Date: 2012-06-29 15:52:01
Category: all categories
Metatags: Komagata Maru, Punjabi, South Asian, Personal Narratives, Seniors, Toronto, Sikh,
Through white porch doors, I watch an early June rainfall douse Dr. Gurcharan Singh Jauhal’s verdant backyard as he attends to unexpected visitors, who have come to him for help and advice.
As we sit together at the kitchen table of his spacious, well-appointed home in Toronto, I consider again the prodigious circumstances under which I’ve made his acquaintance.
Dr. Gurcharan Singh Jauhal is the octogenarian son of Puran Singh Jauhal, a young passenger on the Komagata Maru, the Japanese ship that was refused entry by Canadian authorities into Vancouver Harbour in May 1914. The Komagata Maru story is the starting point for CASSA's Brown Canada project and its call to document and archive South Asian history.
It is an interviewee of Brown Canada, who introduces me to Jas Kiran Singh Jauhal, Puran Singh’s grandson, who, by some fortuitous circumstance, happens to live in her townhouse complex. Jas Kiran subsequently puts me in touch with his father, Dr. Gurcharan Jauhal, a man who could call many places on the globe his home, but lives not more than a 2 minute drive from my own suburban residence.
Indeed, it is a fortuitous privilege to meet Dr. Jauhal, the eldest son of Puran Singh Jauhal of the village of Janet Pura, Ludhiana, who was ultimately honoured by the Indian Government as a freedom fighter. A long-retired high school teacher of Sir. John A. Mac Donald High School, Scarborough, Dr. Gurcharan Jauhal who believes that “without education, you have nothing,” has his Honours from Durham University in England and a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Toronto. He has taught in Kenya and in Australia.
Dr. Jauhal shares with me his memories of his illustrious father, Puran Singh Jauhal.
CJL: Can you tell us a little bit about your father’s background and history?
Dr. Jauhal: My father was born in Shanghai, China in 1890. His father, Gurdit Singh, (no relation to the gentleman who chartered the Japanese ship) was a jailer in China. My father came from a wealthy and well-educated family. He completed his matriculation in 1906 and received his degree in Telecommunications from Meerut, India in 1910. From 1914 - 1918 he opened and ran a telecommunications academy, a branch of Punjab University, at Civil Lines in Ludhiana, Punjab. He successfully trained graduates in telecommunications for the Indian railways.
My father had 2 brothers, one got his PhD in Russia from Moscow University and ran an academy in Ludhiana, and the other was a doctor in the Indian Army.
CJL: What are your early childhood memories of family life?
Dr. Jauhal: He was a teetotaler who read 3 or 4 newspapers a day from cover to cover - an Urdu daily (Partap), Akali Patrika (Punjabi), The Tribune, and a Hindi daily. He was fluent in several languages and could read and write them. He did what is impossible for a single man to accomplish.
He was also a very devout Sikh who was always helping the poor. My mother, Mohinder Kaur, used her time and money to help poor villagers in the area. Every year during weeding season she would help out any poor village family organizing the marriage ceremony of their children by lending them mattresses and bedding for their guests, and cooking equipment and vessels for the wedding celebration.
Did your family ever discuss what happened on the Komagata Maru?
Not very much. The incident happened 16 years before I was born and it was probably not very easy to talk about it. I was also away studying in boarding schools most of the time. It was when I went to India to visit my father in 1974 that we spoke at greater length about it. He died in 1975.
CJL: What memories did he share with you?
My father had boarded the Komagata Maru (a Japanese ship rented by Gurdit Singh, a Sikh businessman) to study at the University of British Columbia as a scholar in Telecommunications. He had already secured a placement, paid his fees and had valid documentation. He was one of the few of the 376 passengers who received permission to enter Canada. But most passengers on the ship were refused entry. An educated and articulate scholar, my father tried hard to negotiate with Canadian immigration officials on behalf of the passengers, but was unsuccessful. The passengers of the Komagata Maru were ordered to return to their homeland. If they refused, the ship was to be blown up.
In solidarity with the other passengers, my father refused to disembark.
The passengers left Canada in an angry state, determined to reverse the wrongful decision made by the Canadian immigration officials. Japanese and German passengers also supported the cause of their Sikh friends on the ship. The Sikh passengers contacted the Indian National Army (INA) led by Subash Chandra Bose to support Indian independence from British rule.
