This item is a video file.

Rani Bagai on "The Collection and SAADA"

Part of a video interview of Rani Bagai conducted on June 3, 2013. In this section, Rani Bagai explains the origins of the collection that was digitized for SAADA. Rani is the granddaughter of Kala Bagai, who arrived in the U.S. in 1918 with her husband Vaishno Das Bagai and three sons, Brij, Madan, and Ram (Rani's father). After Vaishno Das Bagai's death in 1928, Kala remarried Mahesh Chandra ("Lalaji"). The collection is largely the result of the work of Mahesh Chandra, who kept materials from the family, as well as the broader Indian diasporic and political community in the U.S., throughout his lifetime.

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

Transcribed by: Aneeza Agha

Edited by: Alisha Cunzio

Rani Bagai (RB) (0:00): So apparently, I believe though it was Mahesh Lala Ji, who kept a great deal of it and collected it - these journals, newspapers, magazines, books, a lot of political literature. It was all sort of-- kind of encouraging people to join us to look at what is happening in India. It would-- a lot of it would recount in pretty gory detail of what the British were doing to quell this movement in India, in a very violent way. And so a lot of it was to kind of expose this and, for example some very graphic illustrations and photographs of hangings, of whippings, of beatings, because you know the story of the soldiers firing on the group of people who gathered - it was a peaceful protest.

(1:09) And so, I don't really know what purpose he collected it for, but eventually it just remained in some suitcases of his, and my dad had never gone through it and at some point after my grandfather died in the 80s-- early 80s, he was cleaning out the garage and started opening up the suitcases and there all this stuff was. So I'm helping my dad collect stuff and I love old relics and mementos and sentimental things and, of course, I love going through the trunks of my grandmother's.

(2:01) And I see this literature in there, and I see some of the illustrations, and I see some of the pain that's going on - of the belief, the commitment to this movement and wanting it to succeed, wanting this independence for India. And I guess from a sense of that-- that frustration, I pick up from that material that I sort of sense that this history meant so much to these people, and to have gone through this, that I was thinking in the beginning, ‘Well, I just want to keep it just so I can read some of it myself, because I'll know - I'll learn a lot of stuff I never knew that's not in the history books’: How Indians were looked at by the Americans here and how they were treated just like the poor, the - the Chinese and Japanese just - they were just seen as laborers, nothing else.

(3:14) And I thought, ‘Wow, this is just, I just need to keep this for myself.’ But, I just had this sense when I also looked at it that someone else probably wants to see this as well. There's people who would love to read this not-- It can't just be me. It can't just be me. So I thought, ‘Well, maybe a university would be interested in it.’ You know, somehow, it just-- it can't just get thrown in the trash, like it could have been so easily. So I insisted on taking it all home with me, boxing it up, and for a long time, unfortunately, you know, of course, I was busy with my family, and raising my kid and everything, and I didn't have time to go pour over a bunch of dusty old newspapers and magazines and books.

(4:07) But every once in a while - well actually since after-- once my dad died, and he left even more stuff behind, which of course I [laughs] I grabbed, I had to decide - I decided at one point I need to start going through it and look at-- ‘Okay, what is it I actually have here? What am I looking at?’ And so I began organizing and cataloging and arranging things and ‘Oh, okay, all this seems to belong to this kind of group, and this group up in the northwest, you know, a whole series of this stuff, and there's this going on in San Francisco. And you know what, I bet these groups are the same group. They sound very similar, and they're in San Francisco, and I bet they're part of the same you know affiliation.’ So bit by bit, I started to recognize and by eye distinguish what I'm looking at. There's even Trotsky literature mixed in with this, and stuff from-- Oh gee, now I'm gonna blank on his name, I can't think of it-- but the guy down in South America who-- with Trotsky. [pause to think] I mean, it wasn't Che Guevara...way before that, but I can't think of his name-- spaced on that.

