Content warning: this article contains a brief mention of suicide.
In the early 1900s, Kala Bagai and her family were driven out of the city of Berkeley by racism, but last Tuesday, Berkeley City Council voted unanimously to name a street located in the heart of Berkeley after her.
According to Anirvan Chatterjee, a curator at the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour, a two-block stretch of Shattuck Avenue between Center Street and University Avenue will be named after Bagai, who was one of the earliest South Asian immigrant women in the United States.
Chatterjee said the decision was the final step in a yearlong campaign organized by many groups, including his walking tour, the South Asian American Digital Archive, or SAADA, and family WhatsApp group chats.
“It is powerful for us to recognize the contributions of Kala Bagai to our city, and to reconcile with the racism that has happened here too,” said Berkeley City Councilmember Rigel Robinson in an email. “We cannot undo what happened, but we can honor the struggle of those who resisted.”
Born in India under British rule, Kala Bagai arrived in San Francisco with her husband, Vaishno Das Bagai, and their three young sons in 1915, according to SAADA’s website. Rani Bagai, Kala Bagai’s granddaughter, said her grandfather wanted to raise their children in a country with free speech, where he could help fight for India’s independence.
A few years later, Kala Bagai and her family attempted to move into their new home in Berkeley but were barred from entry due to their race and ultimately driven out of the city, according to Chatterjee.
“Maybe she would have done her most important immigrant activist work not in places like Southern California, but here in Berkeley,” Chatterjee said. “We pushed her out so that she wasn’t able to build a life that maybe she wanted.”
In 1923, Vaishno Das Bagai was stripped of his naturalized citizenship due to a U.S. Supreme Court decision. He committed suicide in 1928, according to SAADA’s website.
Chatterjee added that Vaishno Das Bagai’s suicide note likened living in the United States to living in a “gilded cage.”
Eventually, according to Rani Bagai, Kala Bagai moved to Southern California and remarried, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1950. According to Chatterjee, Kala Bagai served as an unconventional immigrant activist for many years, opening up her home to the growing Indian community.
Kala Bagai also undertook much charity work to help those affected by the 1947 partition of India, when India was split into India and Pakistan, Rani Bagai said. Later, Kala Bagai worked to expose her local community and neighbors to Indian culture, organizing cultural events and dinners.
Chatterjee said he hopes the street naming will recognize Berkeley’s history of anti-Asian housing discrimination and honor Kala Bagai.
Rani Bagai said Kala Bagai Way will raise awareness of the United States’ immigrant origins and prompt many South Asian Americans to examine their own histories.
“It’s a wonderful, inclusive thing that she was picked as just one example to remind us of the great history of Berkeley, and I’m very proud of her,” Rani Bagai said. “Of course, I know she would be just completely embarrassed, if she was alive, to know of this. She wouldn’t think she deserves that.”