Anirvan Chatterjee and Barnali Ghosh have always enjoyed walking tours that take them beyond the typical tourist sites. They’ve taken an eight-hour walking tour of Rome that was run by a group of artists and architects, and were able to explore abandoned metro stations, World War II bombing sites, Roma (Gipsy) encampments, and farms. They’ve also been on walking tour of an “alternative Berlin” where they discovered the local graffiti scene, art spaces, and immigrant markets. In New York, a tour conducted by the New York Tenement Museum explored the immigrant history of the Lower East Side. Closer to home, Chatterjee has participated in ART on BART, artist Amber Hasselbring’s day-long unauthorized guided tour of the BART system, which featured urban planning histories, performance art, dance, and chance encounters.
Chatterjee explained, “From these tours we have learned that even very unconventional places have the potential to be fascinating if you can dig up the right stories and tell them well. As South Asian activists from Berkeley, we wanted to go deeper, exploring the history of our community, and sharing what we learned in a format that’s more public than dinner conversation with friends.”
And so, the community-based historians organized the Berkeley South Asian Radical Walking Tour, a three-hour tour through central Berkeley that helps participants discover the hidden legacies of local anti-racist, anti-imperial, feminist, LGBT, and youth activism by Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi Americans who have volunteered with over a dozen arts, social justice, and environmental justice campaigns in the local South Asian American community. The tour covers a century of activism, from a 1908 student strike to an organized protest against hate after 9/11.
The seed was planted when Chatterjee was still an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. He came upon a photo of Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali philosopher, poet, and 1913 winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. What was most intriguing about the photo was that the polymath was captured visiting Berkeley, surrounded by a group of desi UC Berkeley students. For Chatterjee, the image represented the unexpected intersection of two very different parts of his life, and he kept a copy of the photo with him as a reminder of other fascinating mysteries yet to be explored.
Initially, Chatterjee and Ghosh planned the tours to run over the course of two days in late September and early October, with only sixty slots. The first-of-its-kind tour has been well received by the community, with participants calling the tour “fantastic,” “moving,” “provocative,” “insightful,” “engaging,” and “amazing.” In fact, interest in the tour continues to grow and organizers have had to open additional slots based on demand. “Early on, we didn’t know how much material we’d find, or how exciting the stories would be, but the more we dug, the more we found. It was clear that the stories were too fascinating to stay locked up in archives and history books. We’re delighted that our audiences have been enjoying these histories as much as we were.”
All proceeds from the tours benefit BASS (Bay Area Solidarity Summer), a five-day four-night summer camp where desi youth (ages 15 to 21) can learn about progressive issues affecting the South Asian community both locally and globally, gain organizing skills, connect with other South Asian activists, and develop themselves into leaders. “We think it’s fitting that we fund the future as we learn about the past,” stated Chatterjee. Youth come from as far away as Texas to attend the BASS program, which consists of workshops, arts programming, history, and the walking tour. “Participants tell us that it’s a life-changing program, which has helped many [of them] find ways to better live their Desi social justice values, no matter what life path they take.”
In August, BASS participants were the very first group to preview the walking tour. They found [the tour] to be “engaging” and “interactive,” and they “really felt a sense of belonging from this tour” having seen the “roots within our community that connect to our current activism.” Such positive feedback was all the encouragement the organizers needed to open up the tour to the general public. “They totally saw the connections we were trying to make,” enthused Chatterjee.
The tour will be of interest to anyone with roots or an interest in South Asia (particularly India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh), including social justice activists, fans of local Bay Area history, as well as those with an interest in immigrant, ethnic, Muslim, and Asian American histories. “While many of the participants have been South Asian, non-South Asian participants have also been very positive about the tour, often being able to connect these stories to their own personal stories,” Chatterjee stated. “You can sometimes get a sense of a much larger narrative by tracing one very specific story through time. An Irish-American attendee appreciated the connections between Indian- and Irish-American freedom fighters struggling against colonial rule; another attendee connected a story dealing with racist bullying in school to his own high school experiences.”
Each tour accommodates 15 people, to ensure that the groups are intimate enough to allow for questions. The tour covers a century of activism, from a 1908 student strike to an organized protest against hate after 9/11. It is a wheelchair accessible two-mile walk that hits original sites and uses place-based performances, readings, and interactivity to bring complex local and global histories to life.
One such site is of the very first South Asian American protest in Berkeley, which took place in 1908. The guides lead the participants to the original location, share photos of the building where the protest occurred and read from the newspaper article about the event. Other intriguing sites include those that pertain to the story about Lakireddy Bali Reddy (the infamous Berkeley sex and labor trafficker) and about how desi feminists took on the Reddy family.
Chatterjee stated, “We’ve loved seeing our audiences experience that same sense of surprise and wonder upon discovering these histories. We sometimes see audience members’ jaws drop, or eyes well up. For many participants, the tour helps bring into question everything they knew about what it means to be South Asian American, and we’re delighted to be part of that process of discovery. This has been more fun than we could have expected.”n\
November 3, 4, 17, 18. 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Tickets range from $5 to $12. www.berkeleysouthasian.org.