted to know from him why I didn't get the visa in the first instance. There he told me that the counsel had a list of about 200 names of people who were not to be allowed to enter India. He said the list had been made up by the British and, because the wheels of bureaucracy turned so slowly, that list was still in use.

Question: Sohan Singh Josh wrote a history of the Gadar Movement. He came to California for research. Did he come to you?

Kartar: When I met Sohan Singh Josh at Ajoy Bhavan, I also met Dr. Adhikari, and it was Dr. Adhikari who asked me if I could help Sohan Singh Josh come to the United States to complete the final volume of his history of the Gadar party. When I came back to the United States I talked to my daughter Ayesha about this and she said, “I'll pay his fare”. So, I sponsored his visit. He stayed in this house in Berkeley where we are sitting.

Question: How long did he stay in Berkeley?

Kartar: For two months, gathering material from different sources.

Question: Your impressions of India when you visited that country, and your perceptions about the human condition there now?

Kartar: I felt I had come home but it was to a home of my mother's time which was 60 years earlier; and the amazing thing was the villages were just as my mother had described her life in them. Delhi had been so different from the India of the villages. The city was filled with beggars, with wild drivers of automobiles, and the villages were calm, quiet places.

Question: Were you able to visit your mother's village, or Sursingh, your father's village?

Kartar: I went to both places. I stayed in India for four months; much of the time was spent in Patiala. The Model Town in Patiala was quite different form the villages; a railroad passed the pastures, a block away from Dr. Jiwan Singh Bedi's house where I lived. The noise from the temple was really loud. On one hand there were tractors here and there, and, on the other, there were still spinning wheels. I met lots of people there. People there were so pleased that in spite of my foreign looks I spoke Punjabi. In Sourcing, it was Sohan Singh Josh who took me there. I met the residents and relatives of my father. And one of the men came running from field to meet me and asked if he could give me something to take back to the United States, I said: “All I want is a scoop of some earth from the courtyard of my father's house.” And he gave. I still have it. Although I felt the greatest love for the people I talked with I still realize that I couldn't live in that contained society again because I would be in the same restrictions that my mother had imposed upon me.

Question: The last question. Do you wish to visit India one more time in your life?

Kartar: I would like to, but I don't think it's possible. I feel very close now to many people who live in India, or who have migrated to Canada and the US , who have become my friends by reading my autobiographical story.

(The interview was conducted at Kartar Dhillon's daughter Dr. Ayesha Gill's house in Berkeley in the first week of October 1999)

Dhillon, Kartar. “Witness to the Gadar Era.” The Gadarite. Berkeley: Gadar Heritage Foundation, 2001.


Ted. Sibia
[email protected]

Share with Friends