Solitary Sentinel

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The American

Postcard sent by Bawa N Bishen in 1918
Bawa N. Bishen, Los Angeles (1918)

More than a century ago, a young boy’s life was snuffed out by snakebite when he was watering his fields, near Nankana Sahib (now in Pakistan). His friend, who was engaged in the same daily routine, took the incident to heart. Fearing that he might meet the same fate, one early morning he left his home without informing anyone. His journey first brought him to Bombay, and then Burma, Hongkong, China; eventually, after two or three years he landed at New York harbor.

This young boy was my grandfather, Bawa N Bishen. For the next fifty years or so he made America his home, first working as a farm hand, then as an entrepreneur (he picked fresh vegetables and fruits from farms in his truck, and sold them door-to-door in the city). Later, he took cotton plantation on a lease. One thing that he despised, in the beginning, was communicating in sign language, for which he joined English language night classes. After learning English, he developed a habit of maintaining a daily log. Sample his diaries (which have been well preserved by my mother) – “14 hours for Roy”, “15 hours for Angelo, walnuts”, “Rain. No work”, “42 trees in 13 hrs for Roy”, “Party with Basheer Nath. Enjoyed”. Some entries made me recoil, others brought a smile.

Indians Crossing Gila River (1920)
Indians Crossing Gila River, Arizona, USA (1920)

Almost ten years had passed when he set foot in his village again. He must have been quite a sight – six-foot tall figure donning American hat and suit, standing in the village square, absorbing the changes in all these years. He nearly caused a commotion – “Hey! Gora sahib has got hold of Fakeera, and is tossing him around like a bunch of carrots.” Grandfather was just giving a “Punjabi hug” to his childhood pal.

Finally, when his family obligations forced him to return for good, he settled in Mandi Gobindgarh, a small town of Punjab, India. The house that he built here has concrete lettering, two stories high, on its facade reading “Bishen Bhawan of USA.” I was born and raised in this house and was quite young when he died. We take our lives for granted, but going through his pictures and diaries made me realize how much we contribute to each other’s lives.

Jawand Singh with Mr. Bishen's Goat
Jawand Singh with Mr. Bishen’s Goat, California (1923)

The picture above made me laugh. Observe what grandfather noted at the back of the photo – “Mr. Bishen’s goat.” This goat must have been dear to grandfather – a testament to Punjabis’ love of dairy products.

My father has tons of anecdotes about “The American,” and he never tires telling (or retelling) them. Dadaji, you are still remembered fondly.