“Kamala, I am so happy for you. Shyamala would have been very proud.”
Early Wednesday, 80-year-old Gopalan Balachandran, a Delhi-based academic, sent this congratulatory message to his niece Kamala Harris, soon after she was chosen by Democratic nominee Joe Biden as his running mate for the 2020 US presidential elections.
Harris’s maternal uncle, who was formerly with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, Balachandran is aware of the significance of Biden picking her as his running mate at a time when America is deeply divided on matters of both race and gender. “It was expected that my niece would advance in the political race and I am very excited as a student of US politics,” Balachandran told The Indian Express.
They last talked in December 2019, when Balachandran visited the US. He says he mostly stays in touch with Harris through his daughter, who stays in Washington DC. “It’s easier that way.”
Harris’s aunt Sarala, who is based in Chennai, says Harris calls her Chitti. Yet to talk to her since the news broke, the 76-year-old says, “Kamala must be really busy now. It’s been a couple of days since we talked.”
A conversation with Balachandran about Harris is peppered with vignettes of growing up with Shyamala (Harris’s mother and Balachandran’s sister) in Delhi and Mumbai in the ’50s, stories of Shyamala’s decision to move to the US at the age of 19 to do post-graduation at the University of California, Berkley, Shyamala’s participation in the civil rights movement of the 1960s on the campus, and her marriage to Jamaican economics student Donald Harris in 1963. A cancer researcher whom Harris has often called a role model, Shyamala passed away in 2009.
In her autobiography The Truths We Hold, Harris wrote, “I have young memories of a sea of legs moving about, of the energy and shouts and chants”, of her parents taking her in a stroller to civil rights marches.
Balachandran says it’s easy to spot glimpses of Shyamala in her daughter. “Shyamala was exceptional. She studied Home Science at Lady Irwin College (Delhi) and my father and I would tease her, ‘What is home science?’. She applied on her own to Berkeley and got a scholarship… She would say, ‘I can do it, I will do it.’ Sounds a bit like Kamala, right?” laughs the 80-year-old.
Their father P V Gopalan, a senior bureaucrat, only laid one condition, says Balachandran: that he would help Shyamala with finances for a year, but after that she was on her own. “Our father used to say, ‘Do what you want, study where you want to… I will fund your first year’.”
He adds, “Our parents helped us grow in every sense of the word. They told us to stick to our principles, which should be rooted in humanity… They taught us that we should never judge people on the basis of their language, food, looks, where they are from… This is exactly what Shyamala in turn taught Kamala and (her sister) Maya.”
In her autobiography, Harris writes about what a big deal it was for a woman of Shyamala’s age to travel that far alone for studies at the time. “It’s hard for me to imagine how difficult it must have been for her parents to let her go.”
Shyamala’s participation in the civil rights’ movement was as unique, “especially at a time when very few Indian students participated in protests”, Balachandran adds. ” Our parents were naturally worried, but she wrote to our father, ‘Appa, I am studying well, I am doing well, but I must participate in this movement’.”
Fortunately, Balachandran quips, “At the time the US was not deporting foreign students merely for participating in protests.”
In 1963, Shyamala married Donald Harris. No one from her family was present at the ceremony. Says Balachandran, “The family was perfectly fine with the fact that he was Jamaican, they didn’t have a problem with his race. But due to financial restraints, no one could visit. My father was upset about only one thing — that he never got to meet the groom before the wedding.”
Later, Shyamala and her husband visited Gopalan in Zambia, when he was posted there. They also came to Chennai. Shyamala separated from her husband when Harris was five.
Writing about this, Harris says, “My father remained a part of our lives. We would see him on weekends and spend summers with him in Palo Alto. But it was really my mother who took charge of our upbringing. She was the one most responsible for shaping us into the women we would become.”
Even when raising two children as a single mother in the US, Balachandran says, Shyamala ensured they grew up embracing a composite culture. “She motivated them to study hard, become good lawyers, and also involved them in a lot of public activities. She was a beautiful Carnatic singer and would perform at temples and functions, and take her daughters with her. They lived in an area where the African-Amercian community lived, very few Indians or Whites. She made sure her children were proud of their identities. She would tell them that ‘human beings are human beings, all are equal’.”
Sarala says Harris might not know Tamil much, “But she is aware of India, especially Hindu mythology, South Indian culture and dishes.”
While she doesn’t talk about her Indian ancestry much, the connect with her mother’s side of the family is evident in Harris’s autobiography. She talks about staying in touch with them, “our periodic trips” to India — Sarala says Harris came once every three-four years when young — “letters and cards written back and forth”, and “our sense of family”.
“My mother, grandparents, aunts, and uncle instilled us with pride in our South Asian roots. Our classical Indian names harked back to our heritage, and we were raised with a strong awareness of and appreciation for Indian culture. All of my mother’s words of affection or frustration came out in her mother tongue… the purity of those emotions is what I associate with my mother most of all… She was conscious of history, conscious of struggle, conscious of inequities. She was born with a sense of justice imprinted on her soul.”
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