South Asian walking tour brings buried Berkeley history to life

Anirvan Chatterjee, one of the curators of the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour, leads a South Asian history tour through Berkeley. Photo: Javaria Kahn

Standing in front of the Pacific Center on the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Derby Street, Anirvan Chatterjee and Barnali Ghosh start their South Asian Radical History Walking Tour with the story of Ali Ishtiaq, commonly referred to as Tinku by his friends.

Ishtiaq, a gay Bangladeshi man, was walking by the center, the oldest LGBTQ center in the Bay Area, in 1986, when he saw a flyer reading “Are you South Asian and gay?” two words that he thought would never be used in the same sentence at the same time. That sighting prompted him to help create Trikone, the first queer group focused on South Asians.

Ishtiaq’s story is not widely known, but it is the kind of history about pioneering South Asian activism that Chatterjee and Ghosh bring to life as curators and presenters of the walking tour.

“We try to highlight a range of themes, including Berkeley’s 100+ year history of South Asian LGBTQ+, labor, environmental, feminist, and anti-colonial activism,” said Chatterjee.


Chatterjee and Ghosh, who are married, started the tour in 2012. They came to Berkeley in the late 1990s as graduate students and kept hearing stories about South Asian activism in the area. While they worked their day jobs, Chatterjee as a technologist and Ghosh as a landscape architect, they started conducting interviews and collecting oral histories.

“We saw that the South Asian community had some amazing activists and we wanted to bring those stories to the activist community and the larger community,” said Chatterjee. “We felt like it was important to tell those to build our shared understanding of who we are as South Asians.”

The stories shared on the tour are all about people with roots in South Asia. That includes people from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and Afghanistan.

Anirvan Chatterjee on the tour through Berkeley. Photo: Javaria Kahn
Anirvan Chatterjee stands near Sproul Plaza, on Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017, with two volunteers. They were performing a dramatization of the anti-Indian government protests that occurred on UC Berkeley campus in the 1970s.

South Asians first came to the Bay Area around 1850 when hundreds of thousands of people from around the world came to California after the discovery of gold, they explain. The first South Asian community event in Berkeley was in 1899, and the first South Asian anti-racist and anti-colonial protest in Berkeley was in 1908.

People of South Asian origin now make up about 4% of Berkeley’s population, according to data from the 2015 American Community Survey done by the U.S. Census Bureau, Chatterjee said in an email. That’s about half the size of the Black community, which makes ups 8% of the population.


 Three hours long, with six stops, the tour snakes through Berkeley, from Telegraph Avenue west to Shattuck Avenue. At one point, Chatterjee and two volunteers put on masks made out of brown paper bags and stage a dramatization at Sproul Plaza, chanting energetically, “Free India Now! Down with emergency. Free India Now!” The scene is a recreation of a 1970 rally held by students from India protesting against then-Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s decision to declare a state of emergency in the country, curtailing and civil liberties.

The tour touches an older history during a stop at Haas Pavilion. Chatterjee and Ghosh speak about Kartar Singh Sarabha, an Indian student who came to study chemistry at UC Berkeley in 1912. Sarabha was the founder of the Ghadar Party, a group of Punjabis living in North America who wanted to stand up against British colonial rule. Sarabha returned to India to fight the British and was killed at the age of 19, they say.

“Anirvan and Barnali really brought the stories to life with their passionate re-creations of different chapters of local history,” said Liam O’Donoghue, the host and producer of East Bay Yesterday, a local history podcast. “I love stories about how things that happen in the East Bay impact the rest of the world.”

It took more than a decade of research before Chatterjee and Ghosh started their Berkeley tours in 2012. For example, they found out about Sarabha’s story and the racism against Indians in 1907 in Berkeley by digging into archives of the San Francisco Chronicle.

“Our research is based on archival work, oral history, and synthesizing academic historical research—in addition to our own involvement in Berkeley movements over the past two decades,” said Chatterjee.


Since then, they have run 126 tours, with about two tours every month. They charge between $5 and $15, proceeds of which go back to community projects.

By leading the tours, Chatterjee and Ghosh hope to break down stereotypes about how South Asians are always “model minorities,” who study and work hard and don’t engage in social justice movements. Chatterjee and Ghosh, with their tech and architecture backgrounds, fall straight into the mold of the model minority and saw that activism work was often looked down at within their larger South Asian community.

“The myth of the model minority conceals much more than it reveals,” Chatterjee said in an email. “For example, the model minority stereotype conceals the fact that many post-1965 Asian American communities are the product of highly artificial selection, with only certain kinds of immigrants welcomed to the United States. It also overlooks the lives of Asian Americans who don’t neatly fit the stereotype, including folks who are working class, refugees, undocumented, queer, artists, activists, etc.”

Kajol Gupta, 19, who was taking the tour for the first time, said he hearing about passionate and political South Asians helped clarify some of his own thinking. “This walk gave me validation to pursue what I’m passionate about and made me feel like I wasn’t alone in my radical beliefs.”

The tour ends at Berkeley High School, where Chatterjee and Ghosh discussed September 11 and its aftermath. After asking for volunteers to read stories of Islamophobic hate crimes, Chatterjee narrates the story of South Asian Berkeley High students who went from classroom to classroom telling stories about their faith and culture right after the 2001 attacks.

“We try to highlight stories that give participants a sense of the range of South Asian American activism in Berkeley, and that speak to the present moment,” Chatterjee says.

Javaria Khan is a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.