Surjit Kaur Tumber
Surjit Kaur Tumber (born on March 12, 1933) was among the first generation of Punjabi women to settle in Yuba City. She and her husband, Mehar Singh Tumber, contributed a great deal to the growing Sikh community through their seva (service) to the Tierra Buena Gurdwara and by starting the tradition of giving out free beverages and food at the annual Sikh parade.
She was born into a farming (Saini) family in the village of Palli Jhikki, Nawanshahr district in Punjab. Her father, Bir Singh Dallar, was a farmer who grew wheat, corn, and sugar cane. Her mother, Haro Kaur, helped with the farm, took care of the household, and raised five children.
Surjit was not given the opportunity for a formal education. During the time that she grew up in a small village in Punjab, parents did not feel comfortable sending their daughters to school outside of their village. To this day, Surjit regrets that she was denied an education: “I feel bad. I feel upset. Still today I’m thinking that my kids have to do everything for me because I didn’t go to school.”
At the age of 14, Surjit married Mehar Singh Tumber, a man who was 13 years older. They had never met or even seen a photograph of each other before they married. But when she saw her husband for the first time on their wedding day on June 22, 1947, she was pleasantly surprised by his handsome and kind face.
Having served as an accountant in the British Army in Kenya for five years, Mehar was quite progressive in his thinking. He was determined that his wife learn Gurmukhi (one of the Punjabi scripts). Before he left for America in 1949, he told her that he was hiring a Sikh priest to teach her how to write Gurmukhi. He gave her a powerful incentive to learn, “You have to learn to write in Punjabi or else we won’t be able to write letters to each other while I’m in America.”
Surjit with grandchildren, Yuba City, 1985.
Surjit placing garlands on the Panj Piare (Five Blessed Ones), Nagar Kirtan, Yuba City, 2019.
In 1951, when she was just 18 years old, she joined her husband in the United States. She and Verinder Kaur (add link to her page), a young Punjabi woman she barely knew, flew together to join their husbands in America. Surjit greatly enjoyed spending time with her husband and she eagerly anticipated their reunion in the US.
Once in Yuba City, Surjit quickly joined the small tight-knit Punjabi community. Her first close friend was Gian Kaur Bains. Puna Singh and Nand Kaur also treated her like a daughter, assisting her in many ways. Puna Singh would often say to his wife, Nand Kaur: “Aao kudi dekhie! Udaas hovegi.” (“Let’s see the girl. She will be feeling sad.”)
Surjit was very fortunate in her family life. Her husband, Mehar, was a kind and loving partner. They built a successful farming and real estate business together with their children: Charan, Raji, Pamela, Surinder, and Ravi.
Her family played a major role in the growing Sikh community in the fifties and sixties. Surjit became a US citizen in the early 1960s. She and her husband sponsored many relatives to help them start their lives in America. Her husband, Mehar, served as a leader on the Gurdwara management committee, and Surjit performed countless hours of seva. From Yuba City’s first nagar kirtan in 1980, the Tumber family has continued the tradition of giving free langar (food) to 1,000s of people during this religious festival. As many as one million people have blessed their house as they passed along the parade route. In 2019, out of respect for Surjit Tumber and her family, the parade float stopped in front of her home. She was honored to place garlands on the five beloved Sikhs and the Holy Scriptures as her husband had performed many times.
Surjit feels very grateful to be blessed with a good life. Her marriage was unusually close and loving. She has a large circle of family and friends who care for her.
Baldev Thiara, Mohinderjit Thiara, and Surjit Tumber with children, Yuba City, 1955.
Photos courtesy of Surjit Kaur Tumber.
Source: Interview with Surjit Kaur Tumber by Nicole Ranganath and Rajinder K Tumber, Yuba City, November 22, 2019.