Berkeley Names Street After Kala Bagai: Kin Tells Activist’s Story

Berkeley City Council renamed Shattuck Avenue East to honour Kala Bagai, an Indian immigrant who arrived in 1915.

South Asians
2 min read

Video Editor: Ashutosh Bharadwaj

Earlier this month, the city of Berkeley unveiled the street ‘Kala Bagai Way’. It was a year-long public campaign that led to approve the renaming after a South Asian immigrant who was discriminated against in Berkeley.

“You know, if she was here to see this, she would not feel deserving of it. She would be very embarrassed. She’d say, ‘What’s all this fuss!’,” Rani Bagai, Kala Bagai’s granddaughter, tells The Quint.

Kala Bagai arrived in San Francisco on 6 September 1915 with her husband, Vaishno Das Bagai, and their three young sons, Brij, Madan, and Ram.

Her family was one of the earliest Indian immigrants on the West Coast in the US, where her sari and nose ring drew enough attention to make a newspaper headline.

Kala, not speaking a word of English, struggled with everyday life after arriving in the US.

“They pulled up to the house with their moving vans full of furniture, and the neighbours have, well, I guess, once they see them pulling up they realised they’re Indians. As far as I know from her story, these neighbours were English. So, they must have thought, how can these people be coming to live next door to us! They have no standing, no right in this community. They’re Indians!” Rani recalls, as she tells the story of her grandmother being unable to set foot in a house that she owned because of the colour of her skin.

She further adds, “And so, they prevented them from moving in. Kala was scared, and shocked, and she didn’t want to stay there. She told her husband, ‘We’ve got to go. We’ll find another place’.”

A Single Indian Mother

Her husband, Vaishno, died by suicide after his hard-earned US Citizenship was stripped from him.

Yet, in the face of adversity, she persevered. She raised her three sons, sending them off to college; she remarried at a time when it was unheard of for an Indian widow to remarry, and eventually became a critical immigrant leader in California.

“You know, this history of these first few immigrant families, is painful, but it needs to be recognised. It needs to be reckoned with so that we can be informed by our past and we can learn from it,” says Rani.

“Right now, young women from immigrant families who, say, walk down that part of Shattuck [Avenue], they walk down the street, and now they see Kala’s name, and they learn who she is and who she was; that they’ll feel more understood themselves that they’ll feel less alien, and they’ll feel welcomed.”

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