The Varasiddhi Vinayagar Temple at Besant Nagar in Chennai has a special place in California senator Kamala Harris’ heart. Not just because her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, was in the committee when the temple was constructed. But because nine years ago, when Joe Biden’s new running mate contested California's Attorney General election, she called her maternal aunt Sarala Gopalan with a request: “ Chithi (aunt), please pray for me and break coconuts at the temple.”
Gopalan broke 108 coconuts at the temple in a ritual that symbolises overcoming all obstacles and breaking free. After her victory, Harris called her aunt to thank her. “Your coconuts worked, Chithi . For every coconut you broke, I got 1,000 votes,” she said happily. Six years later, when Harris contested to become a senator in 2016, Gopalan again broke 108 coconuts. Harris won again.
Today, Gopalan has reasons to break not just 108 but 1,008 coconuts. Her 55-year old niece made history on Tuesday when the presumptive Democratic party presidential nominee Joe Biden chose Harris as his vice-presidential running mate. She is the first woman of colour and a South Asian to be picked as a vice-presidential candidate for a major party in the US. “We don’t live in Besant Nagar anymore. But yes, when I go there, I will break coconuts this time too,” an elated Gopalan told BusinessLine.
‘A proud woman’
A gynaecologist and obstetrician by profession, Sarala attributed Harris’ growth to her elder sister Shyamala’s support and upbringing. “My sister went to the US at a very young age. She was very progressive and always taught her children what is right and wrong,” she said, adding, “Shyamala never stopped her from pursuing her interests.” Harris, for her part, never loses an opportunity to acknowledge this or, for that matter, the role played by her grandfather PV Gopalan, a career civil servant, in building her social consciousness at a tender age. Her mother, of course, was a major influence in her life. She has repeatedly called her mother, ‘a proud woman’ with the ability to dream and then work to make it come true. When Shyamala died in 2009, Harris flew down to Chennai to immerse her ashes in the Bay of Bengal according to her mother’s wish. She had remained in touch with her mother’s family and continues to enjoy Vathakuzhambu and lemon rasam – her favourite South Indian dishes.
When the news of Harris’ selection as Biden’s running mate came, Sarala was reminded of what her barrier-breaking niece told when she was running for the Senate. “ Chithi , I am not going to stop here and I will keep going.”
Will the journey lead to the White House?