Walk like a Radical: A tour through a century of progressive South Asians in the Bay Area

Jan 14, 2015


There are a thousand hidden histories in the Bay Area – stories in the cement, just beneath the surface of our routes to work or school or play. There are also a handful of guided walking tours that aim to pull these stories from the pavement: Architecture tours, neighborhood tours, literary tours. And then, there is the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour. In 2012, Barnali Ghosh began the tour with her husband, Anirvan Chatterjee.

The tour traces a century of politically active South Asians in and around Berkeley -- going back over a hundred years. It begins on Telegraph Avenue, in front of the Pacific Center. On a drizzly December afternoon, Ghosh is trying to corral a group of about fifteen.

“This is an urban walking tour,” she tells them in her beautiful lilting accent, tinged with the inflections of her Indian roots. “It can get pretty loud, so come closer… closer, closer.”

The walking tour is basically the love child of Ghosh and her husband – Anirvin Chatterjee. Before they begin, Chatterjee provides a bit of cultural translation.

“When I say South Asia, I’m referring to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, the Maldives,” he says. “The other word I’m going to be using sometimes is Desi--  which is a colloquial term many South Asians, especially in diaspora, use to refer to themselves.” It’s less clinical than South Asian, Chatterjee explains.

And with that, the tour begins -- a series of stories woven together by our guides.

South Asian identity, queerness, and busting stereotypes 

“We’re going to start with a story of one of my big Desi role models, an engineer named Ali, Ali Ishtiaq,” Chatterjee says loudly, pulling out a photo of the young Ishtiaq.
Chatterjee pulls the photo from a giant binder he is carrying. This walking tour comes with a lot of props. But it is the guide’s intimacy with the subject matter that really stands out.

“I call him Ali, because that’s his given name, but nobody calls him Ali,”  Chatterjee says. “Everyone in his life pretty much calls him Tinku, which is a pretty silly sounding nickname, but it’s his.”

Tinku’s story starts out in typical fashion: A bright Bangladeshi student comes to America, goes to college in the 1980’s, gets an engineering degree. But Tinku is gay. And although he has a partner -- Scott -- he longs for some connection to his South Asian roots. And he finds it, when he meets two men who are like him.

“All three of them are South Asian techies,” Chatterjee says with a laugh, “because stereotypes are real sometimes. And for Tinku it’s amazing, meeting two other queer South Asian men, and to be able to suddenly for the first time, be able to share so many stories that he hasn’t been able to share with anybody else before.”

The two men he met were the founders of Trikone. Started in 1986, it was the first queer group geared towards South Asians. Tinku becomes a member, and then goes on as an activist. His story continues as we walk to the tour’s next stop.

“Basically the faster we walk the next three blocks, the faster we’ll get to stories.” Chatterjee tells the group, as he herds us down Telegraph Avenue into the heart of tie-died, sage-fumed Berkeley. On the crowded sidewalk Chatterjee continues with Tinku’s tale: He married his partner, fought for Palestinian and environmental causes, returned home to Bangladesh when his mother took ill, and just for good measure, founded a tech company which he sold for a bundle.

“Tinku’s story is really personally inspiring to me,” Chatterjee tells us. “Because it shows that you can do important social justice work, you can achieve professional success, you can find love, and you can be a good son or daughter.”

And that-- being a good child, that’s a really big deal when you are Desi.

“In a lot of immigrant communities and certainly I think in our South Asian community, there’s a sense that either you work the right kind of professional job, or if you’re an artist or activist or somebody, you need to get a job,” Chatterjee says. “And there’s no middle ground there.”

But Tinku found it, says Chatterjee. As we duck inside the cafe where Tinku used to talk radical politics, tour co-founder Barnali Ghosh says that, yes, many South Asians immigrants lean conservative, just like many are involved in the tech world.

“Stereotypes exist for a reason,” Ghosh says. “But the other stereotype could be that Indians, we won our freedom by fighting the British, and were real fighters for freedom. That could be a stereotype.”

Protesting emergency in India 

Standing in Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza, Chatterjee and a volunteer are wearing masks made of newspaper and thrusting their fists in the air, chanting “Free India now! Down with emergency. Free India now!”

