Kamala Harris’s late mother left her native India in 1960, but half a world away from Washington the uncle and aunt of the US vice-president hopeful follow her every move — and are very proud.
Harris was born in California in 1964 to a Jamaican father, economics professor John Harris, and breast cancer specialist Shyamala Gopalan.
She was the first black attorney general of California — the first woman to hold the post — and the first woman of South Asian heritage to be elected to the US Senate.
Following her nomination on Tuesday as presidential hopeful Joe Biden’s running mate, the 55-year-old is now seeking to become the first female vice president of the United States.
“There is no question about how happy we are,” Harris’s maternal uncle Balachandran Gopalan, an academic in the Indian capital New Delhi, told AFP on Wednesday.
“She is a very committed personality — committed to public service and most importantly committed to common human decency,” he said.
Shyamala would often bring her daughters to India, the uncle said, and when she died in 2009 Harris returned “to immerse her ashes in the Bay of Bengal”.
He added that while Harris can’t speak Tamil, the language of the southern state of Tamil Nadu that the family comes from, “she can understand a little bit”.
He believes the nomination of Kamala — her name meaning “lotus” in Tamil, as well as in Sanskrit and Hindi — is a “big deal” for Indian Americans.
“So far they have only achieved high professional jobs, but this is one of the highest political jobs,” he said.
Harris’s aunt Sarala Gopalan, who still lives in the city her big sister left at 19 — Tamil Nadu’s capital Chennai, formerly Madras — said the entire family is “thrilled and happy”.
“A friend of mine in the United States gave us the message at 4 am in the morning, and we have been up, since then,” Gopalan, a doctor, told news channel CNN-News18.
“She is a person who never forgets her roots and believes in family values,” she told the Deccan Herald daily.
“Even today she calls me ‘chithi’ and she has always been a caring person,” she said, using the Tamil word for a mother’s younger sister.
And since Shyamala is no longer alive, “we will always be available for Kamala and (her sister) Maya”, she said.
Besides her mother, Harris has said that a major influence was her maternal grandfather P.V. Gopalan — father of Shyamala, Balachandran, Sarala and another daughter, Mahalakshmi — a senior Indian civil servant.
“He would take walks every morning along the beach with his buddies who were all retired government officials and they would talk about politics, about how corruption must be fought and about justice,” Harris said in a 2009 interview.
“My grandfather was really one of my favourite people in my world.”