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Rani Bagai on "Vaishno Das Bagai"

Part of a video interview of Rani Bagai conducted on June 3, 2013. In this section, Bagai discusses her grandparents Vaishno Das Bagai and Kala Bagai (later Kala Bagai Chandra), their marriage, children, and life in San Francisco after arriving in 1915. Rani Bagai explains that together the couple had three sons, the youngest of whom was her father. Bagai also discusses at length Vaishno Das Bagai's life in the United States, from his businesses in the San Francisco Bay Area to his involvement with the Gadar Party, and his eventual suicide in 1928.

Early Immigration

Date: June 3, 2013
Subject(s): Rani Bagai, Vaishno Das Bagai
Type: Oral History
Language: English
Creator: Emily McNish
Contributor: Ben Maizell
Location: Los Angeles, CA

Transcriber: Wardah Imran

Rani Bagai (RB) 0:00
My father was born in Peshawar, India, 1914.

RB 0:10
And his parents, my grandparents, were married at a very young age, like around 13/14. My grandmother lived in her husband's home. Soon after they got married, though, they actually shared a room. But my grandmother had her first son at around 15/16, I believe, had a second son, and the youngest son was my dad.

RB 0:47
So my grandparents decided to come to San Francisco in 1915, about when my dad was just over a year old.

RB 1:03
They came to Angel Island. And the story is that Immigration, of course, held them for a day or so because, I believe, they arrived on a weekend. So they had to wait til the offices were open. And they were, as everyone was who came from India or from Asia, interviewed very extensively--interrogated, I think would probably be a better word--because they wanted to know, you know, what my grandfather's purpose was in coming, whether he could support himself and a family. Families were not… Indian families just were not commonly seen. Usually only the men came by themselves in order to, you know, earn money, and then they would send it back home.

RB 1:55
But the officials in the U.S. really didn't want to see Asian families proliferate here. They wanted, basically, the man to come and, yeah, sure, come and do work, but then leave, go back.

RB 2:09
So when my grandparents arrived… You know, my grandfather's, I think, main wish in coming here was to work for India's independence and to join the Ghadar party to help fight for India's freedom. That was something my grandfather very strongly believed in and wanted, and he felt frustrated. As a young man he was, you know, pursued by the British and, you know, he was kind of a rabble rouser, kind of militant, and he didn't feel he could do anything from India where, you know, he's constantly being oppressed. There was no free speech at that time, or freedom. And he thought in the United States, “I can do that. I can do what I can't do in India.”

RB 3:08
So this was his goal, but I think it was probably a good thing on his part that he did not talk about that too much. What he said instead, I think, to the immigration officials was, “I want to send my kids to a college. I want to educate them as Americans. I want them to become Americans. I want to start a business here and start some exchange with imports and exports, and make money and pay taxes.” And so, when the officials heard that, you know, they were much more receptive… Then, well, one of the last things was, “How will you support yourself til then? You've got a wife, you've got three children. How are you gonna support them?” He said, “Oh, well, I have $25,000 in gold on me, that I brought with me, that I plan to use to start my business and pay for college,” and all that. And I think the next thing out of their mouth was, “Welcome to America.” So they didn't give him any trouble after that. They said, “Please, this way out.” And from then on, they were kind of pioneers, because there really were very few Indians there around to help them, or to help them, you know, acclimate. So they had to. Thankfully, my grandfather knew English. He learned English at school in India. And he dressed in a Western style with suits. My grandmother still wore a sari, though. She was very traditional, and she didn't eat meat, so that was kind of hard for her to to adjust to, because, you know, so meat-centric, their diet then… But she managed, you know, eating fruits and vegetables, and got by, and so they embarked on this adventure in San Francisco, and he did actually start a business. And you know, he did end up sending his kids to school, so it all did work out. So my grandfather arrived in 1915 with my father and his other two brothers and my grandfather started an import/export business, bringing things like curios, you know, from India... handmade goods, you know, and embroideries from China, you know, anything from Asia or India that he thought, you know, might sell or, you know, sort of be a novelty.

RB 6:10
So he opened a general store. He opened a series of stores. I'm not, you know, too sure of the timeline, but he opened at least one general store that was actually more like an American five and dime. It had, you know, penny candy, and it had little trinkets, and supplies, and soap, and, you know, stuff… It wasn't quite a grocery store. It was just more of a, you know, drugstore type little shop and he ran that. They lived over it, actually, in a flat, just, you know, like the saying goes--lift over the store.

