Sita Guha-Thakurta’s story begins with her birth in Bengal, India, on April 16, 1916. She had a twin sister named Leelabati and an uncle in the U.S. named Swami Paramananda, who was a reverend, founder, and head of the Ananda-Ashrama in La Crescenta, California. It is “a respected nonsectarian place of worship” that he founded in 1909, and which still exists today. Because of his influence, Leelabati and Sita were accepted into Glendale Junior College and were able to come to America as students. Reverend Paramananda had local ties to “white acquaintances” that served as evidence of “his own standing in his local southern California community.” His sponsorship allowed Leelabati and Sita to be admitted into the country on the same day of their arrival in San Francisco (July 19, 1934) without spending any time on Angel Island. Sita was 18 years of age.
Sita attended Glendale Junior College in Glendale, California, until 1944 when she transferred to Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts to pursue a degree in science. In September 1942, we know that she traveled to Washington D.C. as an Indian delegate to attend the International Student Assembly, where she met with many other students of different ethnic and educational backgrounds. Note that the photo below was taken by esteemed photographer Gordon Parks, later known for his work for Life magazine.
On March 12, 1946, Sita applied for an extension of stay until December 17, 1946. She was granted permission to stay as long as she did not find “gainful employment” on American soil while a student. However, upon graduating from Simmons College with a M.S. degree in June of that same year, she found a job at the United Nations’ Bureau of Personnel as a “Personnel (?) Examiner.” It should be noted that on July 2, 1946, President Harry Truman had signed the Luce-Cellar Act into law, which allowed a quota of 100 Indians to immigrate into the U.S. per year and granted Indian immigrants the right to naturalize and become U.S. citizens.
At some point, Sita must have applied for a change of immigration status so that she might stay longer in the U.S. On November 21, 1946, INS District Director Henry Nicolls denied Sita’s application for pre-examination because the Indian quota was oversubscribed. Her stay would expire on December 17. From December to May of the following year, Sita was drawn into a long battle over an attempt to overturn her visa status. The immigration records indicate that she wanted a longer-staying work visa instead of her temporary student visa. On May 15, 1947, she was finally granted a change of status from a temporary visa to that of an employee of an international organization. On June 2, 1947 she received a letter indicating she could reside in the United States as long as she maintained this status.
After working for another year at the UN, Sita was promoted to the position of a research assistant. She lived in Jamaica, New York, a middle-class neighborhood in Queens, which was predominantly occupied by Indian, West Indian, and Arab immigrants, and was within close proximity to the UN headquarters. After a seemingly prosperous academic and financial career at age thirty-two, Sita decided to take a three-month-long leave of absence and journey to Calcutta of her motherland India. It is not known whether Sita reentered the United States or chose to stay in India.
Sita’s known story ends on October 2, 1948, after she left on the Queen Mary for India. The story that she leaves behind in public photos and government documents illustrates an intelligent, academically and financially successful woman who never married. She died in 1978 at the age of 62; the exact date and location are unknown. Differing from the traditional role of Indian woman immigrants, Sita decided to pursue an education and career instead of marriage and family. Independent in every sense, Sita Guha-Thakurta was an anomaly among Indian immigrant voices and leaves a unique story for others to explore.
Immigration File 34194/1-3 (Seeta Guha Thakurta), National Archives, San Francisco.
Lee, Erika, and Judy Yung. Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 171.
Shannon Lin and Bhavna Sharma wrote this article when they were students in Professor Anantha Sudhakar’s “Indian American Studies” class at San Francisco State University in 2014.