This scene is straight from the mid-1970’s, when then Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency in India, suspending elections and civil liberties. Bad times for the world’s largest democracy. In Berkeley, and across the country, Indian students risked connections back home to protest.

The Ghadar Party

As the tour snakes across the Cal Campus, our guides take us even further back in time, back to some of the earliest South Asian radicals.

“The name of the young student whose story were going to hear, his name is Katar Singh Sarabha,” Ghosh tells us, asking us to say the name with her.

In 1912 Sarabha was a 15-year-old Punjabi student who came to study chemistry at Berkeley. Moved to activism by his treatment as a second-class human, Sarabha helped found the Ghadar party, a group of Punjabis in North America who organized to gain India’s independence from the British Empire. He was also a poet. Chatterjee plays the part of Sarabha, reciting one of his poems.

“If anyone asks who we are, tell him our name is rebel, our duty is to end the tyranny, our profession is to launch revolution, that is our namaz, this is a sandhya, our pooja, our worship…”

You might have noticed my name -- Sandhya-- in there. In Sanskrit, the word "sandhya" means twilight, the meeting of two lights. It is also a prayer, whispered at dusk. My own Desi identity is why I wanted to come on this tour, and I find myself learning things I didn’t know, like about the activist-poet Saraba.

Our guides tell us the poet returned home from Berkeley to fight for Indian independence. How at 19 he was hanged by the British government. After this story the group pauses for a second -- as if all of the sudden ghosts have risen and are moving around us. The sky is growing dark, it is the sandhya time.

Fighting Islamaphobia at Berkeley High School 

We move down through the campus and into the city. The tour’s final destination is Berkeley High School, where we come crashing back to the not so distant past: 9/11 and its aftermath.

Chatterjee and Ghosh ask for volunteers. They read from a piece of paper -- stories of anti-Islamic sentiment.

“September 12th, 2001 San Francisco California, an unknown person called a paralegal there at about 2:30 p.m. and said he had left a package for your brother Osama Bin Laden. The package contained pigs blood.”

“September 13th, 2001, Oakland, California, two Muslim women who were wearing traditional Islamic scarves reported that they were walking near Laney College when someone tried to run them over with a vehicle.” 

That tragic time also carried danger for many South Asians. Chatterjee tells the story of South Asian students newly arrived in Berkeley, and at the high school.

“Everything falls apart for them,” he says. “I mean as they walk through the halls they were all called names like terrorist.”

Chatterjee says one girl was beaten so badly she went to the hospital. He says the South Asian students responded by going from classroom to classroom telling stories.

“Deeper stories, more personal stories,” Chatterjee says. Stories that actually changed the mood at the school.

At the end of the tour, Chaterjee and Ghosh ask the group to share the story that moved them most. It’s kind of amazing, everyone gets up and people's reactions are really raw. Priya Aslam’s favorite story? The last one. She was a newly arrived college student in Iowa when 9/11 happened.

“And I remember being really scared, really alone, far away from my family in Pakistan,” Aslam says.  “This story is very similar to my story and how we spread the word, and educated people about where Pakistan really was and who we really were and what Islam actually preaches.”  

For people like Aslam, the tour feels personal. It's personal for the tour’s founders too. As an immigrant from Bangalore, Ghosh felt between worlds. But when she and Chatterjee began to uncover the century old radical history of South Asians, it gave her the sense that people like her had been here all along. The journey was shorter, geographically speaking, for her husband:

“Growing up in the East Bay suburbs, it felt like my heritage was all about being that perfect model minority,” Chatterjee says. “That’s important,” he admits, “I’m a computer programmer by trade and actually I like it. But the more Barnali and I have learned these stories, the more we’ve discovered these, it shows me that I have a very different kind of heritage. Because for over a hundred years people who look like me, people who speak my language, they have been walking these streets, and they have been working for justice.”

Now Chatterjee and Ghosh walk these streets to tell stories. Stories to bind us to the past, and stories that give those who live in many worlds a reason to call this one, home.