Kalpana Chawla, the American astronaut and first Indian-origin woman to go to Space, was the first woman from South Asia to have the honour of getting streets named after her in the US. (The honour was declared after her death in 2003, along with the rest of the crew of the Columbia Space shuttle, as it was re-entering earth’s atmosphere from space.)
The second to win this unique honour is Kala Bagai – an Indian-origin woman who migrated to the US over a century ago, but did not win attention at the time. She was neither a politician or a woman of science; but she had made a mark among the immigrant community in California at the time, something which she is finally getting recognition for. A few months ago, Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley – a city with just 20 percent Asian population – was renamed as Kala Bagai Way.
Kala Bagai, along with her husband Vaishno Das Bagai and three children, went to the US in 1915 to escape the British rule in the Indian subcontinent. Kala was born in Amritsar, and was married off as a child to a well-off family in Peshawar. After giving birth to three sons, Kala and her husband had even managed to get British citizenship. But it was the American Dream that the family wanted to follow, away from their motherland which was under the rule of imperial Britain.
When Kala, her husband, and her children reached the US, they were one among the first Indian-origin families to settle in San Francisco. At the time, racism was so rampant in the country that a local newspaper even published a racist ad about her arrival.
Kala initially struggled in the foreign land without knowing English, but she learnt the language and even started working for a newspaper soon. Her English-speaking husband too started working for Gadar Party – an organisation which strove for a free India.
Once well-settled, the family decided to move to Berkeley. But the day they arrived, the racist residents of the neighbourhood put a lock on their house – thereby forcing the family to move back to San Francisco, fearing for their safety. Racist laws continued to make life difficult for them, even denying citizenship to Kala’s husband – which eventually led to his suicide.
But Kala was not ready to give up; she worked hard and sent all her sons to college. She even remarried – uncommon for Indian women widowed at the time – and finally attained US citizenship in 1946. She dedicated the rest of her life to make life easier for immigrants in the US, and was affectionately called ‘Mother India’ by the local immigrant community. She passed away in 1983, but her life and work will be remembered for posterity now.