How Kamala Harris’ mother, Shyamala Gopalan, came to America from Calcutta
Almost thirty years after Vaishno Bagai’s suicide, a twenty-year-old Tamil Iyer girl boarded an international flight to Calcutta, holding a letter of acceptance from UC Berkeley and the few dollars her bureaucrat father had PV Gopalan had raised for his trip. An annual scholarship of $ 3,600 awaited him at the other end.
His father had joined the service of the British Imperial Secretariat before the independence of India and then joined the Central Secretariat of India.
Gopalan, born to a Brahmin family in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, was the first in his family to attend university and travel to Delhi, where he rose through the ranks of the bureaucracy. In the capital, Gopalan and his wife Rajam first settled in Karol Bagh, then a mostly southern Indian colony, and their children were initially educated in Tamil schools.
The four children were born in Madras (now Chennai) since Gopalan would send Rajam home for “childbirth”. As Gopalan moved up the government hierarchy, the family moved to the appropriate ‘Nagars’ in Delhi – Sewa Nagar, Shaan Nagar, Maan Nagar – each appointed to accommodate a particular level of bureaucracy, and whose names were subsequently changed. been changed to Kasturba Nagar, Bharti Nagar, Rabindra Nagar, etc., after the outcry against the undemocratic nomenclature.
Besides Delhi, Gopalan also served in Simla, Bombay and Calcutta. The transfers gave Shyamala and her siblings an eclectic and cosmopolitan upbringing beyond the reach of a Tamil Orthodox upbringing.
In 1958, Gopalan was posted to Calcutta (now Kolkata) to oversee the resettlement of refugees from the former East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Remaining in Delhi to complete his undergraduate studies, Shyamala Gopalan, who at the time was called G Shyamala (following the South Indian tradition of wearing initials with their name rather than a second name) , remained on Lady Irwin’s campus. College, where she was studying BSc in Home Science.
Her classmate Ambalini Selvaraj (nÃ©e Bailur), who also lived in the university hostel, remembers Shyamala as a studious and nun. The dorm manager was a terrifying woman from Bangalore named Miss Bryant; girls were not allowed to go out late. But on the weekends, they would rent a tonga (horse-drawn carriage) or autorickshaw to get to Birla Mandir.
The BSc Home Science degree itself was kind of a joke in the Gopalan family, and even in much of India at that time. âWe would tease her and say, what are they teaching you in home science? To prepare the plates for the guests? ‘ Â», Remembers G Balachandran, the brother of Shyamala of two years his junior. âYou have no idea what I’m studying and what I want to do! A restless Shyamala would retort, channeling her anguish into a first row in BSc.
She had worked harder. Lady Irwin College had just started a master’s program in nutrition, and Shyamala was eyeing a place there. What she really wanted was to study in America, which at the time had opened its doors to Indian students through Fulbright and other scholarships.
Unbeknownst to the family and with the help of his teachers, Shyamala had studied at universities abroad to study biochemistry, microbiology and other subjects of interest. It can be difficult for the internet generation to view the app and get admission to a foreign university or any university without the convenience of the net, email, WhatsApp, smartphones, etc. It was difficult but it helped that the United States Information Service (USIS offices) and United States-India Educational Foundation (USIEF) were close to Lady Irwin College. Eisenhower’s early engagement between America and Nehruvian India encouraged many young Indians to study in the United States.
Shyamala joined the family in Calcutta after completing her BSc, enrolling for a degree at the All India Institute of Hygiene & Public Health, established with help from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1932. Her classmate and roommate Sarla Patel, who also moved from Delhi to Calcutta for the same course, recalls Shyamala relentlessly pursuing his American plans, constantly harassing the dean for advice.
âShe was very determined about whatever she wanted to pursue,â recalls Patel, who now lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Shyamala kept his family informed of his plans, fearing that his otherwise broad-minded Orthodox mother would allow him to go abroad. The eldest daughter is expected to get married soon, according to family tradition.
Ambalini and Sarla recall that Shyamala bailed them out from their post-exam vacation in Sri Lanka with their classmate Olivia Wijesinghe. The girls thought it was because of her mother, but it’s entirely possible that Shyamala was just chasing her dream.
Despite India’s recent past and her father’s supposed involvement in the struggle for freedom, politics was the only topic Shyamala was not interested in. These seeds did not bear fruit until later. She read a lot but was not particularly political before leaving India, recalls Balachandran. Other friends, his classmates and dorm partners as well, attest to his lack of interest in politics and civic issues. In fact, no one remembered that Martin Luther King Jr had visited India in January and February 1959, the year culminating with President Dwight Eisenhower’s visit to New Delhi.
PV Gopalan supported her daughter when she announced that she had visited UC Berkeley – as long as Shyamala could manage financially. By the age of twenty, not only had she gotten her admission on her own, but also organized her tuition, revealing the determined focus and ambition that would become her trademark.
An affidavit filed by Shyamala with the US Consulate in Calcutta stated that she had received the Hilgard Fellowship for the academic year 1958-59, which brought in a princely sum of $ 3,600. Shyamala’s mother, Rajam, granted her daughter’s wish, believing that she would return in a few years, in time for a traditional arranged marriage.
The whole family went to see her at the airport. Her sister Sarala Gopalan – one of Kamala’s chitthis – now a retired doctor in Chennai, remembers her sister taking a Pan American Airlines flight.
Extracted with permission from Kamala Harris: phenomenal woman, Chidanand Rajghatta, HarperCollins.