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 Joe Biden and Kamala Harris (L). (REUTERS)
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris (L). (REUTERS)

The woman who inspired Kamala Harris

Often in public speeches, interviews and in her memoir, Kamala Harris proudly talks about the profound influence her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, has had in shaping her ambition to 'go inside the system and change it'

A breaking news alert on his phone woke Gopalan Balachandran late Tuesday night at his home in south Delhi, but rather than silence it and go back to sleep—he sat up and wrote a congratulatory iMessage.

It was about his niece, Kamala Harris, who had just been declared the 2020 US Democratic party vice-presidential candidate, running mate to Joe Biden.

The announcement came six days before the Democratic party’s convention on 17 August.

Balachandran couldn’t help but wish his sister and Harris’ mother Shyamala Gopalan had been witness to the news. “My sister would be so proud. We all are," says Delhi-based Balachandran.

Since then, the 79-year-old hasn’t slept much. “There are so many people calling, congratulating us. I have barely slept for two hours," laughs the academician, who’s a consultant at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA).

Balachandran recalls Harris’ first trip to the UK with her parents when he was a student. “She was two. I remember her running around the Kew gardens (Royal Botanic Gardens)," he reminisces. “Somewhere we all knew she would go on to do some big work in life. It’s all because of her mother."

It would be incomplete to talk about Harris, 55, if you don’t include her mother Shyamala Gopalan. Often in public speeches, interviews and in her memoir, Harris—the first woman of African American and Indian descent on presidential ticket—proudly talks about the profound influence her mother has had in shaping her ambition to “go inside the system and change it".

Harris has a long career of firsts: she was the first woman, and the first Black woman, to serve as attorney general of California, the state’s top law enforcement official. She is the first Black woman from California in the US Senate. She’s been tough as a prosecutor but has recently taken a strong stand on police reform after the killing of George Floyd. She entered the US presidential race as a Democratic contender in January 2019 but dropped out in December.

“Shyamala must be so proud. She was really the driving force. Kamala got it all from her," says Balachandran, about his older sister who died in 2009.

After graduating with a degree in home science from University of Delhi in the 1960s, Shyamala Gopalan moved to the US alone on a fellowship to complete her PhD in nutrition and endocrinology at UC Berkeley, and went on to become a prominent breast cancer researcher in the US. It was at Berkeley that Shyamala met Donald Harris, an economics student from Jamaica, and later married him despite “some" family protest, says Balachandran.

Harris’ introduction to political activism came early. Her maternal grandparents raised awareness about contraception in rural parts of the subcontinent. Her parents would take her to civil rights protests, with crowds shouting chants while a young Harris stared at the legs of the protestors sitting comfortably in her stroller.

Donald’s presence in the lives of Harris and her younger sister, Maya, was short-lived, though. After their separation in the 1970s, Shyamala decided to raise her two girls in Oakland’s Black community which became their family. “They had their share of racist experiences and that’s perhaps made all three of them so resolute about fighting about civil rights," says Balachandran.

In her 2019 autobiography, The Truths We Hold, Harris wrote, “My mother understood very well she was raising two black daughters. She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident black women." Maya, a US lawyer and a public policy advocate, was one of three senior policy advisors to lead the development of an agenda for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

“My mother, grandparents, aunts and uncle instilled us with pride in our South Asian roots … All of my mother’s words of affection or frustration came out in her mother tongue (Tamil) – which seems fitting to me, since the purity of those emotions is what I associate with my mother most of all," Harris wrote.

Another huge influence in her life, according to news reports, was her grandfather P.V. Gopalan, who retired after a life in the civil service, with his wife Rajam to Chennai. Harris has recounted stories of walking on the beach with him as well as noisy, multi-generational family reunions over which her grandmother presided. The Gopalans had two other daughters, one of whom lives in Chennai and the other in Ontario, Canada.

To be honest, says Balachandran, “I’m not surprised about the news. Both Kamala and Maya have looked up to their mother throughout their lives. They always knew they had to be part of the system to change the system."

Elizabeth Roche contributed to this story

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