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The Many Lives and Names of ‘Bhagwan/Bhogwan Singh’

Anu Kumar (anukumar0811@gmail.com) is a writer and journalist based in the United States.

Were Betty Lee, the owner of a Los Angeles apparel store, and Abnashi Ram, a businessman of Indian origin, the missing links between the strange double lives of Ghadar leader Bhagwan Singh Gyanee and Hollywood “turban-wrapper” Bhogwan Singh?

In 1918, Bhagwan Singh, the Ghadar leader, was sentenced to nearly two years in prison for his role in the “Hindu–German” conspiracy: a plot to incite revolution in India with German help. But, Bhagwan Singh had many other lives, other names, which I have detailed in an older article (“Dual Identities, Parallel Lives,” EPW, 25 March 2017). Here, I had offered evidence that Bhagwan Singh, who took on the last name “Gyanee” from the early 1930s onwards, was also Bhogwan Singh, the Hollywood “extra” and “turban-wrapper.”


Bhogwan Singh in a screengrab from the film Last Train from Bombay (1952) 

It wasn’t just a case of similarity of names. The fact that there were two men who lived at the same time (both were born and apparently died within a couple of months of each other), and within miles of each other in Los Angeles from the 1920s to the 1950s appeared unusual and striking. Further, the dates of the working life of one appears to complement the other’s, and they had strikingly similar interests, like Hindu foods and customs, and subjects, like the transmigration of the soul. My deduction and research led to what now seems to be the apparent truth: These men were one and the same.

There was need for something decisive that would make this certain. Into the picture stepped Abnashi Ram Premi (1899–1979), a businessman with varied interests. Ram lived in Los Angeles and was a close associate of Bhagwan Singh Gyanee. I pieced together Ram’s life from his letters (to and from several people, including Bhagwan) available on the South Asian digital archive (saada.org); a book written by Ram’s son-in-law, Roshan Lal Sharma, in tandem with Ram’s daughter, Raj Kumari, titled, rather awkwardly, Saving Immigrant’s Daughter (2012); and information available on subscriber-based sites such as newspapers.com and ancestry.com, among other things.

Ram led a fascinating life. A graduate in agricultural sciences from Texas in 1920, he tried his hand first at farming in California. By all accounts, Ram loved making friends, and had several interests, including Hollywood and championing the cause of India’s freedom.

While he was friends with Bhagwan, the questions I had to resolve were: (i) How did Ram know Bhogwan Singh (the one with the “o” in his name, who worked in Hollywood)? (ii) If they (Bhagwan/Bhogwan) were indeed the same person, as I think they were, how would one make these connections and link them in the correct, sequential way?


An advertisement in the the Cincinnati Enquirer or Bhagwan Singh Gyanee's lectures (29 November 1931)
Source: Newspapers.com

The Los Angeles city directories available online specify, from addresses provided against individuals’ names, that in 1926—a year when Bhogwan Singh (and some newspapers of the time also address him as “Bhogwan Sundhu”) dabbled in Oriental perfumes—Bhogwan and Ram, who had also just set up his own Oriental goods store, lived within 0.3 miles of each other on W 8th Street in Los Angeles. This meant that in the mid-1920s, when there were arguably very few South Asians in Los Angeles, Bhogwan and Ram were within a two-minute drive of each other’s place. The interest in exotic Oriental goods (including perfumes and incense sticks) was yet another common factor. Besides, the two men (Bhagwan/Bhogwan and Ram) could have come to know each other in California in the early 1920s, when both (Bhagwan and Ram) tried to make a go at farming (and failed to make it “big”) for both were ambitious men.

Moving on a few years, the book (Saving Immigrant’s Daughter) reveals a tantalising clue. In 1940, a year before the United States (US) formally entered World War II, Ram, who was on very affectionate terms with his American “foster parents”—a kindly, well-meaning couple, Dr John and Mary Guyton—talks to them about his “girlfriend,” Betty.

