When Kalai Bagai first arrived in San Francisco on September 6th, 1915 with her husband Vaishno and three sons, local newspapers flocked to cover the story of the first Indian-American woman to enter the Bay Area. Fleeing British imperialism in her homeland, Bagai was exposed to the very casual racism and persecution she thought she had escaped. When her family purchased their first home, she remembered her neighbors attempting to stop them from moving in.
“All of our luggage and everything was loaded on the trucks,’ she said. “‘I told Mr. Bagai I don’t want to live in this neighborhood. I don’t want to live in this house, because they might hurt my children, and I don’t want it. We paid for the house and they locked the doors? No!’”
Although one in the hundreds of immigrants searching for new lives in the United States, Kala Bagai was singled out for her Indian heritage by the masses — ridiculed for her nose ring and skin color. Bagai, like so many other activists of color, was stenciled into America’s history for her “otherness”, and for her struggle to take ownership of her cultural identity.
The story of Kala Bagai is defined by risk — the risk to emigrate to the nascent United States with precarious citizenship laws, the risk to leave India without knowing a word of English, the risk to challenge this sense of “otherness” that permeated the public consciousness.
Though one of the first South Asians to find a home in the San Francisco Bay Area, Kala Bagai was aware that she would not be the last. As new Indian American families emigrated to her area, they were welcomed with a smile and a warm meal prepared by Bagai. She was endearingly named “Mother India” by Indian locals. By blurring the boundaries between California Americanisms and Desi customs, Bagai redefined this sense of “otherness” — she created a community out of the ambiguous and alienating identity that was given to her.
Then the United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind case defined Indians as citizens of color, ineligible for U.S. citizenship. Still, in shock over his sudden denaturalization, Vaishno Bagai took his own life. The Bagais were left without citizenship, livelihood, or home. And it was at their lowest that Kala Bagai began to fight back. Despite the loss of her husband, she advocated fiercely for Indian American rights and found ways to support anti-colonialism movements in India. Kala Bagai put all three of her sons through college, taking great pride in supporting their higher education. Before passing away at 90 years in 1983, Bagai had hosted a number of Indian festivals, community halls, and theatres — events continued in her honor to this day.
Kala Bagai was ostracized for her “otherness”. Today, the Berkeley community is ready to celebrate her for it. With a thriving South Asian American community, Berkeley has spent the past couple of months trying to find a name for a 2-block stretch of Shattuck Avenue East. In the heart of Berkeley downtown, this street has the potential to recognize and uplift America’s rich South Asian American cultural community. Because in an unexpected, yet beautiful turn of events, the Bay Area community is ready to name this street Kala Bagai Way. Anirvan Chatterjee, a San Francisco Bay Area activist who helped organize community support for the name, discusses the implications of this historic naming process in an exclusive interview with India Currents.
“Berkeley is a roughly 20% Asian American city, but you wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at the street names”, Chatterjee said. “I think Kala Bagai was a good fit because she was Asian American, a woman, an immigrant, a member of a minority faith, a survivor of local and federal racism. But she was more than her identity, or what was done to her family. She persisted through heartbreak, emerging as a critical California immigrant community-builder well into her forties. She demonstrated a model of quiet activism that sometimes doesn’t get recognized, but is so critical in our movements and communities.
In terms of her connection to Berkeley, her story shed light on the city’s difficult history around race and housing. It’s easier to honor someone who is a long-term resident, but more challenging—and interesting—to name a street after somebody who wanted to be a neighbor, but was kept out by community racism.”
Turning a downtown Berkeley street into Kala Bagai Way was certainly an uphill battle. Chatterjee and other local activists worked with descendants of Kala Bagai to tell her story to the media and represent her legacy. They even created a Wikipedia page dedicated to her, so that Berkeley locals could educate themselves on her role in Indian American activism. Chatterjee attended the final meeting of the Berkeley naming advisory committee and noted a discrepancy in Berkeley’s representation and the area itself. Only 2 of the 9 members of the committee were people of color. And while this committee wanted to honor the city’s rich history, they realized that naming the street after Kala Bagai was defined, much like Bagai herself, by risk.
“She wasn’t the safest possible choice, because her most relevant connection to Berkeley was the way she and her family were kept out,” Chatterjee said. “Naming a street after her also means naming an uncomfortable past, and also serves as a reminder to defend all of today’s Kala Bagais, by resisting displacement and welcoming newcomers.”
While Kala Bagai Way is a victory for the Asian American community, it’s hard to celebrate this achievement without recognizing the current backdrop of hate crimes against Asian Americans. Just three weeks ago, a man opened fire at three different massage parlors in Atlanta, Georgia, killing six Asian American women. This is not an isolated atrocity, but rather one in the many crimes which suggest that America’s terrifying history of prejudice and xenophobia is far from over. Chatterjee thinks that in the wake of these hate crimes, naming this street after a South Asian American activist only grows more necessary.
“Anti-Asian racism is often rooted in the stereotype of Asian Americans as eternal foreigners, generation after generation,” Chatterjee said. “Naming a street isn’t just about community pride, but also about shifting that culture. Naming a downtown street after an Asian American activist who tried to move to Berkeley over a century ago is making a claim to belonging, and is a tiny part of much larger anti-racist movements.”
While no one knows what the future holds in store for America’s immigrant communities, we hope that symbolic progress leads to constructive change. Indian Americans have played a major role in shaping today’s America, but they often don’t see themselves represented by the local or national leadership. Chatterjee believes that Kala Bagai Way is a foot in the door, and serves as a homage to the footsteps of Asian American activists before him.
“Our histories are important, both because they’re ours, and also because they connect to larger stories,” Chatterjee says. “We’re walking a path paved by the activism of other communities, like Black activists taking on the honoring of the Confederacy, or Native American activists taking on racist sports teams. The point isn’t just to change the names, but to address what the names represent.”
This Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we honor Kala Bagai for all her contributions to our Indian American communities in California.
Kanchan Naik is a senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. She is the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton, as well as the Director of Media Outreach for youth nonprofit Break the Outbreak. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of her school newspaper, The Roar, as well as the Global Student Editor for the 2020 summer edition of Stanford’s Newsroom by the Bay publication.