brother Dahl Singh to Shanghai, where they worked as
night watchmen for the Shell Oil Company. They followed
work to Manila and boarded a steamship to the Pacific
Coast). When they sailed into the port, officers refused to
let them disembark without a $5 port fee – a policy that
reflected brewing anti-Asian sentiment at the turn of the
century. He returned in September 1913 with the port fee in
hand and stepped onto US soil — 100 years ago this year.
He and his brother labored in the fields and earned their
way south until they arrived at a small farming town called
Clovis. They worked in the orchards all day and slept in
barns at night, twisting their bodies to fit into grape trays to
keep safe from the snakes.
When Babaji received news that the Asian Exclusion Acts
forbade people like him from becoming citizens or owning
land or returning to America if they ever left the country to
marry, he knew he had left his home behind.
So, he gave his youth to the land, drove Caterpillar tractors by his brother’s side, made wine at the constable’s
request during Prohibition, survived early ‘anti-Hindoo’
race riots, and earned a reputation as an honest man who
wore a turban and long beard in the farmlands of
During World War II, Babaji looked after the farms of
Japanese-American neighbors when they were sent to
internment camps and even drove a horse and buggy to
Poston, Arizona, to visit them. He brought back a piece of
petrified rock from his trip, which sits on my family’s fireplace as a lasting reminder of my grandfather’s example.
After the laws changed in 1949, Babaji returned to India
for the first time in 36 years. He was a man in his 50s with
a long white beard — and a bachelor.
My grandmother Dalip Kaur was 23 years old when
Babaji visited her village of Fategarh in Punjab. As the
youngest of eight siblings, she faced a bleak future as an
unmarried woman in the village. At one time, she stood at
the edge of the well, ready to jump, but a gust of wind came
and she said she felt god’s protection. A week or so later,
Babaji arrived and asked for her hand in marriage.
In 1950, my grandmother began a new life in California,
where she labored in the fields with my grandfather, wearing rubber boots with a shovel over her shoulder. They had
four children, and I was the first grandchild of their eldest
The day I was born, Babaji saw a falcon sitting on a fence
— a good omen, he told my mother. When it turned out that
I was a girl, some sent my family condolences because I was
not a boy. But my grandparents defended me, especially my
grandmother. My birth was not a reason for sadness but for
celebration. They named me Valarie after the day I was
born, Valentine’s Day.
My grandfather died when I was a child at the age of 94,
but I remember his wiry silver beard, tall turban, and kind
eyes. My grandmother died in February of this year, and I
am still mourning her death. Their legacy as pioneers has
been passed on to all their children and grandchildren.
Your other grandfather Papaji became a life mentor when
you were young. Can you tell us more about your mother’s
My mother’s father, Captain Gurdial Singh Gill, lived with
my brother and me our entire childhood. He is the single
PHOTOGRAPHS COUR TES Y: VALARIEKAUR. COM
Left, Valarie Kaur with her maternal grandfather Captain Gurdial Singh Gill.
greatest influence on my life — my guiding star and pillar
Papaji was born in 1921 in the village of Basupanu in
Punjab, now in Pakistan. He spent his childhood playing
beneath a great banyan tree, a tree I hope to find one day.
At the age of 18, he joined the British Indian Army and
became a mechanic in World War II, where he served
bravely in Sudan, Ethiopia, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Iran, and
Palestine, earning the rank of Captain. He slept through
bullets raining down from German aircraft at night,
because his father told him that god would protect him. He
refused to remove his turban on the frontline, saying ‘God
gave me my helmet.’ He wrapped his friend’s body with the
cloth of his turban when he was killed next to him. He was
always proud that throughout the course of the war, he
never had to fire a single bullet.
When the British left India in 1947 and upon departing
tore the country in two, Papaji escaped the bloodshed that
consumed the north. He saw trains filled with the dead
rolling into the station and found another way across the
border. He had just married Joginder Kaur, who we call
Mummyji. She wore white, the color of mourning, until he
reappeared on the now-Indian side of Punjab.
After Partition, my grandparents had three children;
their youngest daughter is my mother.
The family was stationed in different parts of India, and
my mother spent parts of her childhood in Kashmir,
Sikkim, Bangalore, and Joshi Math, where my grandfather
first started to write poetry near the river Ganges.
In 1979, my American father went to Punjab to find a
bride — 30 years after his own father did the same. Papaji
shook my father’s hand and knew instantly that he would
be the one to marry his daughter. My parents were married
two weeks later, and I was born two years after that.
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