Ram was evidently popular with the girls—a “ladies’ man”—but it was Betty he confided in about his past; that he had a wife in Punjab and two young children (he had visited India in the late 1920s and again in 1935). Countries like Canada and the US followed discriminatory immigration policies then—for instance, disallowing entry to families or dependents—and so men like Ram travelled singly, outward, especially from the Punjab, in the hope of making a new life. As for Betty, who does not have a last name in Roshan Lal’s book, she was quite a career woman, a remarkable fact for a woman in the 1930s in the US.

Despite the absence of a last name, I could gather some information on Betty, and the leads I followed were fascinating. As Ram reveals, in 1940, Betty travelled to New York and then to Ontario, Canada, for work related to her fashion apparel business. Her business—and she had her own retail store—did well, for Betty owned and even rented out a couple or more apartments in the city.

The 1940 census mentions a Betty Lee as the actor Bhogwan Singh’s landlady. Curiously, the address given is of a complete apartment block and so Bhogwan could at best have been a lodger in only one apartment, but this isn’t made clear. In another entry in the 1940 census, a Betty Lee is revealed as the owner of an apparel store.

A local newspaper of the time mentions, in a tongue-in-cheek way, that in 1940 an apparel store owner decided to spell her name differently to draw customer attention. This, the writer explained, is why one had the “Bettye Lee” store on Wilshire Boulevard; a fact that was confirmed by Bettye Lee’s granddaughter in Los Angeles.

I looked for Bettye (and Betty Lee, too), in the city directories and in newspapers, before and after 1940. The 1934 directory showed up something quite fascinating: in that year, Betty Lee and Bhogwan lived at the same address (Alexandria Avenue) in Los Angeles.

Betty, then, emerges as the link between Bhogwan and Ram, while Ram is the common thread in the lives of Bhogwan Singh and Bhagwan Singh Gyanee. Indeed, Ram and Bhagwan went back a long way.

Bettye—she used this name more frequently from the 1940s—evidently remained Ram’s friend for several years. In many letters, Ram’s friend and colleague in the Oriental goods business, Chicago-based M I Mumtaz Kitchelew refers to the “gorgeous” Betty or, as he spells it, Bette. I do wonder what became of her later, that is, from the 1950s onwards. I understand from Bettye’s granddaughter that she worked in the liquidation business later, and died in her 80s in 1996.

As for Ram, his wife too moved to the US in the 1960s. But, he lived the life of a peripatetic businessman, living out of various apartments in Los Angeles. Ram died in 1979.

This leaves the question as to why Bhagwan Singh Gyanee would want a different and separate identity? In the beginning, I suggest, it was inadvertent and accidental—up to a point. Bhagwan was trying to make a new life for himself, post his Ghadar days.

He tried his hand at farming, at selling Oriental perfumes to Hollywood stars (as Bhogwan Singh Sundhu, a name invariably misspelled in newspapers), as Yogiji Bhagwan in the late 1920s, and then, from 1929 onwards, as Bhagwan Singh Gyanee.

But, he still ran into problems. In 1929, as a newspaper account shows, Bhagwan Singh was arrested in Washington state for “vagrancy.” In the same year, he married Florence Brown in Washington (an act of bigamy, for he was already married). In 1934, as newspapers from Florida reveal, he was arrested in February in Miami for breaching the Miami License Ordinance, by which only licensed lecturers could preach for money and collect speaking fees. It appears he remained in custody for almost six months, till August 1934.


An advertisement in the Casper-Star Tribune for Bhagwan Singh Gyanee's lectures (28 July 1930)
Source: Newspapers.com

Financially, he had his (that is, Bhogwan’s) Hollywood career and Ram to bail him out. But, the second identity proved useful, one might speculate, in Bhagwan’s quest to become a naturalised US citizen; something that became a possibility for Asians from the mid-1940s onwards as per the Luce–Celler Act. A record of arrests, of a second marriage, would have worked against Gyanee, and, if one might suggest this, he wanted to keep his options open. Bhogwan Singh Sundhu (who made a formal request for changing his last name to Sundhu in his 1954 petition for naturalisation, the same year that Bhagwan Gyanee withdrew his own petition for naturalisation) had no such embarrassments in his record.

It’s a story that is intriguing in several ways. An intertwined friendship between three people—Ram, Bettye and Bhagwan/Bhogwan—that proved to be life-saving and
life-changing.

 

 

Updated On : 4th Jun, 2018

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