The Woman Who Became ‘Mother India’ to Generations of South Asian Immigrants

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

I

n September of 1915, Kala Bagai stepped off the steamship Korea onto Angel Island and entered a whole new world. Kala, who had journeyed to America from Peshawar, India (today part of Pakistan), was 21, already a mother of three, and did not speak a word of English. Her husband Vaishno was determined to seek a better life for his family, far away from the British colonial rule of their home country. Unbeknownst to the young couple at the time, their lives in America would go on to exemplify the struggles of many South Asian immigrants during the first half of the 20th century. But it was Kala alone who defined how best to survive them.

Kala was born in Amritsar, Punjab, and married Vaishno when she was 11 and he was 12. Child marriage had long been the norm in India—1892’s Age of Consent Bill only went so far as to raise the age a child could be married from 10 to 12. It would take until 1929 for India’s marital ages to be set at 14 for girls and 18 for boys. Despite the earliness of their pairing, the Bagais proved to be a good match—a fact demonstrated by Vaishno’s insistence on bringing his family to America with him. Most immigrants at the time left their wives and families back home. Bringing the whole family was a luxury afforded to Vaishno because of his status as a member of Peshawar’s educated upper classes. (He brought $25,000 in gold to America with him.)

The Bagais’ decision to move to San Francisco was inspired by one of Vaishno’s childhood friends, Ram Chandra Bharadwaj. Bharadwaj had immigrated to the city and co-founded the Gadar Party—a political organization focused on removing British colonizers from India. The Gadar Party’s location in the Bay Area did not prevent its articles from reaching the Indian people. In July 1911, for example, party co-founder Har Dayal wrote in Calcutta’s Modern Review about why America offered better living conditions than India under British rule.

“Under the Union Jack, [Indians] have no status, as they are servants in the house. An Englishman never forgets that a Hindu is his ‘fellow-subject,’” Dayal wrote. “Very few [Indians] possess an adequate notion of the good that is being done to the cause of their country by the few Hindus who live scattered on this vast continent in small groups ... America is perhaps the only country in the world from which a solitary wandering Hindu can send a message of hope and encouragement to his countrymen.”

After receiving such communications, the Bagais’ hopes must have been high about their new home. And while Kala almost immediately found joy in San Francisco’s beaches, the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, and the wonders of the post-earthquake rebuild, she later described her first impressions of California as “strange.” And it’s no wonder. On the Bagais’ arrival, the family was initially split up and held in detention over a weekend while Angel Island’s immigration station was closed. Vaishno was held with their eldest son Brij, and handled all communication with the immigration officials. Kala was held with their two youngest sons, Madan and Ram. In a 1982 interview with her grandson, Kala noted that the first word she understood during her two-day detention was American slang for food.

Sponsored

“When the eating time came,” she said, “they said ‘Chow, chow, chow,’ so I understood that means to eat ... I didn’t like the food at all. But I saw that they were selling some fruits, so I bought some fruits. But I did not know how much money to give. So I took the money and put it in my hand ... and let him take whatever he wants.”

When the Bagai family were released the following Monday, the sight of Kala was enthralling not just to San Franciscans, but to the whole country. As one of the first Indian women to move to California, her appearance was deemed worthy of coverage in the San Francisco Call-Post and even East Coast publications. On Oct. 3, 1915, The Washington Post reported:

Mrs. Hander Kala Bagai, coming all the way from northwestern India, has introduced San Francisco to the latest thing in jewelry—the nose diamond. “Have your surgeon,” says Mrs. Bagai, “pierce your nose horizontally above the nostrils and just under the bridge; then order from your jeweler a little, straight gold bar with a diamond set in one end; run it through the perforation and you’re right up to the minute in fashions.”

On Christmas Eve that year, Oklahoma’s Leader-Tribune newspaper also wrote about Kala’s nose stud, in a report that was smattered with a heavy dose of racism:

Nose gems as desirable ornaments have just been introduced into this country. It is the latest effort of man—or woman—to achieve good looks. The fad came from northwestern India. That is the country, you know, where people starve themselves to make it rain or change their luck. Mrs. Mander Kala Bagai brought it from that country to San Francisco, and they do say that some San Franciscans are wearing the nose diamond this very minute.

This kind of prejudice would be a constant source of disruption and upset for the Bagais during their earliest years in California. After living in a single furnished room and then a rented apartment, Vaishno’s successful general store on Fillmore Street let the family to buy a home in Berkeley—a house they would never actually live in. On move-in day, arriving with all of their belongings in tow, the Bagais found themselves barred from their own home. Racist neighbors had locked them out. In 1982, Kala explained why they left and never returned. “I told Mr. Bagai, ‘I don’t want to live in this neighborhood. I don’t want to live in this house because they might hurt my children.’” Instead, the family settled back in San Francisco, in an apartment above their shop.

An Indian man wearing smart slacks, vest, white shirt and bow tie stands before the counter in a shop.
Vaishno Bagai standing at the counter of his general store in 1923. (Courtesy of the South Asian American Digital Archive)

K

ala always made sure to leave her door open to other immigrants moving to Northern California. Personally facing down hostilities like the confrontation in Berkeley only compounded her dedication to her community. In 2020, one of her grandchildren, Rani Bagai, wrote about Kala for Berkeleyside. She noted that her grandmother started her “tradition of welcoming other new Indian immigrants and visitors with a home-cooked vegetarian meal and instant friendship,” because of her own pangs of “feeling lonely in a strange land.”

