Harbans Kaur Panu

Harbans Kaur Panu (born on October 14, 1941) was part of the first generation of Punjabi women to settle in the Yuba City area. Born in Malaysia where her father worked in highway construction, she returned to a village near Amritsar, Punjab when she was six years old.  She fondly remembers her childhood, especially her parents’ warmth and love. Having learned Tamil in Malaysia, she often spoke this South Indian language to her parents as a young girl.  Her father was modern in his thinking and cherished his daughters as much as his son. He even distributed sweets when his daughters were born, a ritual that was only customary for the birth of sons.  Her main regret was that she received only five years of education: “I wish I had become a lawyer, a school teacher, a nurse or a doctor or something.” But her family was more concerned with preparing her for marriage.

“Pain and happiness are a part of life… It is your choice to spend your life crying or laughing.  Always stay with love,     and your life passes with happiness.”

When she was 20 years old, she married a peach farmer named Rashpal Panu.  They were happily married for over fifty years. She is very proud of his generosity and the many people whom he helped, including her family.  She recalls that her husband took care of her when she fell ill.


Harbans Panu, Yuba City, c 1990.

Harbans Panu and Rashpal Panu, Yuba City, 1964.

Soon after her marriage, she joined her husband in Yuba City.  She never forgot her sadness about leaving her family as a young bride.  Having never traveled outside her village before marriage, she vividly remembered her fear as she departed for America: “When I leave Delhi, I was so scared because I don’t know English.  I didn’t know where I was going. No one was there who is gonna take care of me if my husband [was] not there.” Her four-day trip to the US was traumatic: “I loved my dad a lot, but I had my mom’s milk for five years.  [laughing] I really missed my mom. The entire journey I spent crying. I developed a fever when I got here.” Fortunately, another Punjabi woman came to the hospital to take care of her. Afterwards, she helped Harbans take her grocery shopping and adjust to her new life.  

 In her early days in Yuba City, she recalls encountering a lot of hostility from the white community: “Whenever they would saw us, they would call us Hindus.  They would also curse. In those times, no one left the house in Indian clothing. Even the older ladies would wear dresses… We used to be scared of them during that time.  That’s why the ladies stepped out of their homes in dresses.” If the women wore American clothes, they faced less hostility in public spaces.

Her friendships with other Punjabi women formed a lifeline for her.  “The amount of love I received when I got here, I don’t think I received even that much love from my family… The [ladies] were my friends, they were my parents, they were everything to me.”  She remembers Harbhajan Kaur Takher especially fondly, saying, “She loved me like a little baby.” 

Slowly she started enjoying her life in California.  She loved wearing American clothes, and she learned English while watching soap operas.  She worked for decades helping her husband on their 15-acre peach orchard by pruning, thinning and irrigating.  During her 26 years working at the Sunsweet fruit packing house, she enjoyed her friendships with people of different backgrounds — “I worked for 26 years. There were people of all races, and I loved them all.”  

Harbans also enjoyed performing seva at the Gurdwara Sahib with other Punjabi women.  “We would feel very excited volunteering [and] making the food. We used to make the food ourselves back then… we used to do everything ourselves.  We used to go early in the morning to listen to the paath (prayers) for about an hour and then perform seva [community service].”  In the late sixties and seventies, she remembers that the Punjabi American community was very close: “In those days people were selfless and helped others.”  Harbans also performed seva in Punjab during her annual visits, giving food, blankets, and money to those in need.

She raised six children and has 12 grandchildren.  

Despite her initial struggles adjusting to her new life, she described America as “heaven.”  She offered this advice to young people: “Pain and happiness are a part of life… It is your choice to spend your life crying or laughing.  Always stay with love, and your life passes with happiness.”

Harbans composed beautiful songs about her life, especially to soothe herself during emotionally difficult times.  At her retirement from Sunsweet, she performed this song about her departure from her family as a young bride a half century earlier.  Her sadness about leaving her friends at work tapped into a deep well-spring of emotions that was still fresh from her wedding day.

Photos courtesy of the Panu family.

Source: Interviews with Harbans Kaur Panu by Nicole Ranganath, Yuba City, December 18, 2017 and August 8, 2019.