The progressive Indian grandfather who inspired Kamala Harris
Posted by Pendar on December 12, 2022
For a girl from Berkeley, about 5 years old, the setting must have been intoxicating: a bungalow surrounded by greenery in a newly independent African capital, where children ran outside to wave at the president’s car as he drove past.
This was where a young Kamala Harris spent time in the late 1960s, at a house in Lusaka, Zambia, that belonged to her maternal grandfather, an Indian civil servant on assignment in an era of postcolonial ferment.
The Indian government had dispatched P.V. Gopalan to help Zambia manage an influx of refugees from Rhodesia — the former name of Zimbabwe — which had just declared independence from Britain. It was the capstone of a four-decade career that began when Gopalan joined government service fresh out of college in the 1930s, in the final years of British rule in India.
It was also the start of a relationship that would define Harris’ life. Until his death in 1998, Gopalan remained from thousands of miles away a pen pal and guiding influence — accomplished, civic-minded, doting, playful — who helped kindle Harris’ interest in public service.
As she campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination, Harris often invokes her late mother, Shyamala, a diminutive and dauntless breast cancer researcher who taught Kamala and her younger sister, Maya, to strive for excellence and lift others up.
These were principles Shyamala inherited from Gopalan and her mother, Rajam. In 1958, she surprised them by applying for a master’s program at UC Berkeley, a campus they had never heard of.
Gopalan was a Brahmin, part of a privileged elite in Hinduism’s ancient caste hierarchy. In post-independence India, convention destined Brahmin offspring for arranged marriages and comfortable careers in academia, government service or the priesthood — if they were men. Women were not expected to work at all.
She was 19, the eldest of their four children, and had never set foot outside India. Her parents dug into Gopalan’s retirement savings to pay her tuition and living costs for the first year.