At daybreak, on a cloudless September morning in 1916, the New Frontier landed in San Francisco. Kishan stared at the new embankment, California. It was bright to the point of blinding the eyes. Large, fizzy waves were caressing its vast, shiny shores. Spellbound, he stepped out of the ship, Jaspal and the Bengali babus walking beside him. He thought of how they had all landed on the coast of hope driven by a dream as fantastic as it was desperate. Jaspal hoped to grow roots in the new land; Bankim, to attend the university at Berkeley and Ram, to find work in the lumber mills. Kishan hoped to immerse himself in the colours of California, find his place under the orange California sun and be his brother’s keeper through night and day, light and darkness, winter and spring.
An officer led the steerage passengers to the ferries that would take them to Angel Island. Sitting on the ferry, Kishan remembered the harrowing stories of detention. His stomach tightened. It had been a long and difficult road to the edge of the gilded land. Having come so far, they must endure in the face of trial. Wading across the foaming Pacific, they reached the daunting isle where Ram and Bankim joined a bunch of fellow Bengalis who stood huddled along the shore. The immigration papers for their group would be processed together, they said. Kishan and Jaspal wished them the best of luck for their onward journey. Taking a flight of steps, they reached the entrance to the two-storied white building called Angel Island Immigration Station. Kishan looked up at the menacing wooden structure. It exuded indifference.
Stepping inside the cold hall, they lined up behind scores of Asian immigrants – Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Indians and others – who like them were fresh off the ships that had sailed into the San Francisco harbour that day. Bowed down by sleep, Kishan and Jaspal leaned against the damp walls. The line moved slowly. Finally, when they made it to the front, an officer verified their papers, assigned them bunk bed numbers and asked them to proceed to the Asian Men’s dormitory. Going up the steep stairway to the second floor, they made their way into the dark and crowded dormitory. Squeezing through the narrow aisles, they found their bunk beds and put their sacks down.
There were about forty men in that dark space. Some were shuffling through papers while others were folding clothes. Strange languages echoed in the dimly lit, tightly packed room.
Suddenly claustrophobic, Kishan rushed to the lone window at one end. It was a brilliant green outside, red sunbeams sneaking in through the window. Tall, lush trees stood on plush hills. In the far distance, he saw the barbed wire encircling the immigration station and still farther, the opulent Pacific. Though dog-tired, he wanted to stand there, bask in the sun and lap up the new and the unfamiliar that was uncoiling before his eyes. Soon, however, feeling unsteady, he walked back. And as soon as he sat down on the hard bunk bed, sleep knocked him out.
He was meandering through breathtaking valleys, peach orchards and orange groves when Jaspal shook him awake. An officer was calling out their names for medical exams. Shaking off sleep, Kishan followed Jaspal down the stairs to the hall where the officer directed them to separate cubicles. Inside the cubicle, a medical examiner drew blood from Kishan’s finger and asking him to undress, checked his skin. Next, the examiner turned on a torch and scanned Kishan’s scalp before flashing the torch in Kishan’s eyes and ears and on his finger and toe nails. Turning the torch off, he tediously began to pen notes. Kishan put his clothes back on. A shocking silence pervaded the cubicle. Asking Kishan to proceed for the interview, the examiner continued taking notes, his facial expressions not giving away any discoveries that he may have made.
Kishan went and stood by the droves of immigrants waiting outside the interview room. Their anxious faces mirrored his own. A large clock hung on the wall, its hands loudly marking time, every minute adding to the angst. Morning gave way to afternoon, Jaspal was nowhere in sight. Perhaps his medical exam had been prolonged, Kishan thought. Just then he heard an attendant screech, “Kishaan Singh!” He followed the attendant into the interview room.
A stiff, blue-eyed Anglo officer was sitting behind a square table. Pointing Kishan to a chair in front of him, he asked Kishan his name, where he had come from and if he had been travelling with someone. Kishan answered the questions in his very best English. Next, the officer asked him what he planned on doing in America.
“I have come in the hope of a better life. I will work as hard as it takes,” Kishan replied.
Again, the officer asked with emphasis, “What will you DO?”
Kishan knew then that the officer was looking for a precise answer. “I will work on the fields. About four thousand men from my homeland, Punjab, are farmhands, working across California. I will join them.”
The officer gestured for Kishan to leave.
Kishan walked back to the dormitory, glad the officer hadn’t asked him about personal assets or finances. Sitting on his bunk bed, he was waiting for Jaspal when he heard Punjabi being spoken. Turning around, he saw three Sikh men chatting in a corner. They may as well have been standing in a village alley in Punjab. The men saw him too and hollered at him.
They introduced themselves as Natha, Nishan and Mohan. Natha and Nishan said they had been at the Immigration Station for nearly six months while Mohan had landed two weeks ago. Kishan’s heart staggered in his chest. Two weeks seemed dreadfully long. He didn’t even know what to say or think of Natha and Nishan’s six-month detention. The men told him that they were waiting for their approved immigration papers to come through. They wondered about the reasons for the delay, their eyes restless and uneasy. It was likely the medical results, Mohan guessed. It was the dreaded background check, Nishan thought. They told him story after story of people who had been stuck at the Angel Island Immigration Station for years, sneaking in the tale of the Chinese woman who after being detained three years had hung herself in the Asian Women’s dormitory. Turning blue, she was dead in minutes. Then there was the Japanese man who after being confined too long, lost his mind and jumped from the top floor to death. Kishan moved back. He envisioned the Chinese woman hanging from the low ceiling, the Japanese man lying in a pool of dark red blood. He quivered. Surely, Jaspal and he didn’t leave Punjab to be jailed inside that white wooden building.
Nishan asked Kishan about his plans.
“We will work the California fields and then when we have money, my brother and I will buy a farm,” Kishan replied.
“Wouldn’t we all like that?” Nishan said wanly. Looking down, he walked out of the dormitory, the other two following behind. Angel Island was far more sordid than Kishan had imagined.
The sun was going down on the golden coast when a very tired Jaspal returned to the dormitory. Kishan asked him about his medical exam and interview.
“Everything went well,” Jaspal replied.
Someone said it was time for dinner. Eating cold rice and vegetables in an even colder dining hall, they returned to the dormitory and threw themselves on the bunk beds. Sleep knocked out Jaspal. Kishan stared at the roof. The traumatic stories of the detainees at Angel Island tore at his heart. His throat stiffened. He shut his eyes. He mustn’t give in to despair.
He must hold tight to the aspiration that had brought him and Jaspal across the deep oceans to the land of promise.
Excerpted with permission from The Rainbow Acres, Simrita Dhir, Om Books International.