RB 6:52
And they bought a house. I’m not sure if it was in Berkeley. I think it was there. But they were the first Indians to buy property.

RB 7:04
The story is that when they moved in, the day they brought the truck, I guess, with their possessions, the neighbors realized that they were Indian and they didn't want them living next to them. They would not let them in the house. They let it, I think that in some way, be known that, I don't know, in some maybe threatening way, that, “No, I'm sorry, you're not living here. Your safety is at risk if you do.” Of course, my grandmother was scared. She was petrified. She told her husband, “No, I don't want to live here if they don't want us, if they're gonna act like that. That's crazy.” So I don't know exactly what they did with the house--if they, you know, sold it or what, but they couldn't live there.

RB 7:56
My grandfather also had his general store. You know, they sold the candy to kids who would come in after school. And that worked, I think, really well.

RB 8:10
I think that basically helped support them. But he also, you know, had the money that he brought over, you know, in gold, so I believe they were able to live very comfortably between what he had and what he was able to earn. But I believe he was continually frustrated that he couldn't be more of a business success. It wasn't the way he dreamed of it. He was being blocked, he was being discriminated against. And even though he tried to Americanize himself. He spoke good English. He wore American clothing, you know, and he was educated. He was knowledgeable. He read books and novels and things. But he still felt this huge, huge bias and felt like, you know, this is an uphill battle. Really, “This is not a battle I'm ever really going to win. I'm never going to be accepted.” But I think he always hoped his children would be. And so, you know, he raised my dad and his other two children. You know, the same way, I think my father probably took more of that from his father than the other two brothers. Actually, the other two brothers did go to India to get married. My dad did not. He married a woman with a European background from Ohio.

RB 9:37
Yeah, I always felt, you know, a funny kind of disconnect between some of my cousins, who would dress in more traditional kind of Indian dress, and, you know, spoke with much more of an accent. And, you know, my father never had an accent. So, it's kind of interesting how within the family, there was still some difference. My grandfather got his naturalization certificate at a time when he was able to do that after a certain number of years. And, you know, being that he was, I think, you know, somewhat affluent, I think that helped. But in 1923, I believe, along came the Thind decision, the Supreme Court Thind decision. The Thind decision ruled that Indians were not white.

RB 10:42
The theory had been that, technically, Indians were Aryan--of the Aryan race, which I think sort of translated to white. But what happened was the judge said, you know, “When people think of white, they're not thinking of people who are Indian. So, well, yes, while we will concede that Indians are Aryan, we're not going to say they're white, because it's not the white that we normally think of when we think of white people.” And, I mean, that's basically what it came down to. And I'm sure in, you know, much more technical language than I just used. But what happened as a result of that was that Indians now could not be citizens and the Indians that were now citizens had their citizenship stripped away. So I believe that there was some effort to take back my grandfather's naturalization certificate. And I heard something about, well, he said, “Well, I don't have it,” or, “I lost it.” And they said, “Well, fine, so we can't have it back, but it's no good to you anyway, even if you have it, because it's null and void now.”

RB 12:08
Well, that meant that now he could not travel to India unless it was back under an Indian passport under the crown, the British Crown. That wasn't gonna happen. But there were a lot worse implications. I mean, the implications for his business, for owning a home, meant that, you know, he couldn't do that either. His store--I don't exactly know how he owned it--but he now could not own a business. So I believe it had to be transferred to a friend or someone who was not Indian. So there were a lot of problems then with that. It was bad enough trying to run it on his own, and the discrimination and the bias, but now having to run it through a second party and, you know, the trust you put into someone to manage the money and give you the money that's owed to you and all that, I believe, you know, there were some problems and issues there where he was swindled or lost money and he felt, I think, quite a bit of despair and frustration towards the end.

RB 13:32
No matter what he did, now, you know, he can't go home to India. They would pursue him, they would probably arrest him if he came back there because of the work he did with the Ghadar party in San Francisco. He couldn't make a go of things the way he dreamed of in San Francisco, for his family and, you know, the idea of a business and all that were kind of vanishing. So it was a very, I think, depressing, frustrating time for him.

