This item is a video file.

Rani Bagai

Part of a video interview of Rani Bagai conducted on June 3, 2013. In this section, Bagai discusses her own life, growing up in Los Angeles with her immediate family. Rani Bagai is the granddaughter of Vaishno Das Bagai and Kala Bagai Chandra.

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

Transcriber: Sraavya Chintalapati

RB: 0:00
My name is Rani Belle Bagai, and I am from Los Angeles. I was born here, lived here all my life. My parents also lived most of their lives in LA. When I was born, I was the youngest of my family. My father is Indian, and my mother’s family came from Ohio, so they were kind of a mixture of European - Welsh, Scottish, German. And my dad was from the state of Peshawar. Uh, so, all of us three kids we went to high school here in LA, but our names were Indian - our last names were Bagai, and so we kind of stood out, you know, we grew up uh in the Fairfax area of Los Angeles, and I went to Fairfax High, went to school, college here, stayed here. Uh married, and raised my daughter here too. So, I have always just been comfortable in a very mixed, ethnic kind of um... city like LA is. You know, I like to say that I’m a half-Indian person who grew up in a Jewish neighborhood who married a Hispanic psychologist as it turned out and we moved to an area called Koreatown. So, um, it’s just kind of been my life. (laughs)

We grew up in a house near Fairfax, and I had one brother named Robin, another brother named Ravi, and the oldest brother was Eric. I was Rani, so I was named… my name came from the word Maharani, which totally embarrassed me all the time. But then I thought, “My brother was lucky his name was Robin, but his name could have been Rabinder.”

US: 2:10

RB: 2:14
On his birth certificate, they put Robin, so I was kind of jealous. He had a normal name where I didn’t. And uh, you know people would ask me what it meant and I have to say it means princess, and that would be totally embarrassing for me.

My name was considered very unusual, and I was always asked to explain, you know, what it meant or...or what kind of name is that, you know. And so you always felt like sort of an outsider, um… by being asked that. Um I felt like um you know it was like having a leg in each world. There’s the side with...and especially with me with my parents from different backgrounds, when I would go back East with my mom to Cleveland, Ohio and meet her family, I felt a little like uh “Wow! This food is really bland, and this is... you know” (Bagai laughs) “Do they eat anything but you know potato salad and… you know Jello salad?” And things like that. But I have to admit - this is probably where I did get a love of mayo from it still horrifies people who know me um… like “Why don’t you put mustard on your sandwich?” “No, I like mayo. It’s gotta be mayo.” Um but then there’s my father’s side who, you know, a lot of them would speak you know Hindi, and uh, I would think, “Gosh, why can’t they be normal? Like, why can’t they be like, you know, like my friend’s family? Why do they have to dress oddly and speak with that accent and everything?” Um so you know it’s like you’re never happy no matter what or quite comfortable.

There is like a way in which like you are constantly cringing no matter which side of the family you were with because you were sort of embarrassed either about them or for them. Um, and if they got together, you were just because one wouldn’t understand what the other meant, and you go, “Oh my god, I don’t believe they said that. You’re not going to know what they mean.” Understand the cultural reference that they ‘re making, you know, I would get that immediately. And you know, I would cover my eyes, but uh you know you just love them both, and you feel you know like “This is so hard like, why is it so hard? I can’t you know like they all be one thing or something um like my friends?”