Once the Bagais were a little more comfortable and Vaishno had established an import-export business, the family donated money to the Gadar Party and were regulars at the organization’s headquarters, which also housed its official newspaper, the Hindustan Gadar. In 1917, the headquarters moved to 5 Wood St. in San Francisco, where the Gadar Memorial building still stands today. Those offices were, according to the Consulate General of India, “an environment for thinkers, activists and volunteers who came to live, work, organize and help run a printing press that sent their messages around the world.”

In March 1921, the Bagais gave up their Indian citizenship to become Americans, thrilled to be naturalized into their country of choice. Sadly, that dream was short-lived. In February 1923, the Supreme Court reached a decision in the United States vs. Bhagat Singh Thind case that no person of Indian origin was eligible to become an American citizen. This not only affected new immigrants, but retroactively revoked citizenship for the Bagais and other families just like them.

The court’s decision plunged the Bagais into financial difficulties. They lost their right to own property, they lost their general store, and they lost the ability to return to India. Within five years, Vaishno could see no way out. Kala saved him from a suicide attempt on Feb. 1, 1928. The Petaluma Argus-Courier reported: “He had gone to Land’s End with the intention of jumping from one of the high cliffs to the jagged rocks below. He had been restrained, he said, by his wife.”

Just six weeks later, Vaishno’s lifeless body was found in a gas-filled San Jose apartment, alongside a letter detailing why he felt he had no choice but to take his own life. The San Francisco Examiner later published the suicide note that bid farewell to his “nice and lovely wife” and “extra good children.”

“I came to America thinking, dreaming and hoping to make this land my home,” Vaishno wrote. “In the last 12 or 13 years we all made ourselves as much Americanized as possible. But they now come to me and say I am no longer an American citizen ... Now what am I? What have I made of myself and my children? We cannot exercise our rights, we cannot leave this country ... Is life worth living in a gilded cage? Obstacles this way, blockades that way, and the bridges burnt behind."

Vaishno’s death caused an uproar. On April 27, 1928, a friend named J.S. Hundal wrote a letter to the editor of Oregon’s Corvallis Gazette-Times. Hundal described Vaishno’s suicide as an act of “protest.” He declared: “By what law of humanity and nature can you justify such a policy of accepting a man as citizen today, and make him an outlaw tomorrow ... Think of the tragedy, the deception, of embittered life and blighted hopes.”

In 1982, looking back, Kala recalled being devastated by her husband’s death, as well as “lonesome” and “lost” without him. Now, she was without a country or her partner. But she wasn’t ready to give up. Using money from life insurance policies taken out by Vaishno, Kala invested wisely and figured out how to start again on her own.

D

etermined to succeed, Kala honed her English skills, attended night school, stayed in touch with the members of the Gadar Party, and sent each and every one of her boys off to college. (Madan graduated from both Stanford and M.I.T. The engineer was eulogized in a 1941 issue of Stanford Illustrated Review after his tragic death, aged 33, of pneumonia while seeking work in India.) But what Kala did best of all was make new South Asian immigrants feel welcome in a new country. She acted as the guide to living in America that she’d never had, and she brought countless people together.

In her Berkeleyside article, Rani Bagai wrote: “As a little girl, I recall meeting South Asians from every walk of life—filmmakers, politicians, classical dancers, yoga teachers, authors, priests and lecturers—as well as from every origin—Gujaratis, Bengalis, Punjabis, Tamils, Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists and Parsis. All were her friends, and frequently, at her dining room table.”

Once she had raised her children, Kala found love again with another member of the Gadar Party, Mahesh Chandra. In 1946, she and her surviving children were finally granted American citizenship (again) after Harry Truman signed the Luce-Celler Act into law. A year later, India gained its independence from the U.K. and together with Mahesh, Kala moved to Los Angeles. It was there, as more and more Indian and Pakistani immigrants made their way to the U.S., that Kala’s tireless community-building earned her the nickname she’s remembered by today: “Mother India.’

Rani noted in Berkeleyside:

She had many close American friends and never went on a social visit without a gift box of See’s candy. Working with both American and South Asian immigrant women like herself, she went on in the 1950s and 1960s to become an active community builder in Southern California, hosting Indian American cultural events, receptions, and benefits at community halls, theaters, and homes. She built bridges wherever she could between her adopted American culture and the great diversity of Indian culture.

By the age of 90, Kala Bagai Chandra’s list of achievements was both impressive and joyful. She helped fight for the freedom of her homeland with the Gadar Party. She was an example of resilience to her children and a wider community of immigrants. And she helped forge a path, and act as an indefatigable example, for those who followed in her footsteps. Most impressive of all, she almost single-handedly built one of the first Indian American communities in the U.S., providing all those newcomers with safe spaces, cultural connections and a place to keep traditions alive.

After she died in 1983, an obituary printed in India West described exactly what had made Kala so special.

Armed with her personal philosophy expressed in the saying ‘If you are good ... the whole world will love you,’ Mrs. Chandra radiated warmth, kindness, and good will to everyone. Her home became a ‘little India’ to the community, and she became the symbol of Mother India.

Sponsored

For more on Kala Bagai Chandra and other Rebel Girls from Bay Area History, visit the Rebel Girls homepage.