A street in Berkeley, California, has been named Kala Bagai Way, after a South Asian woman Kala Bagai, one of the first Indian-American woman in the US. It comes almost a century after she was discriminated against and forced to move out of her new home by racist neighbours. The two-block stretch of Shattuck Avenue is being renamed after Bagai, who arrived in the country with her family in 1915 from the then undivided India. It will be the first street named after a South Asian woman, in Berkeley, a news website Berkeley side reported. Bagai’s family accepted the honour.

The City Council voted on Tuesday to rename the eastern stretch after the woman of Indian descent, considering Berkeley’s 20% population is now Asian. “My family and I have been touched to see the Kala Bagai street name get so much support from community residents and unanimous endorsements throughout the process,” Rani Bagai, Kala Bagai’s granddaughter told during a virtual meeting.

Berkeley residents may have pushed Kala Bagai out of her own home, but naming a street after her will feel like a homecoming, not only for Kala, but for us, her family and descendants,” she added.

This is a huge honour for Bagai’s family since only two streets in the US are named after people of Indian origin, the late astronaut Indian American woman Kalpana Chawla. A street in Jackson Heights, New York, is named Kalpana Chawla Way and a residential neighborhood in El Paso, Texas is called Kalpana Chawla Court.

“This is a really important recognition of our South Asian American community and the contributions they have made to our city’s rich history,” said Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin. Indian American Barnali Ghosh, one of the activists who sought to name the street for Bagai, told IndiaWest that the street signs will be changed in a couple of months. “We wanted to honor her legacy of community activism, and to honor our mothers and grandmothers,” said Ghosh, who with her husband Anirvan Chatterjee, leads the Berkeley South Asian Radical Walking Tour.

Who was Kala Bagai?

Bagai was born in Amritsar and married at age 11. She was an early immigrant from what is now Pakistan’s Peshawar, came to the US with her husband Vaishno Das Bagai in 1915, with just $25,000 in the pocket. Her family faced constant racism at the hands of the residents in Berkeley at a time when there were about 2,000 Indians living in the US. She actively promoted the Gadar Party movement, launched by students at UC Berkeley who sought to gain India’s independence from Great Britain. “My grandmother created a community which was a welcoming home for other immigrants, including Kamala Harris’s mother,” said Rani to IndiaWest.

Under the guidance of the Bagais, volunteers started working towards the cause from San Francisco headquarters. They wrote a six-page weekly newspaper and printed out 10,000 copies which were distributed throughout the country and sent by ship to India. Bagai immigrated with her three sons specifically to work with the Gadar Party. She acquainted little Kamala Harris and her sister Meena, who lived with their mother, the late cancer researcher Shyamala Gopalan, in the area of town known as the Berkeley Flats, before moving to Montreal when Kamala was 12 the IndiaWest reported.

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Rani claimed that a few years after they moved to the US, the Bagais bought a house in Berkeley but it was a rocky start. “When they pulled up to their new neighborhood with all their belongings, they found that the neighbors had locked the house so that the family could not move in,” wrote Rani Bagai on the website Immigrant Voices.

Bagai feared for her children’s lives. So in 1921 they moved out and opened a store, Bagai’s Bazaar, on Fillmore Street in San Francisco, Rani added. The same year, her husband Vaishno Das Bagai became an American citizen, but was later (in 1923) stripped of their US citizenship after the US Supreme Court ruled against it. “He was forced to liquidate his property, including his general store,” wrote Rani. Sharing their devastating situation, Rani further expressed saying, “Feeling trapped and betrayed, Vaishno went to San Jose alone on a business pretext, rented a room there, and took his own life by gas poisoning.”

“He left behind farewell letters to his wife and three sons, urging them to go on without him and to lead a good life. He also left a letter addressed to the San Francisco Examiner, explaining that he had no alternative left but to take his own life in protest,” Rani added.

According to a family history written by the couple’s granddaughter, Bagai eventually remarried, moved to southern California where her sons went to college. After laws changed, she became an American citizen in 1950. Her family’s history earned her the nickname “Mother India,” according to a city description. She died in 1983.

Feature Image Credit: Berkeleyside

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