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Followup oral history interview with Shanti Kumari Bhatia

Second oral history interview with Shanti Kumari Bhatia conducted by Seema Moondra on October 1, 2018. This followup account goes into additional detail about Bhatia's early life before she moved to the United States.

Reflections on America

Duration: 00:34:38

Date: October 1, 2018
Subject(s): Shanti Kumari Bhatia
Type: Oral History
Creator: Seema Moondra

In the transcription the interviewee Mrs. Shanti Kumari Bhatia is referred to by her preferred name “Shanta”, and the interviewer Mrs. Moondra is referred to as “Seema”.

Seema: Today is October 1, 2018. My name is Seema Moondra and I am here to conduct a follow up of the oral history interview with Mrs. Shanti Kumari Bhatia. We are at Mrs. Bhatia's residence located at 2203 Cedar Village Boulevard, East Brunswick, New Jersey. The interview is being conducted for the project Your Legacy specifically designed to preserve, curate, and share the life story of individuals in their own words. Thank you for Mrs. Bhatia for taking the time to speak with me again and helping me share some more memories from your life story.
So I was very fascinated that you as a child were actually growing up at the time when India was, you know, in the midst of its freedom struggle. You were about nine years old. So as a child what was your experience during this time?

Shanta: We were in Pakistan at that time. I remember the whole city, the street, and grandparent’s house. But I did not understand at that time what was going on. Who were Britishers? Why are we leaving this place? We were told that uneducated gundas were always coming to the houses and break the door, loot the people, and take the women out. So this was fear type. We were told to keep the red chilli powder. If somebody breaks in then to throw it. This chance never came. I really did not know what was going on. We were told that we had to leave this house and go to India border. The whole city was vacated and then we were moved to a big, big house type, which was out of the city. So at least 30 families were together in one house. They were feeling secure. I don't know if there was some kind of joy or not, but inside people were happy too that we were free. They were always saying "Svantantrata mil gayi" Then we got in to one train, which after 3 – 4 days the train brought us in to the Indian border and at that time so many trains were coming so they would empty trains in different, close by cities so that there are not too many people in one place.

Seema: So were you scared in the train?

Shanta: We were scared as I remember; all brothers and sisters were holding each other’s hands. Mummy would say, “Don’t go close to the door or window.” And we were sleeping on each other. Try to not eat too much so we don’t have to go to the bathroom. In one compartment there were 100 people rather than 50. If there was place for 50 there were more people. I don't know how we spent those 3 – 4 nights but when we reached (India) there was so much happiness. People were shouting with happiness, and on the Atari station I saw many people came to give us food. Some kind of joy we felt that we are safe now. After that father was always looking for work. So at least twenty five families moved to Mathura. It was a religious place. People thought maybe we should spread out. So we were safe. Our grandparents were with us and other families too. My father was looking for work here and there. By that time '48 came. When we came it was very cold. May be November or December already. So in August '48 my mamaji was also thinking how to settle down; all the people are coming from Pakistan so we should do something. So he got this idea of buying some farmland so people can get work and settle down there.

Seema: So you mentioned the name of Govind Vallabh Pant when we were talking about your mamaji and how he bought the land. Can you tell a little bit about who he was and what role did he play?

Shanta: At that time we were in Mathura. Mamaji, their family was in Haridwar. They were in contact because everybody was looking for work. So mamaji was thinking big, big, so (that) many people can settle down in one place. So Govind Vallabh Pant was a freedom fighter and a well-known leader of UP at that time. This Tarai area which is Uttaranchal now. They were all jungles. Forests. He thought, “Why not sell the land to Punjabis, they are hardworking people anyway so this area will be developed.” Then people were trying to buy land. Our farm it was already 640 acres at that time. Somebody bought it. Somebody had it in his name. He was trying to sell. So we bought the whole land 640 acres. After may be 1 or 2 years again 200 more was available, which suited us (because it helped us )to cross the river and go to the city, so it was a benefit to us to buy that land. So the Bhatia Farmers Cooperative Society Jugroonagar was bought.

Seema: So a total of 840 acres?

Shanta: Yes. At that time we thought some people were always confused whether it was Jugnoonagar or Jugroonagar. Legally the registered name was Jugroonagar. This land when we went there, only eight acres was developed. That's all. There were few buildings. There were so many jugnus. I still remember till after buying this land after 10 years tak on the trees there were so many jugnus. People -

Seema: That’s fireflies.

Shanta: They will come and take pictures at that time. So beautiful scene. Still I can imagine how it was. Jugnu. Jugnu. Jugnu. You call it light bug. Lightening bug? So many people used to say Jugnoonagar but legally name is Jugroonagar. I don't know why.(Laughs)

Seema: So that's how the Bhatia Farmers Cooperative Society was developed in that area. Now you have inspired a lot of people. You have taught in the village school. I was just interested in knowing who inspired you.

