As a child wandering between the legs of the aunts, uncles and family friends who filled her grandparents’ apartment in Chennai, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, a young Kamala Harris grew used to being addressed in Tamil.
It was the main language spoken by her grandmother, who had only fragmented English, and over the years of Harris’s childhood trips from California to Chennai – which back then was called Madras – to visit her mother’s side of the family, she slowly learned to understand, if not speak, the mother tongue of her Indian relatives.
Standing at the Democratic convention podium last week accepting her historic nomination for US vice-president, Harris made a passing but significant nod to this aspect of her heritage. She said her mother had “raised us to know and be proud of our Indian heritage”, adding: “Family is my uncles, my aunts and my chithis.”
Harris is the first candidate of Indian descent to be on a US presidential ticket, and her use of chithi, the Tamil term of endearment meaning “auntie”, sent reverberations through south Asian households in the US and also those watching 8,000 miles away in India.
“I literally have tears in my eyes,” tweeted the model and chef Padma Lakshmi, who like Harris’s mother was born in Chennai and moved to the US. “Kamala Harris just said ‘chithis’ which means auntie. My heart is so full right now.”
Harris’s use of Tamil in her speech has boosted her growing fanbase in India, particularly in the tiny eastern Tamil Nadu village of Painganadu where her grandfather PV Gopalan was born in 1911 and which Harris visited once as a child with her grandmother.
In the past week posters have appeared all over the village, emblazoned with Harris’s face and bearing slogans expressing local pride, wishing her good luck and describing her as “lion-hearted”.
Bharathi Selvam, 27, whose grandfather knew Harris’s grandfather, was among those in Painganadu who organised for the posters to be hung up in the village tea shop and on every lane. “It is a very proud moment for us,” he said. “We have all become very active, everyone has put up signs supporting her and started reading about American politics. We have all been offering prayers for her, so I am sure she will win.”
Harris’s Indian side of the family still send financial donations to the Dharma Shastra temple in the village, and her name, alongside those of her relatives, is carved into the temple wall. The temple’s administrator SV Ramanam, 71, said Harris’s aunt Sarala Gopalan had asked him to perform a small prayer ritual to offer good luck for her niece. “The villagers are very elated at this news,” said Ramanam.
Harris’s mother, Shyamala Gopalan, left India aged 19 after being offered a part-funded PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. According to Harris and her Indian relatives, Shyamala ensured that her two daughters did not lose touch with their Indian heritage despite growing up in America.
Every few years Shyamala, who worked as a cancer research scientist and was also a renowned singer of traditional Carnatic music, would bring her daughters to Chennai to visit her retired grandparents, and Harris would take formative walks with her grandfather along the beach. Harris was not able to come back to India for the funeral of her grandfather, who died suddenly in 1999, but she returned to Chennai beach to scatter the ashes of her mother, who died of cancer in 2009.
In a speech last week at a “South Asians for Biden” event, Harris spoke of her times in Chennai. “Growing up, my mother would take my sister Maya and me back to what was then called Madras because she wanted us to understand where she had come from and where we had ancestry,” she recalled. “And of course, she always wanted to instil in us a love of good idli.”
Harris’s bonds with the Indian side of her family have remained tight and they all flew out to Washington for her inauguration as a senator in 2017.
“We are naturally very proud,” said Harris’s uncle G Balachandran, 79, who lives in Delhi. “This has brought great happiness to us all in her family.”