RB 14:08
During that period, 1928, is when he actually did take his own life. So it was probably just a few years after the Thind decision, the Supreme Court decision. It wasn't very long after that. I think he felt, you know, “I have no real good options now.” But he was always thinking of his family. What he ended up doing, sadly, was he started taking out life insurance policies on himself. And I think he did this with the knowledge of his wife, but just more in this sort of normal sense, you know. Life insurance was such a common thing then. In fact, it was about the only investment vehicle other than… well, stocks. Stocks were kind of looked down on, but it was kind of like the 401k of its time, so everybody had them. And the idea was, of course, with a life expectancy then, that, you know, you worked as long as you were alive, and when you died, at least you had something for your family to carry on after you. So that was the kind of investment lightbulb idea of its time. So he accumulated these, and meanwhile, he was really plotting his own suicide. And he kind of carefully choreographed that out. He rented a room in another nearby town in San Jose. He had a pretext of a business trip. He went there and rented a room and used the gas lights by, you know, just turning on the gas. And he wrote a letter, which is one of the artifacts that is left behind, a suicide note. It was actually to the San Francisco Chronicle or one of the major San Francisco newspapers, explaining why he was doing this and why he felt driven to this step. And naturally, you know, it was very unusually tragic for my grandmother and her sons, my dad. But my grandmother was very, very strong and able to get through that difficult time. She used the proceeds, through a very lengthy series of instructions left by my grandfather as to, you know, what bankers she could trust and how to invest it and things like that. And she was able to, that way, put actually all three sons she had through college and, you know, through Stanford, to Berkeley, to USC.

RB 17:25
So they all got great… All three sons got an excellent education, and they did, you know, have successful lives afterward, but, you know, just unfortunately came from a kind of tragic start. My grandmother, oftentimes, you know, when we were together at their house for dinner at the family dinner table…My grandmother and grandfather loved telling stories about their families and their paths. They would love nothing more. And it was funny... When my grandmother would talk about my grandfather, you know, as a kid, it was hard for me to understand because I would look at, you know, my grandmother, Jai ji...and my grandfather we called Lala ji...I’d say, well, “My grandfather’s right here, what grandfather do you mean?” And they would say, “Oh, well, you know, he is the one who died earlier.” I go, “Died? What happened? Was he sick? And they would say, “Oh, we don’t talk about that.” So it was kind of a taboo subject, in terms of how he died, but she liked to talk about him. And my grandmother would always refer to him as Mr. Bagai. She never referred to him by his first name, ever. In fact, I wonder what she called him in private. It just doesn't seem like she would call him by his first name ever. But she referred to him as Mr. Bagai. And my dad even has a few memories of his dad from those days. They're pretty fond of him. And my grandmother would sometimes tell stories about how she, you know, got married at an early age and, you know, all that kind of thing. How little she knew about anything. I don't think she'd ever seen the ocean til she had made that trip with her husband to San Francisco. My grandmother, in fact… It’s one of the things she's always loved, the ocean and the sea, and being by it, so actually when she moved from San Francisco to L.A. she missed being by the ocean very much… But yeah, she then lived out the remainder of her life in Los Angeles with my step grandfather, Lala ji. Yeah, you know, I don't think he told me... I think that was probably kind of a shock. It was some time in my teens when I learned about it, how he actually died. So I don't believe I knew about that as a child.

RB 20:03
There was a little sense of embarrassment, I think, you know, in the Indian culture about suicide. It just wasn't talked about. So I always kind of felt there was this deep, dark secret, that we weren't supposed to mention this, but I was never sure why. My grandmother was religious, but that did not get passed down to my father. I think it was more due to my grandfather. I know my grandfather was Hindu. My grandmother was from a Sikh family. But my grandfather ate meat… In the memories my dad has of him… He would come home and say, “Boys, let’s go out and we’ll eat meat tonight.” You know, like sort of give your mother a break. So, I don’t know what they would do… They would have a steak or a hamburger or something. I don’t know what exactly they did. That was kind of a treat. But my dad was not religious. And occasionally he would take us to the temple, the Indian temple in Los Angeles, just more because he wanted us to have the experience.

RB 21:20
He believed in kind of a multitheistic kind of… He didn't believe in, you know, any particular one religion or one God or one style.

RB 21:35
He would only wear homespun, Indian-made cloth. He would refuse to wear British-made cloth that was imported.

RB 21:46
But she mentioned something about him being in trouble and I assumed she meant about his ideology, not like he was a bad kid or juvenile delinquent or anything… She talked about him as a young man when she knew him at that time, how good he was to her. Even just as a young husband, he was very, you know, sweet and polite to her, but yes, she did say that, you know, he had some brushes with the law and that somehow the relatives would manage to, you know, talk his way, you know, out of jail, or something… And as you know, the jails aren’t very good. You know, my gosh, let’s leave it to your imagination.

Donor: Emily McNish
Item History: 2013-08-21 (created); 2021-12-30 (modified)

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