Shanta: Being a sick child I was mostly in pain all the time. So I became a special child. Sometime Lalaji will spend with time me. Sometimes mummy. Mummy was tired all day so my uncle, my father's brothers and Lalaji's son or sometimes even neighbors also. Everybody was so sympathetic to me. Being a special child I will always say, "Everybody will study. They will go out to Nainital but what will happen to me. I won't study." My father will say, "You don't know. One day, you will all of a sudden pass the high school examination." When Lalaji was sitting with me he will tell me all the stories, about how Florence Nightingale did not go to school but she was the best nurse in the world. Rabindranath Tagore did not go to school but he had home studies. There are some people. It’s not just about going to school. You can study whatever you want. You can study. You will study one day. Don't lose any hope." He inspired me a lot. My father also. My mother (also). Lalaji used to say when sometimes I was mad that this neighbor was saying that I cry at night so they cannot sleep. There was no electricity in the summer; people would sleep outside of the house. Even not locking the house. There was no fear of theft or anything. Then I say, "Oh somebody was saying I do not let people sleep because of me. He said, "Don't mind. Don't mind. They love you very much. Always collect gems out of people. Look at their good qualities, not there minus points. Always act, do not react. Don't be mad if somebody said something. You do what you have to do. Reaction is not a very good thing." So (pause) I loved the way he was a humble person, full of life, and one more thing he said, "Love the people the way they are, even your neighbors, your brother sisters, anybody you meet. The way they are, just love them."

Seema: So Lalaji was a great influence in your life.

Shanta: Yes. He was my guide. He was my guru. He was my father. I can say many roles he played. He made me. I always stayed in that village. I did not go to any city; did not go to school or college. He was very much at that time the most educated person. So he would tell me all the freedom fighter stories. Lala Lajpat Rai. Why British people came to India? Who was Mahatma Gandhi? I will say, “I don't like Mahatma Gandhi. I like Subhash Chandar Bose. He is a brave person,” but then he will explain to me what qualities he (Mahatama Gandhi) had, what he (Subhash Chandar Bose) had. So collectively we got the freedom. It was not one person's effort. Florence Nightingale, I even cannot imagine people knew her name. He was well- educated person so I got to know. He was President of All India Farmers Society or All India Kisan Sangh and then there was a school in District Bahedi. He became the manager of that school. So we were in touch with all the education system and because of him I was learning.
Father had a different role with me. He was my friend because mummy was always home. So any doctor somebody suggest; you go to here, go to Agra, go to Lucknow, and go to Panipat, or Amritsar, so I will go with my father. In the train we had lot of time. So we became friends. He will tell me his experiences. This happened. That happened. So this way I was learning a lot. My education was more practical rather than reading the books. I know my father though he had a very, very dominating type personality, but people did not believe it, it was only for the family, to his children to discipline them, within his family. Under the pressure how he worked, that I learned from him. He had to feed the family. In that pressure, working, it’s not a joke. Now I feel for him. But he was always smiling. (laughs) He will tell me jokes. He will make me smile. Sometimes my own siblings, my brother sister thought I was the favorite person of my father. So they become little bit jealous also, but they loved me too. (Laughs)

Seema: So your father was a good administrator you had mentioned.

Shanta: Very good administrator. Even learned too. Very brainy person. And I think mother and father, both were (very brainy and smart). They deserved each other. At that time, I can say mother was the smartest woman. Little bit educated. Her brother was well educated. My father was very enthusiastic person. She was a knowledgeable person already so she also became a very smart woman. Keeping the full family together. Even my father’s younger brothers' wives, their children, his sister, and my grandparents. Mother was taking care of everybody.

Seema: So she had a lot of responsibilities.

Shanta: Very respected person. She was very respected lady. In the farm, in that village many people were uneducated. If there child is sick or something happens my mother will go with them to the hospital in the nearby city. That was help to the community.

Seema: So your mother was also very talented -

Shanta: Very talented. Simple woman. It's not professionally or classical but at that time very good singer, dancer, and swimmer. I don't think even 0.1% ladies were swimmers in India. But she was a very good swimmer. Cook. Embroidery. Knitting. Crocheting. Anything you mention it at that time she knew everything. So she gave it to us, all four sisters. My father won't let any servant cook inside the kitchen. He will say, “Outside you can cut the vegetables, but cooking no way.” Mother had to do. So we had to help her. So many people, at least fifteen people every day to feed. There were so many guests coming. So mother had to manage. That way she needed our help. So this way we learned cooking also.