(5:41) But eventually, when I began to get a handle on it and started sorting it, I-- I decided this really needs to be in a place where people can study it, access it, and see it. It can't be buried in a box, left for my kid who.. You know, people unless it's-- people tend to not want to be burdened with this stuff, and they see it as more trouble than it's really worth. But I couldn't do that - just - I was determined to see it somehow used by somebody.

(6:27) I was approached by the authors of a book about Angel Island. And they had heard about the story of my grandfather coming to Angel Island, and going through the immigration process, and becoming a citizen and then having that stripped away, and they were really interested because they were hoping to put that in as part of their book. So I did give them quite a bit of information about that. And so their book had a chapter to Indian immigration. You know, there was just a myriad of peoples who came through Angel Island, just like Ellis Island, but they're all from Asian cultures: Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Indian. There were Russians, there were also Philippines [sic].

(7:14) And after I get-- gave the authors this information, one of them said that she knew about an archive that would digitize most of the material I had, and she put me in touch with a person who did that, who worked with SAADA, and that was Michelle Caswell. And as soon as Michelle described this to me, and described the digitization process and how the photos and all these manuscripts and archives would be stored, I was just so enthusiastic. I said, ‘Yes, this is exactly what this needs’, because this paper is just going to disintegrate and disappear in a few years, and so it needs to be captured in digital format, and at least then it can be copied again, as other formats arise in the future. But the idea that this could be accessible online - and that even in a library, even in a university - if it's paper, someone has to know where it is, and a librarian has to know what you're... how to connect it with something, and how to find it and-- and give it to the person who needs it for whatever it is they're working on. That's not easy. Whereas this way, I thought, ‘Well, this is perfect.’ It can be searched for easily with keywords, and so I was just very enthusiastic about working with Michelle on this and had no hesitation.

(8:51) In fact, I thought, ‘Well, this can be done two ways. You know, I can do this now digitally, and then the actual paper itself could also be stored somewhere.’ And I was always hoping that it would go someplace like Berkeley, which I think a lot of it really relates to, because a lot of it has to do with the movement that was centered in Berkeley. So I think it will definitely not be buried, and I think that's something I was also, I think, please my grandfather quite a bit to know that his battles and his frustration, which ended so sadly, are not-- are not lost. That others can read about them and learn what was going on at that time, and what kind of history was happening. That is kind of a chapter that's somewhat overlooked.

(9:59) Oh, I think you know, gosh my grandparents would be astounded. I don't think they were ever even quite sure how their TV worked - if there was not like a little man inside it talking. But they would just be completely astounded - but they would be so happy and pleased to know that a story like this - just it's--it’s commonplace, you know every family has a story. Everyone immigrated somewhere who is-- whose descendants are now here. It all started somewhere, and none of it went easily for anybody. But I think that they would be very happy to know that this history is preserved, and that their grandkids, great grandkids, can learn something about the early California history, San Francisco history - it's part of Indian history.

(11:03) Some of the other things that my grandmother saved was her wedding sari, when she was a young girl. It's-- it's quite beautiful. So it’s something I have rolled up in a soft, old piece of cotton and I hope the moths never get to it, but it's in great shape. And so there's her wedding sari, there's some of her wedding jewelry. Which I believe though - unfortunately, it was taken apart and put back together - redesigned, kind of to look more modern, unfortunately. But I don't know that she really wore it much, or I don't know why unfortunately that had to happen, but I still have a lot of that and it's just beautiful, lovely gold jewelry. I still try to wear some of those necklaces on special occasions. I've-- I've wore one at my own wedding. It was kind of my wedding jewelry when I got married, though I wore a more traditional wedding dress with it. I've worn it to my daughter's graduation from college and special occasions like that. So every once in a while I'll drag out a few pieces and put them on. One thing though that she wore all the time was a simple gold bangle. I don't know why but it-- that symbolized her to me more than anything, and my dad gave that to me after she died. And this is it [shows bangle] and I've worn it ever since and never take it off. It's just mine, and it's-- that's a part of her, and so I’ll always have it and cherish it.

Donor: Emily McNish
Item History: 2013-08-21 (created); 2020-07-29 (modified)

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