One of my personal favorite memories of my dad just as a little girl was um...sitting in his den um... at night. It was kind of a ritual we would go through at night, and I never got tired of it. It seemed like every night, but I’m sure it couldn’t have been. But, he would say, you know, “I’ll read you a story.” And I always picked Sleeping Beauty, and so I would sit in his lap and he would open the book, and just the fact that he would read the same words over and over again to me just lulled me into this sense of complete peacefulness. And you know it began ‘Once upon a time um… you know, and it would say something about there was a king and a queen who terribly wanted a little girl, and finally you know, the baby was born, and they named her Aurora, which means dawn. And I would just go (Bagai sighs)...yes! And I was like you sort of identify with that sense that you were wanted by your parents, and they couldn’t wait to have you and of course they’re the highlight of your life. Well, because I had three older brothers, I think they did actually… were looking forward to a girl when I was born. But um the other thing that I know was kind of a ritual was, on Sunday mornings, I would tend to get up earlier than my brothers, and my dad would too. He would be the first one up, and so he would go outside and bring the Sunday paper in and he would hand me the comics, of course. That was the only part I was interested in, and I would sit and look at the comics. But he would start doing his exercises, and this was this kind of discipline he imposed on [himself]. I don’t know when, starting I think as a young man but he did them every day - a set of calisthenics. So he would stand, kind of in a you know an old life [inaudible] and jackie shorts and do his calisthenics. And he would end each set with a headstand by the front door. I mean, that was where he kind of balanced himself and did his headstand and this was always where I would say, “God, could my parents just be normal?” And I was like: “Do you have to do that?” But I was always kind of fascinated actually watching him like: “Huh, how does he do that?” It was something, I don’t think I ever quite mastered or I don’t know how to...had the inclination to do. It was really fun to, you know, just curious and again you know sort of like: why does he do that? (laughs) In a way, it was fun, and then eventually everyone else would get up. My mother would make an omelette for breakfast and we would come and we would all help ourselves to another section of the paper. And it would be a pretty normal, kind of, Sunday morning from that point. But that little time alone from my dad was something I really enjoyed.

US: 7:47
(inaudible words spoken before) Did he ever try to teach you how to do it?

7:52 RB: 7:52
No, he ... No, I was a little too scared to do it. I just thought I’ll fall - hurt myself or something, just something I’m not cut out to do, and it’s funny, even though like later in life, I’ve taken yoga. Headstands are not something I’m just into. (laughs)

I made several trips to - one actually with my father at the age of seventeen, eighteen just after I graduated high school. My dad invited me to take a trip with him to Europe and to India, and the Indian part was going to be about three months. So, in total, it was just about a six-month trip, and I was very excited. It was great. It was a little bit, you know the downside of course is that you’re with your dad (laughs) during this exciting wonderful trip to Europe and India and you have to be with your dad. But we were pretty good travelers together, and we went to London, went to Paris, took the train over to Switzerland, eventually drove down from Switzerland through Italy, you know hit Florence, Venice in Rome, um made our way down to Bari. And from there, we took a ship over to Yugoslavia to Dubrovnick, spent a few days there. And then down to Greece, we went to Athens. We went to Corfu, and then back to Athens, and from there, we departed to India.

US: 9:33
That’s a long way!

RB: 9:34
Yeah, that was a long way. Uh, in India, mostly, we stayed in Delhi, and actually part of the time we stayed in the old part of Delhi, which was pretty...pretty much of a culture shock for me. (laughs) It’s really like the sixteenth-century, and there is every mode of animal and human transport you can think of. Um, there is everything from camels to elephants to cows to herds of pigs to herds of goats to chickens um and dogs and horses and of course you got the ox drawn carts. You’ve got the motorcycle, rickshaws, you’ve got the human drawn rickshaw - you know people peddling them basically on a bicycle. People on foot, and they’re jammed together in this very small space in the old part of town. But somehow, everyone stays out of each other's way, and you know just watching traffic intersections is kind of like watching a ballet movement or when the USC marching band, you know, sort of goes across the field, and, you know, how they sort of march through each other. Well, you almost cover your eyes thinking these two cars are gonna collide or this car and this cow are gonna hit each other. They don’t. Somehow, at the last minute, someone (laughs) swerves, but um you’re constantly holding your breath. And then, when we were staying in one of the houses there, in old Delhi, there would be the monkeys, and they would come in. That’s actually why they had most of the windows barred is not because of the people but to keep the monkey’s out because they’ll come in and steal the food right out of the kitchen, and of course, anything like they take a liking to - anything bright and shiny the decide they want - they’ll grab. And you don’t want to mess with the monkeys. Yeah, they bite. (laughs)