Seema: So did you learn swimming from your mother?

Shanta: Oh ya. When we were in Mathura she will take us in the boat and throw us from the boat. “Come back to the boat,” she would say. So we will swim there. So in our village also there was a little stream, naala. What do you call that?

Seema: Right, stream.

Shanta: That we had to cross. So we learnt swimming there. And there was a big, big river also, which was part of Kichha Nadi, part of Sharda Nadi that was impossible to swim. Still when we had to cross the river we were confident in case something happened, we could swim there.

Seema: So did you wear swimming costumes?

Shanta: No. No costumes.

Seema: So what did you wear?

Shanta: Whatever normal (clothes) we are wearing. We have to cover our whole body at that time. The girl, if she is 9 year or 10 year old she will cover her whole body. Salwar Kameez. Frocks were only till 6 – 7 years. At that time it was like that. No swimsuit. I never heard of swimsuit.

Seema: But you all became good swimmers. (Both laugh heartily.)

Shanta: Yes. Very good swimmers.

Seema: So women played a very important role in helping people settle down.

Shanta: Oh, ya. Women, I remember. Each woman, average at least they had 6 - 7 children, in-laws. They will save each penny. How they managed, the skill they had (expression of amazement). Whatever vegetable they had they would try to make it in a different way. Keep the family happy. They were very hard working. Every day washing clothes for 15 people. Cooking for everybody and managing very well.

Seema: Very, very hardworking. One more very interesting thing I thought as part of your experience, you grew up in independent India. You were a child at that time but you were growing up at a time when there was a lot of excitement and people wanted to build the country. So what was that like? Did you go to vote? How were the elections?

Shanta: In '48 this farm we bought. Then one family and few men were there. Then slowly by 1950 all the families went there though it was a jungle. Even then they were hunting for tigers, leopards, and pythons. Mamaji was a good hunter too. Some of the time from outside people would come to hunt there. And in 1950 the Constitution was written, and in '51 there was the first election. I remember at that time I was thirteen year old. I could not vote but just for fun we would go to nearby villages and tell "Congress Ko Vote do - Vote for Congress." People won't understand, some ladies will make fun of us, “Why should we vote for Congress? Congress ne dhoti le ke de di ke, ki chappar chavan diya. (Did Congress buy and give sari to us or built a roof for us) Why?" It was fun to hear those things. '51 I did not vote but I was canvassing. Just do something. Lalaji will say, “Go talk to the people.” Next election was I think in "56, then I was able to vote. All the ladies were voting. We took them to wherever the election booth was. We took them in the bullock cart or the tractor trolley, a trolley behind a tractor we will join it. Because he (Lalaji) was educated he had a vision. He wanted us to do everything; whatever is legally is right. So everybody voted, I remember.

Seema: So that must have been exciting times. So you also had the opportunity to meet a lot of leaders because of Lalaji.

Shanta: Right. Because we had to go forty miles away to Bareilly district. We had a jeep. First we used to go by buses. Then we had a jeep. Because all the legal things, court things, or registry. (For) everything they had to go there. So I will go there. At that time leaders, I think, Punjab Rao Deshmukh, Ramamurthy ji, the Irrigation Minister (they visited us). It was an ideal farm. So most of the ministers will come in our farm. So this way many local leaders will also come. So we became friendly with them. This way I met Atal Bihari Vajpayee ji at that time. He was only in RSS. And I met Guru ji, RSS leader. Then from RSS the political party became Jansangh. So against Congress there was another party which came up. So we were with them.

Seema: So then Govind Vallabh Pant was an important leader.

Shanta: So he became Chief Minister in '55.

Seema: Okay.

Shanta: In '51 there were elections. First? I don't know who was the Chief Minister, then he became the Chief Minister, and in '60 Sucheta Kriplani. She was I think Minister for Industries. She came to inaugurate our Open Pan Sugar Factory and next year she became the Chief Minister of UP.

Seema: So you had an important role to play in the Open Pan Factory.

Shanta: Give them flowers. Give them garland. So I was always ahead of everybody.

Seema: And what was your role in the Open Pan Factory?

Shanta: When the Open Pan Factory was opened it was '60 or '61. Though I did not have any share in the Bhatia Farmers Cooperative Society. It was my father's share, not mine. In this factory I put my share. One share was in my name so I became the Vice President of the Open Pan factory. So I remember in '63 when Nehru's ji died I wrote a condolence letter to Indira Gandhi and she replied to me. And I still have it. Such an old letter I am keeping it with me.

