South Asian stories from Californian streets

A radical walking tour in Berkeley shows that South Asian activism in the U.S. pre-dated 9/11.

Updated - February 02, 2013 07:03 pm IST

Published - February 02, 2013 07:01 pm IST

Anirvan sharing stories of Bangladeshi and LGBT organizing with South Asian American teenagers. Photo: Preeti Mangala Shekhar

Anirvan sharing stories of Bangladeshi and LGBT organizing with South Asian American teenagers. Photo: Preeti Mangala Shekhar

Anirvan Chatterjee stops at the corner of Dwight and Telegraph in Berkeley, opens up a four-inch binder and asks us to come closer. A group of about 15, mostly South Asians, huddle around him on a clear California Saturday morning.

“See that?” he asks.

We stare at an old Mediterranean restaurant in Berkeley with a faded blue sign that serves watery coffee and overpriced non-Mediterranean style omelettes. It does not look remarkable, let alone historical.

But to Anirvan, 35, and his wife Barnali Ghosh, 38, the spot is a critical part of their wildly successful Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour.

“Caffe Med — that is where Ali Ishtiaq helped found the Bangladesh Support Network, two years before he went on to help co-found Trikone, the first formal LGBT South Asian organisation in the world,” Anirvan says, beaming.

He closes his binder and puts it in his bag. He wears a knee-length burgundy kurta over a pair of jeans; his wife the same combination, albeit a purple coloured kurta . We head to the UC Berkeley campus just a few blocks up the street and stand outside the Zellerbach auditorium. Most South Asians on campus associate that spot as the place where Berkeley students dance to outdated Punjabi music in the annual Bhangra Blowout. But Anirvan and Barnali, both UC Berkeley graduates, want South Asians to gain a more complex understanding of their history.

A young woman wearing a blue sari stands in front of us with a paper bag over her head, two holes cut out for her eyes, another for her mouth, and a bindi drawn in with pen.

“Down with Emergency! Free India now!” she shouts.

Anirvan pulls out a photo of UC Berkeley protestors from the mid-1970s. In it, two Indian women in saris wear paper bag masks inscribed with the words “Long Live Revolution” in English and Bengali. Barnali explains that many overseas Indian students protesting Emergency had to cover their faces, fearing repercussions from the Indian government for themselves and their families back home.

After Anirvan started researching these protests, he realised that some of the people in the pictures were still Bay Area residents; people he now calls “uncle” or “aunty”.

Barnali describes how she came to Berkeley as a student from Bangalore, wary of participating in San Francisco anti-war protests for fear of being under surveillance or deported.

“I wish I had known these stories,” she says. “Perhaps I could have worn a mask, just like the protestors of the 1970s.”

When Anirvan and his wife launched their walking tour in late August, they hoped to draw about 30-40 people, the $12 charge being donated to Bay Area Solidarity Summer, a summer camp for politically active South Asian teenagers.

Fifteen sold-out tours later, Anirvan and his wife have guided over 250 people and there is talk about turning the tour into a UC Berkeley class.

“The response has been overwhelming. Most people don’t know about this history,” Anirvan says. “We didn’t know this history. But when we learned it, we realised we had to share it.”


Anirvan was born in Ottawa, Canada, to Kolkata-born parents and moved to northern California when he was eight years old. He attended UC Berkeley from 1995 to 1998 and had “a typical desi tech success story”. He dropped out of graduate school in 1999 to launch a company, > , which became a subsidiary of in 2008. But activism was his passion.

“I would organise to support others, but never really focused on my own community. Then 9/11 happened and, suddenly, people who looked like me were the targets. Suddenly I realised the most important work I could do was within the South Asian community.”

He became involved with the Alliance of South Asians Taking Action, organised against the war with the DESIst coalition, and launched the Progressive Bengali Network. It was there he met Barnali, a Bengali landscape architect born in Bangalore, and trained at UC Berkeley. Two years later they married.

It was a film that set in motion a trajectory of events that led them to start the South Asian walking tour. After Anirvan and Barnali watched An Inconvenient Truth in 2006, they decided to calculate their carbon footprint.

“We were shocked. We didn’t own a car. We composted. Yet in 2006, our carbon footprint was bigger than 90 per cent of Americans, bigger than the typical owner of a gas-guzzling Hummer,” Anirvan says. “We were confused, until we realised that our flights to India and around the U.S. were responsible for inflating our carbon footprint.”

They started researching the environmental costs of air travel and realised that 95 per cent of the world has never stepped into a plane. So Anirvan and his wife decided to take a green sabbatical; circumnavigating the world during 2009-10 without flying. They hitched rides in shipping containers, took trains and buses; any mode of transport other than the plane. They interviewed fishermen in Bangladesh, explored Vietnamese climate movements, and met organisers who built a green fiscal conservative coalition to stop the expansion of Heathrow Airport in London.

The experience gave Anirvan and Barnali a tremendous amount of hope. They also learned the importance of what he calls “slow travel”. “Our trip made us realise the importance of experiencing things at a small, local level. When Americans think of taking a ‘stay-cation’, we still tend to fixate on spending the weekend at a fancy hotel near home. But we started thinking; what if you could travel within your city, on the very streets you walk everyday.”

