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Kamala Harris’ candidacy gives Tamil Americans a moment in the spotlight

During her speech accepting the vice presidential nomination, Kamala Devi Harris uttered one word in Tamil.

“Family is my uncles, my aunts — my chitthis,” she said.

Harris was using the word that describes her mother’s two younger sisters. Both women, she said, have been sources of strength and support, particularly after her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, a breast cancer researcher, died of colon cancer in 2009.

Within seconds, social media was on fire.

Harris’ mixed Jamaican and Indian heritage is widely known. But her Tamil ancestry has garnered attention mostly since her acceptance speech, after she dropped the word in her mother’s native language. Not only did she say chitthi on television, but she did it during an historic moment — as the first woman of color, Black American and Asian American, to accept the vice presidential nomination.

Within the world of Indian Americans and Tamil Americans, who tend to vote Democrat, Harris’ speech, and her candidacy, generally have been warmly received.

But like all ethnic and religious communities, Indians, Tamils and Hindus in the United States are not monolithic. There is a smaller group that supports President Trump and, as such, don’t want Harris to win. And there are other factions who oppose the Biden-Harris ticket because of its perceived opposition Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s approach to Kashmir, a contentious, decades-old territorial dispute between India and Pakistan.

Many also have questioned Harris’ attachment to her Tamil and Hindu roots. Her religious identity has sparked interest as well.

“Kamala” is an Sanskrit word that means “lotus” and “Lakshmi,” the goddess of wealth and fortune. She is a member of Third Baptist Church of San Francisco.

She grew up in a household that accommodated Hindu and Christian religious practices. And she’s married to Douglas Emhoff, a Brooklyn-born lawyer who is Jewish. Her stepchildren call her “Mamala,” a play on the Yiddish word “mamele,” which means “little mama,” a term of endearment for moms.

A community proud of its roots

Harris’ complex background reflects the Indian American community in Southern California and around the country, which itself is a product of different cultures and religious beliefs, said Rose Muralikrishnan, a music instructor who teaches South Indian classical music in Artesia, home to Little India.

“I’m okay with her multiple identities,” Muralikrishnan said. “She knows Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism. I think she would do a better job leading the country because she has had this extraordinary exposure to different cultures and traditions.”

As a Tamil American, Muralikrishnan said, language matters, especially because Tamils take great pride in it.

She recalled music director A.R. Rahman’s speech after winning the Oscar for Best Musical Score in 2009 for the film “Slumdog Millionaire.” He concluded his speech with the Tamil phrase: “Ella pugazhum iraivanukke.” It means “all glory goes to God.”

“(Rahman) said that in a major awards ceremony, with the world watching,” Muralikrishnan said. “He knows English. But, he said it because he showed his commitment to his identity, his culture. Harris knew the one word she said in Tamil would create vibrations. She was able to show that part of her identity with the word ‘chitthi.’

“It was a pretty exciting way of expressing her identity in a subtle way.”

FILE – In this undated photo provided by the Kamala Harris campaign in April 2019, Iris Finegan holds her great-granddaughter, Kamala Harris, in Jamaica. Harris’s historic vice-presidential nomination has cast a spotlight on her identity as an Indian and as a Tamil woman. (Kamala Harris campaign via AP, File)

Concern about stance on Indian politics

Understanding multiple perspectives would likely help Harris make informed decisions as a leader, but her Tamil roots don’t “feel very special” to Irvine resident Sriram Kameswaran, a software engineer who, like Harris’ mother, comes from Tamil Nadu’s Brahmin community.

“I feel like I have some small connection because of her identity,” he said. “But until she openly and strongly acknowledges that part of her identity, the fact that she said one word in Tamil means nothing to me.”

Kameswaran would also like to see Harris clarify her position on how the United States should treat legal, highly-skilled workers who are in this country on non-immigrant visas. He doesn’t believe the Democrats have clearly stated their policies on this issue, which affects him. He also wants to know if Harris is “anti-Modi” or simply against Modi’s Kashmir policy.

“As long as she is neutral, I would be okay with it,” Kameswaran said. “But if she is blatantly anti-Modi, or against his approach to Kashmir, that would be a big concern for me.”

Harris is “nowhere close to an Indian American,” said Rajiv Varma, a Houston-based political activist who is a member of the national Facebook group that calls itself “Hindus for Trump.”

“An Indian American is someone who is raised in a certain cultural milieu,” he said. “For her, that was always African American, and that culture is as great and noble as any other culture. But she’s not Indian American by my definition.”

Varma said Harris’ comments and attitude about Kashmir and its integration into India have made her his “political enemy.”

“I’m not going to vote for her,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to me if her first name is Kamala. I can’t respect someone who will allow my spiritual homeland to be divided based on religion. Kashmir belongs to India.”

But for Indian Americans like Priya Shah, of Yorba Linda, who oppose Modi’s policies, Harris is a natural choice.

“I never felt she wasn’t Indian enough,” said Shah, whose parents emigrated from India.

“Who are we to be judging people’s authenticity? You shouldn’t have to choose between two sides of your family when you’re biracial.”

Shah believes Modi is committing civil rights atrocities against minorities in India, and that Harris’ views align with the values of her parents, who met as civil rights activists in Berkeley. And Shah — who once met Harris, briefly — said the candidate was an inspiration as she battled to help her transgender daughter attend school safely in a supportive environment.