Seema: That's an important letter to receive because Indira Gandhi became the Prime Minister of India afterwards. So, I know you mentioned your sister was like your mother and you learnt a lot from your husband. So can you tell me a little bit more about that?

Shanta: My sister was married at an early age. She also wanted to study but she was married when she was 16. Her own married life. But what I know or was told that she inspired her husband to study more because she could not do that because she had three children, in-laws and so many responsibilities. She was a skinny girl. Very, very fearless lady. Firm in her decision. Truthful person. Very loving. This is the way she got so much respect in her in-laws. Her nature got her so much respect in our family all the children who were at that time 5-6 years old, everybody loved her. Even their own mother was mad at them or if there was a wedding or something she was the calmest person. Always she can take a lot of pressure but handle it very beautifully. And when I got married. All of a sudden I got married within two hours I was married. He found me and he wanted to marry me. After nine months I came to this country. My story I have told you, how we were married, and how I came here. But I was a just a religious person, just loving, philosopher type. Just knew what is in Gita, what is in Ramayana. That's all my interest was. But when I came here he used to tell me you don't have any interest in economics which is the most practical thing in this world. I realized yes, I don't have any knowledge about that. Living there, simple, white clothes, no demands. I never felt that I need more money. So when I came here I really learnt a lot from him and though he was very sharp person, sometimes short tempered also because I don't get it easily. When I saw him under a lot of pressure if there was any emergency he was the calmest person. Small things he will make little bit noise. But emergency my God, his brain was working very calmly. When there was Three Mile Island, I don't know which year it was, may be '77 or '76. He was working in a nuclear power plant at that time. He was one of the team person locked in a room just to find out what to do with this accident. Nuclear power plant was I think something opened and smoke was coming, control mechanism failed, or something happened. So he was one of them to think about what to do next.

Seema: Like how to contain the problem and how to solve the issues.

Shanta: He then told me that only thing I told them that let it be like that, it will calm down in its own time. So I learnt a lot from him also. Economics. World history. World geography. Then stock market. What is stock market? I never learnt that but I became so interested in this thing. It became a challenge for me. Oh my God! So much knowledge in this world. So then he will tell me, “When the (ticker) tape comes, if this price comes, put an order. Dial this number and put an order at that time.” So I used to do that. Then I became too much aggressive. I said, “No we should do this, we should do this.” (laughs) He said, “Calm down. (laughs) No risk.” He was involved but he used to say, “If I ever lose one single penny I will stop this stock market.” He played very safe. Not big money, he never made. Slowly, slowly he was playing very safe. It was good lesson for me.

Seema: So most of your siblings are still in India. Do you have family in USA?

Shanta: Yes. My brother Krishan, who is next to me (in age). His both children are here. Nihar who I call Guddu, she is (like) my daughter For last 20 years she is in this country. First she was in University of Wisconsin. Now she is in University of California as a research person. She is Ph.D. in Biochemistry doing research in cancer. In simple words, I can say. Her brother Anupam, he is in restaurant business with partnership, one is in LA and one is in San Jose. He has two daughters, beautiful wife.

Seema: And you have a friend here who is connected with the Bhatia Farmers Society -

Shanta: Bhatia Farmer's Society's president was Ram Chandar Shastri. He was a great musician, and great knowledgeable person in Indian philosophy or you can say Sanskrit literature. Very good person. His middle daughter is in New Jersey and her husband Vinod Madhok, he is a businessman. Indu is a doctor. Very, very close to her. More than a sister. I love her. They love me. It's a good thing to have somebody in New Jersey.

Seema: So you have a connection from Bhatia Farmers Society here but your brothers and sisters are in India. How do you keep in touch with them?

Shanta: Almost every day I talk to them. We talk to each other. Very, very close. Brothers are very close to me. And sister also. Janak is a baby sister, eight years younger than I am. Her husband is more of a brother to me rather than Janak's husband. Mostly we talk to each other every day. Brothers, I talk to them 2 – 3 times a week. And other sister Santosh, her children are settled and happy in their life.

Seema: So you have lived a very unique life here so my last question to you is what would you like to share as a message for the next generation?

Shanta: My own message is (pause) - Excuse and depression; two words are not in my dictionary. This is my message. Whatever life gives you stay happy, every day. One more thing I will say, "Do your duties. Result; leave it up to God. This is Gita's message and I always keep in my heart. Life teaches you a lot. Just keep your experience and spread it if somebody wants it."

Seema: Thank you Mrs. Bhatia for your inspirational message and thank you for sharing more of your story and more of your experience. This concludes our follow-up interview.

Thank you.

Collection: Your Legacy Project Materials
Donor: Seema Moondra
Item History: 2020-03-18 (created); 2023-04-05 (modified)

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