The passengers were in constant communication with other freedom fighters in India and wanted to be the first to actively begin the revolution against Britain. Unfortunately, there must have been an informant on the ship who leaked information. Also the British, well-known for their telecommunications expertise in that era, were one step ahead of the Sikh crew, and intercepted their messages. They were ready to meet the ship on its return to Calcutta.
When the ship entered Fort Baj-Baj Ghat, crew members were fired upon. Some were killed, others made a human ladder to escape the British Fort. They ran through nearby rice fields, where they were exposed to leach bites and other hardships.
The escape was cut short when they were apprehended on a train headed for Punjab. The captured passengers were tortured, tried and given heavy jail sentences. My father Puran Singh Jauhal was sentenced to solitary confinement with hard labour at Shahiwall Jail for five years. All of his personal assets, which included land and money, were confiscated. After his release in 1919, Puran Singh was even more determined to carry on the fight to free India.
For 15 years he went underground with his fellow freedom fighters. He was involved in the Akali Movement, releasing Sikh temples from the hands of irreligious people. The freedom fighters took an active part in the demonstration at Jallian Walla Bag in Amritsar. Somehow, by the grace of God, my father Puran Singh survived the massacre. He continued in the freedom struggle for a large part of his life. His efforts never waned and were met with success in 1947 when India attained self-rule.
CJL: How did the ordeal impact him personally?
My father was very strong till his jail-term, where he was subjected to electric shocks and was forced to grind wheat in a chakki with very heavy stones. All this weakened him physically. But he gave himself fully to the cause of his people, sometimes to the neglect of his own family.
CJL: Was your father Mr. Jauhal’s contribution to the Indian Independence movement acknowledged by the Indian government?
The Chief Minister of Punjab formally honoured those who were involved in the independence struggle, with “Parwan Patter” on the ceremonious occasion of January 26, 1962 (India’s Republic Day). Many members of the Indian National Army were in attendance. The government of India recognized freedom fighters with a substantial monthly pension for the rest of their lives and their spouses lives.
Can you share with us the story of your immigration to Canada? Did your father’s experience deter you in any way?
After Independence, a lot of Indian subjects moved to England because of the opportunities available. I too left India in 1955, taught high school in Nairobi, Kenya, got a scholarship to Durham University in the UK, went on to Monash University in Victoria, and finally come to Toronto to complete my PhD in Chemistry, which I did in 2 years 10 months. The Toronto District School Board offered me a salary I could not refuse, at a time when my kids were growing up and I needed the income.
CJL: Do you have other family members in Canada?
All my siblings, except my recently expired eldest sister, migrated to and currently reside in Canada. My father’s brothers’ children are in the USA.
How was your immigration experience?
Because of my qualifications, opportunities were abundant. When I arrived here there were only about 10 Indian families.
Both my wife Brinder Kaur Jauhal and I were teachers and educators. My wife retired in 1986 but remained in an active role as consultant, writing curriculum for the program. We pioneered the Heritage Language Project of the Toronto Board of Education, approved by the Davis Government, to increase awareness of South Asian Languages. Unfortunately, my wife passed away suddenly two years ago, a big loss for me.
We actively participated in community events, including an attending a yearly performance of the Komagata Maru play which used to be staged by a local group.
I was actively involved in the Sikh community for two decades and founded the Weston Road Temple at St. Clair and Weston Road.
How important is your Sikh faith to you?
It’s all about following the word in the Guru Granth Sahib. Guru Gobind Singh wanted a certain attire, but more important than that, is to earn your living with your own hands and help the poor. The attire is merely external, it’s the deeds that are extremely important. A true Sikh will never take a penny from anyone needlessly but instead will go out of his way to help others. If you truly follow the Sikh religion, the chances of you ruining your life are very remote.
His words, spoken in a school teacher’s commanding voice, resonate in the room. It has been an informative and candid interview. From the porch doors, I catch a glimpse of pink peonies, their pearly petals unfolding and opening to the warm afternoon sun. Like the peonies, a part of Puran Singh’s personal history, now almost a hundred years old, has been opened up to me through the eyes of his eldest son. A man of stature who lived so long ago, yet whose selfless sacrifice for his countrymen is so deeply revered by his children and his children’s children.