Kala Bagai

The latest video in our partnership with Timeline features the incredible story of Kala Bagai, one of the very few South Asian women in the U.S. in the early 1900s.

Kala Bagai arrived in San Francisco on September 6, 1915 with her husband, Vaishno Das Bagai, and their three young sons, Brij, Madan, and Ram. During a period where most South Asian migrants were men, Kala Bagai was one of the very few South Asian women in the entire country. Her arrival as the “first Hindu woman to enter the city in ten years” was reported in the San Francisco Call-Post, and the paper focused on her nose ring -- “the latest fad from India.”

Born in 1892, Kala had been married to Vaishno Das when she was eleven years old and he was twelve. After his father’s death, Vaishno Das had begun working with the Gadar Party and decided he no longer wanted to live in India. When Bagai decided to immigrate to the United States, he resolved to take his family along with him, explaining: “Supposing I go to America, I leave my wife here, and then after a few years, I come back and I may not like her, because I might like American people there. That’s why I am going to take her along and my children.” Kala, not speaking a word of English, struggled with everyday life after arriving in the U.S. Eventually they found a German family to take care of their children while Kala learned English and became accustomed to the new country.

Following the 1923 Supreme Court decision in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, Bagai and other South Asians who had become naturalized American citizens had their citizenship revoked. Struggling with this injustice and feeling trapped and betrayed, in 1928 Vaishno Das committed suicide. Kala continued to raise their children on her own and a few years later married Mahesh Chandra, a close friend of the family. Kala became a U.S. citizen after Congress passed the Luce-Celler Act in 1946.

Rani Bagai talks about her memories of her grandmother, Kala Bagai: