kala bagai

Berkeley, Calif., might name a street after Indian American Kala Bagai, who is credited with building one of the earliest South Asian communities in the U.S. (actionnetwork.org photo)

A few months ago, the city of Berkeley, Calif., wanted the help of its residents in picking a new name for a reconfigured two-block stretch of Shattuck Avenue.

Out of 916 public submissions, five names of mostly prominent, late local figures received unanimous support from the committee, according to Berkeleyside, including that of a pioneering Indian American woman, Kala Bagai, who earned the nickname “Mother India” for making important contributions to the immigrant history of the U.S.

Another name on the list is that of Sitha Vemireddy, the teenage girl who, said Berkeleyside, “died from carbon monoxide poisoning after major Berkeley landlord Lakireddy Bali Reddy smuggled her into the U.S….part of a widespread human trafficking ring he ran.”

Bagai was an immigrant from India (present-day Pakistan), who faced extraordinary racism when she and her husband bought a house in Berkeley shortly after they came in 1915, reported the news site.

The Action Network, an open platform that enables individuals and groups to organize for progressive causes, ran a campaign inviting people to submit letters asking the street be named after her.

“After being driven out of Berkeley, she fled to San Francisco with her husband and children, where they continued to organize against British colonialism in their homeland,” recalled the Action Network campaign. “Bagai survived local racism only to confront a federal anti-immigrant court ruling that stripped all Indians of their citizenship. This led her husband, now a stateless person, to commit suicide out of despair.”

But Bagai persisted, raising children, remarrying, and going on to become a critical California immigrant leader.

Nicknamed “Mother India,” she, added the campaign, “worked tirelessly to build bridges through arts and community.”

Bagai alone, said Berkeleyside, received 195 of the 916 public name submissions.

Kieron Slaughter, community development project coordinator for the city, told Berkeleyside, that the naming advisory committee was made up of representatives from business, tourism, university and historical groups.

Rani Bagai, Kala Bagai’s granddaughter, in an op-ed on berekelyside.com, wrote: “Our family, now scattered up and down the West Coast, has been touched to see the ‘Kala Bagai Way’ proposal receive support from hundreds of Berkeley residents, and get unanimous endorsements from the city’s Naming Advisory Committee and Public Works Commission.”

She goes on to write that after feeling lonely in a strange land, Kala Baghai started her tradition of welcoming other new Indian immigrants and visitors with a home-cooked vegetarian meal and instant friendship.

After braving the personal loss, Kala, she wrote, put her three sons to college, remarried and reinvented herself, attending night school, wearing Western dresses, and even learning tennis.

“She had many close American friends and never went on a social visit without a gift box of See’s candy,” Rani wrote. “…But mainly, it seemed to be my grandmother’s personal mission to create a welcoming community to other immigrants arriving in this land, where she herself was once a stranger, and to show the kind of generosity of spirit to them that had been denied to her and her family.”

Rani wrote that her grandmother, or “Jhaiji,” as they called her, went on in the ‘50s and ‘60s to become an active community builder in Southern California, hosting Indian American cultural events, receptions, and benefits at community halls, theaters, and homes. At events like these, she recalled meeting South Asians from every origin and every walk of life.

“All were her friends, and frequently, at her dining room table,” she wrote.

Berkeley residents may have driven Kala from the city a century ago, but this street naming would be a “homecoming,” she said.

“It would be a way to not only address the hurt that she and others like her must have felt being pushed out, but a way to honor her for the positive force she ended up being for her community as she organized with neighbors and new immigrants, choosing to ignore hate, and focus on inclusiveness, friendship, and our global commonality,” she noted.

Rani added that at a time when many are calling to exclude certain “others,” limit citizenship, or shut borders, it gives her “great pride” that Berkeley residents would consider honoring her grandmother for the “role she played for so many years in both the Bay Area and Southern California South Asian American communities.”

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