The couple started researching the history of South Asian activism in the United States and were surprised to find so many people and movements in Berkeley. They unearthed the story of 16 Indian students at UC Berkeley in 1908, protesting a lecturer defending British imperialism. They learned about Kartar Singh Sarabha, who moved to Berkeley as a 15-year-old in 1912 and was sentenced to death by a British judge three years later for his work in helping plan an uprising against the British with the Ghadar Party.

The result is a tour that pays almost equal attention to stories of Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, and Indian stories of resistance from the early 1900s to the present.

Most South Asian children born and raised in the U.S. are taught by their first-generation immigrant parents about Sabeer Bhatia, founder of Hotmail, or Vinod Khosla, the celebrated venture capitalist — models of economic success. If a South Asian parent is really open minded, he/she might talk to their children about M. Knight Shyamalan, director of The Sixth Sense , or perhaps about Shahid Khan, a Pakistani American who became the first Asian-American owner of a National Football League team.

Anirvan finds this odd. “The irony is that we know every desi parent has an opinion on politics but we never hear about their own struggles.”

What has been very rewarding, Anirvan says, is the mixture of people who attend; some are recent immigrants and some have been Berkeley residents since the early 1970s. Some are not even South Asian. Anirvan’s parents attended, as did many of his family friends.

“I wish we had been taught these histories when we were growing up,” Anirvan says. “But many of them were new to our parents too.”


The penultimate stop on the walking tour is in front of a new closed-down restaurant called Passand on Shattuck Avenue, once operated by Lakireddy Bali Reddy. After South Asian community members learned Reddy was smuggling Indian workers into the U.S. to use as cheap labour and sex slaves, they organised a protest. The pressure helped draw attention to the case and Reddy was sent to jail. (He is free again now, after eight years in jail.)

Anirvan explains that South Asian domestic violence groups have always been in the forefront of the South Asian activist movement in the U.S. and it was South Asian domestic violence groups — like Narika — that led the way in protesting against Reddy.

The Reddy case changed how Anirvan looked at South Asians. “This is very naive but growing up in a tight-knit immigrant community, I didn’t really think that there were bad South Asians,” he says. “I remember thinking that if I was ever lost anywhere in the U.S., I could open up the phone book, find a Bengali name, and know that I’d be looked after. The Reddy case helped remove that blind spot.”

We stand in the corner and observe a moment of silence for the young woman who died due to Reddy’s mistreatment before we head to the final destination of the tour: Berkeley High School.

For Anirvan, the tragic events of 9/11 pushed him to re-evaluate the focus of his activism. The South Asian community in the U.S. has swelled in numbers and gone are the days, at least in most American cities, when you can walk up to a South Asian looking person and strike up a conversation with the stranger about both being desi . But it is less than two months after the Oak Creek shooting of seven Sikhs and the South Asian community is still interconnected enough that most of those on the tour know a friend — or a friend of a friend — who was killed at Oak Creek.

It was at this high school, Anirvan tells us, that a group of teenage Pakistani Muslim and Indian Sikh students came together after 9/11 to resist the physical attacks, threatening phone calls, and bullying that they were experiencing. They worked with students of other races to establish a safety programme to reduce attacks, shared their personal stories and provided political context to hundreds of fellow students at a school assembly.

They eventually went to over 50 classrooms, doing a little anti-hate teaching, sharing more stories and having classmates yell racial epithets at volunteers from other races and religions so that they could describe what it might feel like to be the scapegoat students. Volunteers spoke about the hurt — and the fear — they felt when they heard such terms directed at them.

Activists seldom have clear victories, Anirvan explains, but this is an example of the next generation of South Asian activists changing their environment.

“I wanted to end the tour with this story, to bring it into the present, to show that the resistance is continuing.”

Walking tours across the world that influenced Anirvan and Barnali

Radical History Tour of Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side” (New York)

One of the most renowned, and earliest, walking tours in the US, this one examines the lives and love affairs of New York City’s most famous radicals of the 20th century.

Tenement Museum Walking Tour (New York)

This one explores European immigrant histories in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Art on BART (San Francisco)

What happens if you spend an entire day in Northern California’s Bay Area Regional Transit system singing songs, writing in journals, performing theatre, and dancing to Hawaiian luau music? This tour encourages Californians to embrace public transportation, put down their iPhones, and do something Californians rarely do on the subway — talk to each other.

Chinatown Heritage Walk (San Francisco)

Chinese Americans have been an integral part of California’s culture for over 100 years. This tour by the Chinese Cultural Center of San Francisco takes a walk through San Francisco’s historic Chinatown to remind people of the long history — and impact — of Chinese Americans in California.

Real Berlin Experience (Berlin)

This walking tour, a big influence on Anirvan and Barnali, explores urban farms, the gay district, Turkish immigrant markets, and a wide variety of graffiti art in Germany’s hippest city.


In Rome, the Stalker urban art collective runs walks exploring a variety of aspects of the city that tourists often ignore.

And in Barnali’s native Bangalore, the Walk’s Green Heritage Tour of Lalbagh Gardens with Vijay Thiruvady blends human and ecological history.

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