Satnam Johl

Satnam Johl was born on June 8, 1944 into a privileged family in a village in undivided British India that now rests in Pakistan. Arriving in Yuba City in 1967, she raised four children, worked alongside her husband to support the family farming business, and performed seva at the Gurdwara. Satnam played an instrumental role in assisting her husband, Harbhajan Singh Johl, on his popular local Punjab radio program for 34 years beginning in 1968.

Of all of the women in this project, Satnam was born into one of the most distinguished families. Her paternal grandfather served as a Captain in the British Army in the late nineteenth century. As a reward for protecting a British Officer’s family from an attack by marauders, he was granted ownership of a large parcel of land. In fact, the village Chakanoksinghwala was named after him.

Satnam was the youngest child in the family, with five brothers and two older sisters. When she was just three years old, her family was forced to relocate for their safety to Punjab in India after the 1947 partition. They traveled by bus and were fortunate not to have experienced a violent journey.  Before departing, the family hastily buried their belongings in the hopes of returning at a later date. Although they lost the majority of their wealth, they were able to retrieve the buried valuables two years later. The family settled in the town of Moga, India. Satnam earned a high school degree from Khalsa High School/Government High School in Moga. Her grandfather wanted her to become a doctor, but her family responsibilities prevented her from fulfilling this dream.

Satnam K. Johl, photograph taken after wedding, India, 1966.

Harbhajan S. Johl, Satnam K. Johl, and Jeffrey S. Johl. Taken soon after Satnam’s arrival in Yuba City, 1967.

On February 15, 1965, Satnam married Harbhajan Singh Johl from Jandiala, Punjab, India. Satnam’s older brother Lal Singh arranged the marriage through a close friend’s association. Satnam was twenty years old when she married Harbhajan, who was nine years older and had returned to India for marriage. Harbhajan had settled in America ten years earlier when he had left Jandiala in 1955 to study in Northern California. 

Satnam vividly recalls her painful separation from her mother as she left home on her bridal journey to her in-laws’ house in Jandiala. Her mother cried at the thought of her daughter moving so far away to America. She gave her daughter a ceiling fan and a radio among other bridal gifts so that she could start her new life in comfort. The wedding entourage traveled by car; in fact, 30 cars transported their wedding guests from Jandiala to Moga and on their return trip. 

She spent two-and-a-half years at her in-laws’ house after her husband returned to America.  This time was difficult as she waited for her visa to arrive so that she could join her husband abroad.  Although she felt fortunate to have affectionate in-laws, she found living with extended family members to be challenging.  Her position in the household was made more tenuous due to her husband’s absence.

Shortly after news of her visa appointment reached Satnam, her older brother and father took her to Delhi to obtain her visa in August 1967. Her husband’s family wanted their daughter-in-law to extend her time in India.  Meanwhile, her husband insisted that his wife join him as soon as possible in America. On her mother-in-law’s advice, Satnam returned directly to her family home in Moga after obtaining her visa.  She hurriedly collected her belongings before leaving for America. Satnam saw her mother for the last time when she left her family home in Moga.  Her father and five brothers drove Satnam to the Delhi airport.  One week after her visa appointment, she traveled alone by plane from Delhi to Honolulu to San Francisco.  Upon her arrival, she felt relieved to be greeted by her husband and his nephew at the airport.

In Yuba City, she shared a small home with her husband and his nephew, Nirmal Shergill.  Shortly after arriving, Satnam met her husband’s five-year old son, Jeffrey. The young boy immediately felt a close bond with Satnam whom he considered to be as close to him as his birth mother.  In addition to caring for Jeffrey, Satnam gave birth to two daughters and a son. Satnam wanted to pursue advanced education and work outside the home, but it became apparent that expanding and managing the family farm business was a big challenge, and that her support was necessary to its success. 

Satnam K. Johl with her husband Harbhajan S. Johl, family farm, Yuba City, 1968.

Satnam K. Johl and Harbhajan S. Johl, soon after her arrival in the United States, Yuba City, 1967.

In 1968, six months after Satnam’s arrival in Yuba City, her husband Harbhajan and his nephew Nirmal Shergill formally started a local radio program called Punjabi Radio.  Satnam and Harbhajan shared a love for music, and she was happy to help with the venture. Before Satnam left India, Harbhajan had asked his wife to bring a few vinyl records with her.  She carried the records on her lap throughout the long journey to protect them. Over the years, Satnam offered critical suggestions to improve the radio program.  Their family radio program rapidly grew in popularity and in its diversity of programming, including news about India, local religious programs, farming information, and advertising.

Satnam, together with friends and fellow community members, performed seva (community service) for decades at the Yuba City Gurdwara.  She recalls the founding of Yuba City’s Gurdwara on Tierra Buena road in 1970, especially the women’s preparation of langar (meals) for the sangat (congregation).  Satnam fondly remembers the powerful sense of unity and selfless devotion to service in the Punjabi community in the 1960s and 1970s.  The letterhead printed in the Gurmukhi language for the Gurdwara was painstakingly created by Satnam. 

She enjoyed a wide circle of friends, including her closest friend, Swarni Pamma.  Kuldeep Kaur Bains, Gian Kaur Bains, Odie (Nancy) Singh Basrai, and Naranjan Kaur (Nanjo) Singh were counted among her good friends.  She performed seva with many women, such as Amar Kaur Bains and Santi Bains.

Satnam raised four children: Jeffrey Singh Johl, Narinder Kaur Kahlon, Rupinder Johl Sandhu, and Sondip Singh Johl.

Today, Satnam enjoys sewing, gardening, reading, music, and cooking for her family and friends.  She prides herself on being a devoted mother and grandmother.

All photographs provided by the Johl family.

Based on an interview with Satnam Johl by Nicole Ranganath, Yuba City, August 19, 2022, with written input from the family.

Satnam K. Johl with husband Harbhajan S. Johl and children, Jeffrey Johl, Narinder Kahlon, Rupinder Sandhu, Sondip Johl, Yuba City, 2015.