Verinder Kaur Kajla
Verinder Kaur Kajla (February 13, 1935 – December 12, 2018) was among the cohort of Punjabi wives who arrived in Yuba City in the early 1950s. A woman with a highly sensitive nature, Verinder survived numerous challenges in her life. She was also a charismatic storyteller. Verinder exhibited an independent spirit and developed close friendships with women from different cultural backgrounds.
Growing up in the village of Moron in the Jalandhar district of Punjab, Verinder experienced the devastating loss of her mother at a young age. She was raised by her elderly aunt. Eventually, she lived with her brother in Lahore and then in Simla, Punjab. During the violence of India’s partition in 1947, Verinder vividly recalls feeling terrified. Her older brother would comfort her so that she could fall asleep at night.
In 1950, Verinder married Kartar Kaur Kajla, a peach farmer who had settled in Yuba City, CA decades before in 1924. Her husband, who was at least 20 years older than her, married her on his only return trip to India. After her wedding, Verinder waited for one year in her husband’s natal village in Punjab for her visa paperwork to be ready. Meanwhile, her husband returned to his farm business in Yuba City shortly after their wedding. In June 1951, Verinder traveled by plane with another Punjabi woman, Surjit Kaur Tumber, to San Francisco. Verinder wore her grandest sari. It was important to Verinder that she and Surjit look their best for their husbands upon arrival. However, Verinder also recalls feeling nauseous and afraid throughout the journey. By the time Verinder arrived, Kartar had saved enough capital to purchase his own land in Yuba City on which he farmed peaches.
Verinder recalls the challenges she faced during her first decade in Yuba City. “I was lonely,” she remembers, “and right away I became pregnant.” Shortly after she arrived in her new home, her husband and another Punjabi-American couple took Verinder shopping to transform her appearance from a traditional Sikh woman to that of a fashionable American woman in the 1950s. Her first haircut was traumatic. She vividly remembers the ordeal of her haircut in a hair salon on Plumas Street in Yuba City. Her unshorn hair that fell below her waist was cut a few inches below her shoulders. Tears fell down her face. Her mother’s last wish before dying, Verinder reports, was that her daughter never cut her hair. Keeping natural hair is a core value for many devout Sikhs. However, Verinder also remembers the stylish American clothes her husband bought for her on a shopping trip in Sacramento.
Verinder and Kartar, place unknown, c 1951.
Members of the Punjabi community helped her adjust to her new life, including Nand Kaur and Puna Singh, Mary and Lal Rai, Surjit and Mehar Tumber, and Gian Kaur Bains. Her most joyful memories involved celebrating India’s Republic Day each year in Yuba City on January 26. Her husband, Kartar, and she enjoyed these festive occasions. Verinder learned to drive soon after arriving in Yuba City. She also cultivated friendships with women from diverse backgrounds at the Sunsweet Cannery where she worked. Verinder also took a great deal of initiative in learning English by borrowing books from a local school.
After her husband, Kartar, passed away in 1970, Verinder recalls her difficulties in raising four children as a single mother. Nearly a decade later, she married a man of Punjabi/Mexican American ancestry named Charles Paiz Singh on January 27, 1979 in Reno, NV.
Verinder spoke most affectionately about her friend, Mary Rai. Verinder and her husband would attend dinner parties at Lal and Mary Rai’s home. She always felt her friend was like a big sister to her. Verinder said that when she passes away she looks forward to being reunited with Mary.
Verinder is survived by four children (Paul, Pansy, Perveen, and Irene) and six grandchildren.
Photos courtesy of Verinder Kaur Kajla.