One Man, Many Lives: Bhagwan Singh and the Early South Asians in America

Anuradha Kumar’s book about early South Asian immigration to America is as compelling as her subjects

This story was originally published in India Today.

Identity and immigration history, race, revolution and Hollywood come together in this fascinating book, which grew out of a series author Anuradha Kumar wrote on early South Asians in America for During the course of her research, Kumar became interested in Bhagwan Singh, a globe-trotting revolutionary and master of disguise who eventually became a ‘Yogi’ and lecturer in the United States. She also began researching another man, Bhogwan Singh, whose life seemed to bisect with Bhagwan’s on several planes. Besides their names, their paths crossed intriguingly at various times and places.

Spurred by her curiosity about these intersections, Kumar set out to narrate the history of early South Asian immigrants to North America through the lives of these men, as well as others in their milieu. The book is roughly divided into an introductory chapter, which lays out the difficulties of conclusive conclusions about their lives; a chapter sketching out the tensions between white and Asian communities, particularly on the western coast of North America; a chapter that delves deeper into the Ghadar movement that grew out of this tension as well as the colonial struggle back in India; a brief history of Los Angeles and the film industry; and finally a closer reading of the films in which the two Singhs played bit parts.

Kumar does a good job of laying out the terrain as well as extracting interesting historical nuggets. Her research is commendably thorough, and her enthusiasm for archival discoveries infectious. One Man… is filled with sparkling and balanced insights. Kumar describes the symbiotic relationship of orientalism and a burgeoning entertainment industry without sugar-coating Indian immigrants’ ambivalent and canny participation in it. This extends into the emergence of a cohort of yogis and spiritual gurus, who profited off an American hunger for ‘Eastern wisdom’. She describes the evolution of immigration policies against ‘swarthy’ newcomers (both working-class and elite), outlining both deep-seated enmities as well as surprising alliances. The formalizing of US immigration law ran parallel to the coalescing of modern racism, and Kumar’s book tells both stories with nuance.

For readers unfamiliar with this history, One Man…, with its captivating central characters,has the potential to bring it to life in a ground-breaking way. However, the book is somewhat let down by cursory editing. Kumar’s interrogation of the Singhs’ identity looms too large over the narrative of their actual lives, which remain somewhat fragmented and shadowy. Simply telling each man’s story while synthesizing their shared history may have made for a more compelling and engaging narrative. Still, Kumar’s research and intellectual curiosity are important, enriching  additions to the history of early South Asians in America. Many of the questions that defined that era still hang over ours.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *