‘The question of belonging’: Curating the radical histories of South Asians in Berkeley

Photo of Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour
Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour/Courtesy

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The Pacific Center for Human Growth, just off the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Derby Street, is quiet, hushed, closed. At its front, a pride flag flutters in phantom breezes. Barnali Ghosh tells me that this is where, if circumstances were normal, the Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour would begin.

Ghosh and her husband, Anirvan Chatterjee, are the curators of the walking tour and its accompanying research notes at the Berkeley South Asian History Archive. The tour tells the stories of more than a century of South Asian American activist history. Chatterjee tells me that before March, there had been almost 200 tours, with stops all across Berkeley.

Here, standing on the sidewalk with a group that tends to be an even mixture of South Asian and non-South Asian community members, Chatterjee usually begins by telling the story of Ali Ishtiaq. Ishtiaq was a gay Bangladeshi man who attended UC Berkeley in the 1980s and became a member of Trikone, the oldest nonprofit organization for LGBTQ+ people of South Asian descent. Walking down Telegraph, I pass what used to be Caffè Mediterraneum, a spot where Ishtiaq often discussed radical politics with other activists. The space is now inhabited by Boileroom, right next to Zebra Tattoo and Body Piercing.

Signs of life are reasserting themselves on the streets as I walk closer to campus, but where the crescendo of human noise would once reach its peak at Sproul Plaza, the area is now almost empty. The rattling sound of air conditioning from the top floors of the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union is the loudest noise, along with the hiss of skateboard wheels. This is the part of the tour where Chatterjee, in a recreation of protests against Indira Gandhi’s suspension of elections in India from 1975 to 1977, dons a paper bag mask and repeats the chant, “Free India now! Down with Emergency!”

The quiet in the streets now echoes the way I used to walk around Berkeley, ignorant of many of the important people and ideas that came before me. Taking walks around a neighborhood is the best way to get to know it, but what about those histories that you must go looking for, that are still buried and fighting to come to the forefront? 

I am discovering that the most immediate concern of all is what happened here, just beneath my feet. I think about this as I walk. What are we forgetting?

My walk takes me all the way to Berkeley High School, where the walking tour usually ends. The building is so deserted as of late that my roommate sometimes wobbles around on her skateboard in the parking lot across the street, certain no one will be watching. In 2001, students of South Asian descent at the high school experienced episodes of horrible and sometimes violent discrimination after 9/11. One day, a group of these students organized themselves and went from classroom to classroom, sharing meaningful personal stories. Above all, they appealed to empathy.

Ghosh is a first-generation immigrant from India who attended UC Berkeley for graduate school. Chatterjee is a second-generation immigrant whose parents are from India; he grew up in the Bay Area and also attended UC Berkeley. Like Chatterjee, my roommate and I are children of Indian immigrants. When I tell my roommate about some of the stories I am learning through Ghosh and Chatterjee’s archival work, her response is the same one that has been echoing inside of me: “I had no idea.” Really, I had no idea.

This reaction is one of the primary reasons Ghosh and Chatterjee are doing this work. “The way I was raised, it was always kind of this idea that our histories were always back in the homeland, that we had no history here,” Chatterjee says, then asks, “What are our chosen histories? What are the collective histories of our communities?” He went on to describe the excitement he felt years ago after attending an exhibit on the UC Berkeley campus highlighting the history of the Ghadar Party. “There’s something about really learning those stories of our movements, learning the stories of queer activists and feminists, or laborers and anti-colonial revolutionaries.”

Kala Bagai remade herself into a symbol of hope.

Chatterjee and Ghosh are also part of the group of activists who successfully campaigned to rename a part of Shattuck Avenue in Downtown Berkeley to Kala Bagai Way. They learned about Bagai’s story from her oral history account in the South Asian American Digital Archive, which catalogs primary sources from South Asian American histories and is a major resource for the walking tour.

Bagai and her husband, Vaishno Das Bagai, emigrated from present-day Pakistan to Berkeley in 1915. They faced a slew of racism both at the local and federal level and were initially physically barred by neighbors from even entering their new house. Eight years later, Das Bagai’s citizenship was revoked as a result of the 1923 United States vs. Bhagat Singh Thind case, which denaturalized about 50 Asian Indian Americans because they were not white.

As a member of the Ghadar Party, Das Bagai had been working to oppose British colonialism and fighting to free India. He could not imagine having to become a citizen of Britain, which was presented as his only viable option after being denied a visa to India. Feeling hopelessly trapped, a citizen of no state, he tragically committed suicide shortly after being stripped of his citizenship, writing in his suicide note that living in the United States was living “in a gilded cage.”

But Kala Bagai lived on, renewing herself. She sent her three children to college, and she later married another Indian activist. She learned tennis. She went to night school. Most of all, though, she became a community activist. She worked to reinvent the surroundings that had failed Vaishno Das Bagai. She created a supportive community for immigrants, fostering South Asian cultural events and fundraisers, extending a warm helping hand to any who were struggling to find a place for themselves. Kala Bagai remade herself into a symbol of hope.

“When we do the walking tour, we talk about the lack of any kind of markers of South Asian history and Asian American history. Street names are part of that as well,” Ghosh says on why she chose to nominate Kala Bagai for the renaming. “It became a way to acknowledge women and Asian Americans on our street, and it became a way to talk about who belongs in this city and has a home here.”

The question of belonging is a key one. I have lived in the Bay Area for eight years, and the predominant story of my neighborhood’s demographics is that of white flight. Why is that? Why is the foregrounded history almost always by default the white one? 

Addressing this exclusion by looking at history anew is essential to the reclamation of our pasts.

Ghosh and Chatterjee have similar observations about the city of Berkeley. “The question of belonging is important. Folks will be at a city meeting and be like, well, I’ve been here for three generations,” Chatterjee says, laughing. “Well, good for you! No one’s taking that away from you.”

“When it’s an older white homeowner, it makes us acknowledge that not all of us got to live here for that long! And not by choice — people were forced out, or there was redlining that happened or anti-Asian housing exclusion that happened,” Ghosh adds.

Addressing this exclusion by looking at history anew is essential to the reclamation of our pasts. Ghosh believes that reassessing the neighborhoods and streets we are living in can give us a better understanding of the lesser-known histories of nonwhite communities. “So much of it is complicating the histories that we’re taught so it’s more inclusive of different communities,” she says.

I ask Chatterjee and Ghosh to tell me one of their personal favorite stories from the walking tour. Ghosh asks Chatterjee if he wants to talk about 1908. He enthusiastically agrees.

“When I first moved to Berkeley, the story of Berkeley activism that I knew in the back of my head, or the one I was told about, was obviously the Free Speech Movement, particularly stories of largely white student activists at the time,” he begins. “There are so many stories of different kinds of activism at Berkeley, but that’s kind of the overarching story that people learn if they know only one story.”

As the 1908 story goes, in front of Stiles Hallwhere Haas Pavilion stands now16 Hindu students are embroiled in a confrontation with the Christian evangelist J. Lovell Murray. Murray, who previously insulted Hinduism during a speech at Stanford University, is likely going to deliver a similar diatribe at UC Berkeley

The students ask him to refrain from insulting their religion; Murray refuses. The students follow Murray inside, taking their seats at the front of the hall and preparing for the worst. Murray delivers his address, which attempts to justify British colonialism in India. As soon as he concludes his bigoted speech, the students’ leader, Girindra Mukerji, utilizes the same right to free speech Murray has exercised. Mukerji’s peers follow his lead.

And, as Chatterjee and Ghosh tell me 118 years in the future, their resistance was decades before the Free Speech Movement fully materialized on the UC Berkeley campus.

“One, two, three, four, five — roughly a dozen of these student activists, they start pushing back,” Chatterjee says. “Really speaking back to the idea of this justification of British colonialism … they kept doing this and they kept pushing back until the organizers of the event literally shut the whole thing down.”

The students and their free speech prevailed. And, as Chatterjee and Ghosh tell me 118 years in the future, their resistance was decades before the Free Speech Movement fully materialized on the UC Berkeley campus.

The episode is emblematic of what lessons from history might impart to us. “It’s about placing history where we can learn from it. It’s not a static thing that happened in the past,” Ghosh tells me. “How do we look to those examples so we can continue to be inspired and learn from them?”

Though anti-South Asian sentiment continues in the present, hearing about the strength of community members in previous times of crisis is an empowering experience. “Sometimes it’s really paralyzing to really get stuck on the idea that there is racism targeting our communities and we are victims,” Chatterjee says. “But the things that I find inspiring are stories of agency.”As Ghosh and Chatterjee’s work has revealed to me, we cannot forget these stories because they are not simply stories. They are who we were, who we are, who we hope to be. Ghosh and Chatterjee hope they are helping to make these important histories accessible to everyone. By illuminating the past, we will discover paths of light into the future.

Contact Ankita Chatterjee at [email protected].