Kamala Harris' Indian roots remain in focus back home

Kamala Harris (right) with her sister Maya in dashikis - a garment worn mostly in West Africa - in a photo from their childhood. PHOTO: KAMALA HARRIS/INSTAGRAM

Dr Gopalan Balachandran last met his niece Kamala Harris, the presumptive Democratic vice-presidential nominee, when she was sworn in as a senator three years ago.

She had invited her maternal uncle, two aunts and a cousin to the ceremony from India and Canada, and also introduced them to then vice-president Joe Biden, now the Democratic presidential nominee.

Her uncle, 79, is now hoping to attend another swearing-in.

"I was not surprised (by her nomination) because Biden said he was going to choose a woman as his running mate and that it may be African American. She was a very strong candidate. She has a chance of winning," he said in an interview with The Sunday Times.

Ms Harris' nomination has triggered a frenzy in India where her Indian roots have been debated and discussed threadbare in the news as well as on social media.

But none has been prouder than her family in India, which her mother Shyamala left at the age of 19 in 1957 to pursue graduate studies in the United States.

Over the years, they have followed the upward trajectory of Ms Harris' political career.

The 55-year-old senator is the first American of Indian and African descent to run for the post of vice-president.

She began her career in the Alameda County District Attorney's Office and went on to be elected district attorney of San Francisco and then attorney-general of California in 2010 and 2014.

In 2017, she was elected to the Senate from California.

Dr Balachandran said his older sister, who died of colon cancer in 2009, was proud of her daughter's achievements and lived to see her elected as district attorney.

At the University of California at Berkeley, Ms Shyamala Gopalan had met and married Mr Donald Harris, a student from Jamaica.

The marriage was welcomed by her family, described as "progressive" by Ms Harris, even though India was and remains in many parts deeply conservative, particularly about inter-racial unions.

The pair had two daughters but divorced when Ms Harris was seven and her sister Maya was four. Ms Gopalan, who was a breast cancer researcher and activist, became the driving force in her children's lives.

"She made them aware of their Indian roots. But she impressed upon them that they would be looked upon as African Americans and treated as such. She used to take them to all the civil rights demonstrations even when they were kids," said Dr Balachandran, a former consultant with think-tank The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi.

Ms Harris wrote in her 2019 memoir, The Truths We Hold, that her mother "understood very well that she was raising two black daughters" and raised them to be "proud black women".

"You can't know who Kamala Harris is without knowing who our mother was," her sister Maya tweeted last Wednesday, a day after Mr Biden announced his running mate. "She and the ancestors are smiling today."

Dr Balachandran said his sister had a vast library, including simplified texts of the Ramayana, a Sanskrit epic. This helped the girls, who grew up in a predominantly black neighbourhood, to imbibe the Indian part of their heritage, reinforced through many visits to India.

The vice-presidential nominee's interactions with her grandfather P.V. Gopalan, a civil servant and a strong proponent of civil rights, may also have shaped her political views on human rights.

Dr Balachandran said: She (Ms Harris) was quite comfortable (in Chennai). She didn't say, what is this heat. She liked South Indian food."

After their mother's death, Ms Harris travelled with her sister and niece to Chennai to immerse her ashes in the Bay of Bengal, according to Hindu tradition.

The Indian side of her family remains a melting pot.

Dr Balachandran's daughter Sharada Balachandran Orihuela, an assistant professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Maryland, is married to a Mexican. Another of his sisters settled in Canada.

In India, debates about Ms Harris' nomination have also touched on how India-US ties, already strong, could be nurtured under a presidency that included an Indian American.

On Friday, an Indian Ministry of External Affairs spokesman, when asked a question on her nomination, declined to comment, saying the Indian government would not like "to comment on the electoral process of any other country".

Still, leading political figures have welcomed the nomination.

Tamil Nadu deputy chief minister O. Panneerselvam said her nomination is a "moment of pride" for Indians, particularly Tamils. Others have joked that Ms Harris has raised the bar on achievements by the Indian-American community.

Congress party MP Shashi Tharoor tweeted the "prospect of a half-desi a proverbial heartbeat away from the presidency is thrilling".

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 16, 2020, with the headline Kamala Harris' Indian roots remain in focus back home. Subscribe