That was my first trip, and uh after that, I got over some of the culture shock, I felt a lot more confident about plunging into some of the alleyways in the old parts of town, and I was much less, you know, mindful of the animals and stuff. It was like: “Ah yeah, okay, I’ll step over the pig here,” you know. Or someone is getting their haircut, sitting down in the street right there, um you know, no big deal. It’s like life is happening all around you, everywhere, and it's just played out like this huge human performance in a way you never see in the States. So, you know, everything is hidden behind walls, but not in India - everything is out in the open. So, you know, my second and third trip, I went back with my husband, and this time, you know my husband, Gilbert, who...we’ve been to Mexico many times. He’s been to Mexico many more times than me. He’s second-or third-generation Angeleno, you know that was his roots. And so you know, he knows Mexico by the back of his hand. He knows, you know, the poor areas, yeah he’s used to that. Well, when he got to India, he was a bit scared. He was like a little intimidated about going out cause, you know he’s sort of wanting to be in command and protect me and everything. And I was like: “I don’t need protection.I know what I’m doing, you know. This is where we are going to go. This is what you need to do, and, you know, this is how you need to act.” You know, you order something like, for example, you order milk in a restaurant, you gotta realize you are not going to get cow’s milk. You’re gonna get buffalo milk. So, you know, when you say milk, if you don’t specify or you’re not maybe in a hotel, that’s what you’re gonna get. So, it was just little things like that when you realize that “Oh, wait a minute. My breakfast cereal does not quite taste like it does at home, I don’t know why.” But that’s why.

13:59 US: Cow milk

RB: 14:00
Rani Bagai: Yeah… only the young kids spoke English, and they were more comfortable. They wanted to try out their English, and talk to you and everything. But mostly the older generation would kind of sit back, um especially the women would be much more shy. Um, but they’re so kind and they couldn’t do enough for you. Um, and just wanting to make you feel at home and even if they couldn’t talk. But, of course, it was a little harder on me being a teenage girl, and feeling like: “Ugh, I’m with these old people who can’t talk to me, and I want to be with more people my own age.” But feeling a little stifled and kind of shy myself, I didn’t feel like I could be my old, typical American self, you know. I kind of felt like I needed to keep my social graces at a certain level so as not to offend anybody. One of the things you have to learn is, for example, not going out in shorts or short skirts at the time. Of course, we wearing our skirts pretty short then or jeans are kind of considered risque too. Most young Indian women dress very modestly in a salwar kameez and a scarf or a sari, and that’s about as casual as they get - actually, salwar kameez. So, um, because opting Western clothing seems just to confer a certain different aspect, um to them. So, you know, it’s not as dignified as when you are wearing a sari. My mother gave me some that I think she got from her mother-in-law from India - some beautiful, beautiful silk ones. In fact, I have a purple one that’s made with gold thread like real gold thread - a huge embroidered panel of it that’s really beautiful. And I just… But I’m scared to wear it. I don’t know when I’ll ever wear it or just keep it to look at. But yeah, I have some beautiful ones, and I would just love to find an occasion to dress up in them. But I don’t know when that will be.

What’s funny is that, uh, you know, someone asked me not too long ago what is your favorite food - like what would you rather eat than anything else, you know, day in and day out. And I had to say Indian food - I could definitely eat that all the time. Um, I always loved the spiciness of it, and even in high school, I would astonish my friends, you know, we would sometimes go to a fast food place like McDonalds, but sometimes it was DelTaco, and they would have little paper containers of hot sauce. And I would go, “ Watch this!” And I would take that container, and I would just down it - straight and they would look at me horrified like “Woah, Rani!I don’t believe what you just did.” (laughs) But yeah, it was a point of pride for me, but um even you know, occasionally, in my lunch, and again this was one of the embarrassing things that would happen to you because you’re a kid, and you come from two cultures is that my mother would sometimes make me a turkey sandwich, and on one side she would put the mayo, and on the other side she would smear just a little bit of lemon chutney or lemon pickle as it’s called. And I would go, “Oh my god, I’m in heaven. This is like the best combination ever.” I just wonder if she did it sometimes just to see if I would notice that she did it, and I did, and I loved it. You know it was not the kind of thing you could stop in midchew and say, “God what a great sandwich! You wouldn’t believe, you know” (laugh) Not in fourth grade.

US: 18:11
While everyone else was eating their peanut butter -

RB: 18:13
Yeah, yeah mine’s got lemon chutney in it. Sorry about you. (laughs) I’m an engineer with Northgroup Grumman, and I’m about to retire in a couple of months. I’ve worked with my job over thirty years at the same company, which is very unusual. But, I’m now getting ready to retire and move up to Seattle, which I am very excited about. But yeah, my background was in electrical engineering, and while I really never used it, I really didn’t design any circuits or anything like that. I wish I could say I did, but my experience has mostly been in terms of the defense projects and software projects and things like that - really kind of unrelated to my education.

US: 19:02
Hmmm, interesting...

Donor: Emily McNish
Item History: 2013-08-21 (created); 2020-06-23 (modified)

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