“In the Indian community, the emphasis is always on staying and protecting your family,” Shah said.

“But (Harris) is an example of fighting for your family loudly. Having her talk to me about it when we met briefly, and answering my questions about transgender rights, was a moving experience for me.”

‘Not an offhand comment’

Harris referring to her aunts as “chitthis” during her acceptance speech was not a flippant comment, said one of her mother’s younger sisters, Dr. Sarala Gopalan, a gynecologist who lives in Chennai, a bustling metropolis of 7 million in India’s southeast coast and seat of Tamil Nadu’s state government.

“Kamala has always addressed us as chitthis,” Gopalan said. “It was not something that came out of nowhere.”

Both Kamala Harris and her sister, Maya, a lawyer and public policy advocate, know how to adapt when they visit India, their aunt said. The entire family came to Chennai in 1991 to celebrate Harris’s grandfather P.V. Gopalan’s 80th birthday, which is a landmark life event in Tamil Brahmin culture known as “Sadabhishekam.”

“Kamala and Maya were wearing saris and running around then,” her aunt reminisced. “No one could have guessed that these children were from the U.S. They know how to conduct themselves when they come here, and they have their own lives in the U.S.”

Harris’ grandparents, P.V. Gopalan and his wife, Rajam, lived in Besant Nagar, a diverse neighborhood by the Bay of Bengal. In a YouTube video with actor Mindy Kaling, in which Kaling and Harris made “masal dosai,” a rice crepe stuffed with curried potatoes, Harris talked about taking long walks during vacations as a little girl with her grandfather and learning about India’s struggle for freedom from British rule. Harris also mentioned some of the foods on which she grew up — rice and yogurt (thayir sadam); idlis (steamed rice and lentil cakes) and spiced potato curry. All are staples in Tamil Brahmin households everywhere.

Interestingly, the history and makeup of the neighborhoods that Harris walked with her grandad are as diverse as her own background.

Fisherfolk live in shacks with their nets spread in the sun along the seashore. Many streets are lined with apartment buildings, shops and the occasional bungalows. The community was named after Annie Besant, a British socialist, theosophist, activist and educator.

The community beach was named after Edward Elliott, the onetime chief magistrate and superintendent of police when the British ruled India. On the shores of Elliott’s Beach are an Ashtalakshmi Temple, dedicated to the Hindu goddess of wealth, and the Annai Velankanni Church, a Catholic shrine for the Virgin Mary.

Soon after Biden announced Harris as his running mate, Twitter saw the rise of the hashtag #Nammakamala (“our Kamala” in Tamil). Harris’ niece, Meena, tweeted out a Tamil poster from Gopalan’s native village in Tamil Nadu. The poster includes Harris’ image, identifies her as Gopalan’s granddaughter, and wishes her success in the upcoming U.S. election.

Sarala Gopalan said she and her sister, Mahalakshmi, who lives in Canada, and their brother, Balakrishnan Gopalan, in New Delhi, have followed Harris’ political career from different corners of the world. They came to California for the important events, too; Gopalan said the family was in San Francisco when Harris became District Attorney and, later, when she was sworn in as Attorney General and Senator.

“We are, of course, proud of her accomplishments,” Gopalan said. “But, through it all, her personality has not changed. She has always been the same Kamala.”

Gopalan also famously talked about how Harris asked her to break coconuts at the Ganesh temple before the 2016 Senate election. Gopalan broke 108 coconuts, believed to be an auspicious number.

“It’s not a big deal,” she said, waving off the attention. “We always do that. It’s just a part of our culture and beliefs.”

Karthick Ramakrishnan, professor of public policy at UC Riverside and director of the Center for Social Innovation, is a nationally-recognized scholar on immigration and race. He is pictured at Pomona College in Claremont on Sunday, August 9, 2020. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Identity and elections

Indian Americans, a group the Census pegs at about 3.8 million, already tend to vote Democrat. But Harris’ candidacy still could be a game changer if it prompts more younger Indian Americans to turn out to vote, said Karthick Ramakrishnan, director of the Center for Social Innovation at UC Riverside and and founding director of AAPI Data, a publisher of survey and policy research on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

“She would be the first Gen X president or vice president,” Ramakrishnan said. “That is relatable to Asian Americans born in this country. They see her as an inspiring example.”

Harris’ story also is reminiscent of Barack Obama’s.

“Everyone got to know her for the first time, when she announced her presidential campaign. People began to understand the nuances about her,” he said. “But Harris is also the first person on a national ticket where both parents are immigrants. And she is the first bi-racial candidate where neither race is white.”

In many ways, her nomination has opened up an important conversation about race stateside and worldwide, Ramakrishnan added. There is also a “Tiger Woods” phenomenon with Harris where you have different communities who want to claim her. Woods’ father was African American and his mother, Thai.

And, Ramakrishnan added, “white women also see Harris as a big deal because of her gender.”

Ramakrishnan, who is also of Tamil descent, says Harris’ nomination has given Tamil Americans “a moment.”

“This is not a generic Indian American moment,” he said. “This is not the Indian restaurant version of Indian food. We’ve moved to a much more specific area here. This is dosa and idli.”

Source: Orange County Register

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