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My View: Papaji's life still hums with independent joy

Oregon families plunged headlong into India's fight for freedom


by: COURTESY OF RAVLEEN KAUR - A 1930 portrait shows a the family of Kapur Singh, who was part of the early movement to fight for Indias independence fostered by Punjabi laborers in Oregon.1913 was the last peaceful year in the life of Kapur Singh, his son — and my grandfather — tells me.

My great-grandfather was a typical schoolboy in clay-roofed Kaonke, a village in the heart of Punjab, India. A continent away, Punjabi laborers in Oregon were busy plotting a movement for India’s independence. Astoria’s waterfront was lined with Punjabi Sikh millworkers with towering white turbans and gelled mustaches.

These men met at Astoria’s Finnish Hall to plan the beginnings of a radical movement for India’s independence — the Ghadar Party. The goal of the party? As historian Johanna Ogden describes, “nothing less than the armed overthrow of British rule in India.”

Whispers of revolution in Astoria’s maritime breeze would blow into dusty Northern India, where 14-year-old Kapur Singh would leave home to join the movement in 1914. Plunging headlong into a radical push for revolution, my teenage great-grandfather would meet with party leaders in secluded homes, help gather materials to bomb the British armory and spend eight months in jail before being released for lack of sufficient evidence against him.

One hundred years later, his eldest son, Arjit Singh, sits cross-legged in a grassy park along the broad mouth of the Columbia, mere feet from where the Ghadar movement was born. A crowd of historians, local politicians and members of the Sikh community shade him.

My grandfather — who I call “Papaji” — is wearing a crisp gray suit and a navy blue turban. His hands tremble, but his voice is leathered and strong as he recites a portion of an article he spent the last four years carefully weaving together, a history of his father’s involvement in the movement.

Papaji reads from a typed document but after a minute disregards it. Kapur Singh, my grandfather, tells the audience he had no idea that he would spend the three decades remaining until India’s independence blacklisted from public school enrollment and barred from steady job employment. The shadow of his father’s small contribution to India’s independence would loom over his young family wherever they went — and they moved a number of times: from Lucknow — where he was able to complete his diploma in engineering — to Burma to Delhi to Lahore and beyond.

Kapur Singh never returned to the village Kaonke, worried that police would harass him and threaten his family. Even after India won independence in 1947, Kapur Singh went without any formal recognition for his role in the movement.

Papaji has lived in Beaverton for nine years now. Until a few months ago, he had no idea the movement that would change his father’s life had its roots just a couple hours away in Astoria.

by: COURTESY OF RAVLEEN KAUR - A century after the Ghadar movement took root in Astoria, Beavertons Arjit Singh sat in a grassy park near the Columbia River, talking about his fathers experiences in the push for Indias independence.He learned none of this through his father himself. Kapur Singh was a cautious man who feared his children would follow in his footsteps. My grandfather never looked into the murmurs of his father’s involvement until he was preparing to move to the United States 30 years ago, when he met Ghadarites who fought alongside his father.

“The old people from the old days told me about it,” Papaji tells me in Punjabi. “Mere father ne kadi ni dasia, nor did he want to talk to me about it.”

Papaji’s room smells like coconut oil and worn books. One evening, he peels a rare family portrait out of a dilapidated album. It’s a yellowing image of his mother and father each holding a toddler brother, identical chubby bubbles with wide cheeks and my grandfather’s eyes. My then 6-year-old grandfather sits in the middle with an English grammar book in his arms. Both of the toddler brothers would die in the next five years. In all, Kapur Singh lost four of his eight children before the age of 10.

Seated in a sharply dressed Kapur Singh’s lap is 2-year-old Janak Singh, who died of pneumonia the next year.

“More than 80 years it’s been since (Janak’s) dying, but even now when I think about it, something happens to me,” Papaji says in Punjabi.

“Janak Singh margya,” his father informed 7-year-old Papaji about his brother’s death.

“Changa margya, I said,” Papaji said, adding that he was glad his brother died because they always fought over a favorite cup. Seven-year-old Papaji thought death meant going somewhere far away for a while, a long holiday.

One day, a panicked Kapur Singh found Papaji along the banks of the Iravati River, where Janak Singh was cremated. Papaji tells me he thought that if he waited long enough, Janak Singh would reappear along the river.

Four years ago, I had the grand idea of constructing a family tree. When I found a mention of Kapur Singh of Kaonke, Ludhiana district, in a lengthy online listing of Ghadar party members, my grandfather was lit with a new passion for telling his father’s story.

In the afternoons I’d find my grandfather sitting in a lone spot of sunbeam, editing a draft of the article, his wrinkles upturning as he realized I was home to help him type up the research he had compiled. A widower who spends most of his time reclining in his spacious room in my family’s home, praying or ruminating, the story consumed his days.

“Ravleen, what sounds better? ‘Plunged headlong into the movement’ or ‘plunged into the movement headlong,’ “ he asks me. This is how he weighed the hues and shades of his piece, strung together through mentions of his teenage father’s release in a court document, tidbits of narrative from obscure textbooks and out-of-print histories.

It has been two years since his article was bound and finalized, but Papaji continues to perfect the piece. His sturdy walk has slowed to a limp and it takes longer for him to hear my reply, but speaking at Astoria has put a spring in his step. He hums lilting Indian tunes to himself around the house, his voice a thicket of spiritual mystery.

Ravleen Kaur, a Beaverton resident and a Portland State University student, writes here as the great-granddaughter of a Ghadar Party activist in India. The party’s fight for India’s independence from Great Britain held its centenary celebration Oct. 4 and 5 in Astoria, and was the subject of a Sept. 19 Portland Tribune news story by reporter Steve Law.