Vice President-elect Kamala Harris has spoken movingly of her family in India—from her memories of walking on the beach with her grandfather during visits to Chennai to her statement, in her Democratic National Convention speech, that “Family is my uncles, my aunts and my chittis.” It’s a reminder of her immigrant parents—in particular of her mother’s courage in coming to the U.S.—and that so many people in this country have similar experiences across countries and cultures.
That said, there’s one kind of coverage of Harris’ Indian background I’d like to see retired. Around the time of the November elections, there was a flurry of stories about her “ancestral village” in India, where her grandfather was born. These stories are typically filled with exoticizing details about the villagers’ excitement, but what they are not filled with is an actual connection between Harris and the village of Thulasendrapuram. As such, can we please not go there again as part of inauguration coverage?
Harris’ grandfather, P.V. Gopalan, was a civil servant whose career included stints in New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, and as far as Lusaka, Zambia, and who retired to Chennai, in his home state of Tamil Nadu. Harris’ mother, Shyamala Gopalan, therefore grew up in major cities around India. While her decision to go to the U.S. for school at 19—and her family allowing it—was extremely unusual for a single woman at the time, it’s not like she had spent her life in a single small village. How many people growing up in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s can say they lived in multiple cities with populations in the millions?
Kamala Harris grew up visiting her grandparents mostly in Besant Nagar, which is variously described as one of the “coolest neighborhoods” or an “upscale, exclusive residential neighborhood” in Chennai, now a city of some eight million people and a major cultural and economic center in its region. Those descriptions of the village of Thulasendrapuram, “ringed by lush green rice paddies” and filled with dhoti-wearing villagers writing in “colorful rangoli powder on a dirt lane in front of their homes”? They get creepy with repetition, because nowhere in any of several that I read did anyone draw a closer connection between Harris and Thulasendrapuram than that her grandfather was born there. To consider the leap being made here, think about your own family. My grandfather was born in rural Nevada and, like P.V. Gopalan, left his birthplace to become a civil servant. That means I grew up visiting my grandfather in a ranch-style house in Bethesda, Maryland, not an actual ranch in Nevada, and no one would consider me to have deep personal ties to Nevada.
So, gee, what is it about the village where Harris’ grandfather was born that draws such attention? The sheer volume of coverage of the villagers’ celebrations showed U.S. publications to be more interested in painting a portrait of a poor rural area than in reflecting the India that Harris’ close family members have inhabited. Reading the coverage, it’s hard not to think about Edward Said’s Orientalism, with its argument that western thought has produced Asia and other “Oriental” parts of the world as exotic and inferior others. Harris has been clear that the way her mother’s family shaped her was in their support of a single daughter going across the world to graduate school; in listening to her grandfather and his friends talk about politics and “the importance of democracy,” as she said in one 2018 speech; in her ongoing relationships with her mother’s siblings, of whom she’s said “Not one of them was traditional.” Those stories give us important information about Harris herself, even if they’re not as clicky as celebrating villagers.
The funny part is that Thulasendrapuram’s big celebrations of Harris’ candidacy and election also had an angle: People there are openly hoping that the connection, however tenuous, to a prominent person will send some money the way of the village, and apparently they know what will draw the attention of the U.S. media. But for that U.S. media, there are better—and less racially problematic—stories to be told.
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