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Monday, November 30, 2020

As US votes, a village in India prays for Kamala Harris

The village, Thulasendrapuram, has a special relationship to Harris, the Democratic vice presidential nominee. It’s where her maternal grandfather was born more than 100 years ago.

By: New York Times | New Delhi | Updated: November 3, 2020 10:17:06 pm
kamala harris vice president, indian american kamala harris, joe biden us president, us presidential elections, us elections biden kamala harrisVice president-elect Sen. Kamala Harris, speaks at a campaign event in Las Vegas. (File/AP)

Written by Jeffrey Gettleman and Suhasini Raj

More than 8,000 miles from the White House, in an Indian village ringed by lush green rice paddies, several dozen people flocked into a Hindu temple, carrying roses and strings of sweet-smelling jasmine, uttering prayers for Sen. Kamala Harris.

The village, Thulasendrapuram, has a special relationship to Harris, the Democratic vice presidential nominee. It’s where her maternal grandfather was born more than 100 years ago.

On Tuesday, Thulasendrapuram, which is about eight hours’ drive from the southern city of Chennai, pulled together in a special ceremony at the main temple to wish Harris good luck on Election Day.

Men wearing white dhotis, a sarong-like wrap, and women in bright saris draped Hindu idols with flowers and chanted hymns. As the election began to unfold in the United States, everyone was bubbly with confidence that Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president, and Harris, would win.

“She is the daughter of the village’s soil,” said Lalitha, a housewife, who could barely contain her excitement. “The position she has attained is unbelievable.”

Read | How Kamala Harris’ family in India helped shape her values

Although Harris has been more understated about her Indian heritage than about her experience as a Black woman, her path to the U.S. vice presidential nomination has also been guided by the values of her Indian-born mother and her wider Indian family.

In several speeches, Harris has gushed about her Indian grandfather, P.V. Gopalan, a civil servant who inspired her with his stories about fighting for the rights of Indians to win independence from Britain.

Gopalan defied the conservative stereotypes of his era, according to neighbors and family friends, lending unswerving support to the women in his family, especially Harris’ mother, Shyamala Gopalan. She came to America in the late 1950s, young and alone, and made a career as a breast cancer researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, before dying of cancer in 2009.

Villagers in Thulasendrapuram remember Shyamala visiting at least once and said that Harris had also stopped in when she was a girl. Her name is inscribed on a board at the main temple; apparently she donated some money, although no one remembered for sure.

As soon as the good luck ceremony wrapped up Tuesday, villagers laid out a feast of idli and sambar, South Indian rice cakes with spicy lentil stew. Villagers were adamant that it was a favorite dish of Harris’.

While Thulasendrapuram clearly leans Democrat in this election, President Donald Trump has a lot of support in India. One man, who died recently, even built a backyard shrine to him.

In February, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted a huge welcome party for Trump during an official visit called “Namaste, Trump” (Hello, Trump).

The Indian media has been focused on this election as a referendum on Trump. There have been few stories about Harris and her India connections. Many Indians did not know (nor did many Americans, for that matter) that Harris was of Indian descent until she was put on the ticket.

But people in Thulasendrapuram knew.

And although Harris’ family left long ago, with her grandfather eventually moving to Chennai, the village is already planning big things. One villager said the temple was sure to get more donations should Harris win. Another hoped the government would now build a college in this area, something residents have been wishing for for years.

“It’s quite obvious that the village people are hoping that once she wins this election she will do us some favors,” said R.R. Kalidas Vandayar, an elder. “We are hoping the prayers work.”

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