Shyamala Gopalan was a pioneering woman of colour in America, a scientist and an activist. She was also Vice-President Kamala Harris’s mother and her “greatest influence”. Geeta Pandey in Delhi and Vineet Khare in Washington DC look at her life.
Just hours before her inauguration last week, Vice-President Harris paid tribute to the women who had aided her journey to the second highest position in the US government.
In a video posted to Twitter, she began with “the woman most responsible for my presence here today, my mother Shyamala Gopalan Harris”.
“When she came here from India at the age of 19, maybe she didn’t quite imagine this moment,” she said.
“But she believed so deeply in an America where a moment like this is possible.”
Ms Harris has made history – she’s the first woman and first black and South Asian American to become the US vice-president.
But the story of her rise couldn’t be written if it wasn’t for an audacious journey her mother made in 1958 when she travelled to the US from India to pursue her own dreams.
The oldest of the four children of a civil servant father and a homemaker mother, Ms Gopalan wanted to study biochemistry.
But hard sciences were not on offer at Delhi’s Lady Irwin College for women, founded by India’s British colonial rulers, and she had to settle for an undergraduate degree in home science, where she would have studied subjects like nutrition and homemaking skills.
“My father and I would tease her about it,” Gopalan Balachandran, her brother, told the BBC.
“We’d ask her, ‘What do they teach you there? How to lay the table? Where to place the spoon?’ She’d get very angry with us,” he laughs.
Prof R Rajaraman, emeritus professor of theoretical physics at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University and a classmate of Ms Gopalan’s when they were teenagers, describes her as “unusual”.
In their class of 40 students, girls and boys sat on separate sides of the classroom and there was little interaction between genders.
“But she wasn’t shy about speaking to boys. She was confident,” he remembers.
Prof Rajaraman says it’s a mystery why she chose to go to Lady Irwin College since in those days it was known “as a place that specialised in preparing girls for marriage, to be good wives”.
But Ms Gopalan had other ambitions.
She applied – and was accepted – to University of California at Berkeley.
“She did it on her own. No one at home knew,” says her brother.
“Father had no problems with her going abroad, but he was worried because we didn’t know anyone in the US. But he believed in the importance of education so he let her go. She had received some scholarship and he agreed to support her for the first year.”
So, at the age of 19, Ms Gopalan left India for a country she’d never visited and where she didn’t know anyone to eventually pursue a PhD in nutrition and endocrinology.
Ms Harris has written about her mother’s journey in The Truths We Hold, her 2019 memoir.
“It’s hard for me to imagine how difficult it must have been for her parents to let her go,” she writes.
“Commercial jet travel was only just starting to spread globally. It wouldn’t be a simple matter to stay in touch. Yet, when my mother asked permission to move to California, my grandparents didn’t stay in the way.”
It was an interesting time to be in the US.
The civil rights movement was at its peak and Berkeley was at the centre of protests against racial discrimination. Like many other foreign students, Ms Gopalan too joined in the fight to make the US – and the world – a better place.
Still, participating in the civil rights movement was an unusual thing for a student from India to do in that era.
Margot Dashiell, who first met her in 1961 at a café on campus, told the BBC: “I had a sense that she could personally identify with the struggles that African-American students were processing and confronting because she came from a society where she understood the oppression of colonialism.
“This is going back many decades, but I do remember her saying to me once, and shaking her head, that white people – outsiders – just didn’t understand the struggles, the taking of privileges. She didn’t go into detail, and I took it that it was something that she experienced as a person of colour.”
Friends describe her as “a tiny petite person” who stood out in her sari and the red dot (bindi) that she wore on her forehead. They say she was “a bright student” who was “articulate, assertive, and intellectually sharp”.
Ms Dashiell recalls “her ease in holding her own with the intellectually confident and assertive men… going toe-to-toe in discussions”.
“Only a few women in our social circle had that level of ease in that male-dominated environment.”
She remembers her as “the only Indian, the only non-African American, in the Afro-American Association” – a study group black students formed in 1962 to educate African-American students about their history.
No-one ever questioned her presence in a group that was almost exclusively black, says Aubrey LaBrie, who met Ms Gopalan in 1962 when he was studying law at Berkeley, and formed a lifelong friendship with her.
“We all were interested in the developments in civil rights movement in this country. Of course, we saw it as being part of the Third World liberation movements and I guess that was the basis of her participation in this group. We all saw ourselves as part of the same kind of brothers and sisters intellectually supportive of those kinds of movements.
“Nobody made any issue out of her background, although people were concerned internally that it was a black group and they wouldn’t have welcomed a European student. But I never recall it being any issue that was discussed whether she should participate or not.”
It was her tryst with activism, her participation in the civil rights movement, that changed the course of her life.
Ms Harris writes that her mother was expected to return home after completing her education and to have an arranged marriage just like her parents “but fate had other plans”.
In 1962, she met Donald Harris, who had come from Jamaica to study economics at Berkeley, and they fell in love.
The couple met at a gathering of black students when Ms Gopalan went up to him to introduce herself. She was, he recently told New York Times, “a standout in appearance relative to everybody else in the group of both men and women”.
As Ms Harris says, her parents “fell in love in that most American way while marching together for justice and the civil rights movement”.
They married in 1963 and a year later, at age 25, Ms Gopalan both earned her PhD and gave birth to Kamala. Two years later came Maya, the couple’s second child.
The wedding with a foreigner apparently didn’t go down well with Ms Gopalan’s Tamil Brahmin family.
In an interview in 2003, Shyamala Gopalan said that by marrying an American, she had broken the “Gopalan bloodline that goes back more than 1,000 years”.
Mr Balachandran says “she didn’t tell us that she was getting married”, although he insists their parents “had no serious problems and their only concern was that they hadn’t met the groom”.
One time, he says, he overheard “Kamala and Maya asking their grandfather if he didn’t like their father.”
“He told them: ‘Your mother liked him and he had no bad habits, so what’s there not to like’?”
The first time Ms Gopalan’s parents met their son-in-law was in 1966 – three years after her marriage – and on the neutral grounds of Zambia, where her father was posted at the time.
The marriage didn’t last long. The couple split when Ms Harris was five, and although she and her sister Maya visited their father during the holidays, their mother raised them mostly on her own.
Last year, while accepting her nomination as vice-president, Ms Harris said her mother’s life as a single parent wasn’t easy and that she worked around-the-clock – doing cutting-edge cancer research while caring for her daughters.
Ms Gopalan, who died in February 2009 at 70 from colon cancer, is known around the world for making significant discoveries about the role of hormones in breast cancer.
She started her career doing research at Berkeley’s Department of Zoology and its Cancer Research Laboratory, went on to work in France, Italy and Canada, before returning to the Lawrence Berkeley Lab at California for the last decade of her work.
Joe Gray, a scientist and Ms Gopalan’s boss at the Lawrence Berkley Laboratory, described her as “a very serious scientist, quite willing to engage in scientific give-and-take during discussions”.
Ms Gopalan, he told the BBC, was very open about her own cancer diagnosis.
“She was one of those that just said ‘this is what it is and I am going to press on as long as I can’,” he said.
As her cancer spread, Mr Balachandran says, his sister decided to return to India, to spend the end of her life in the comforting company of her mother and sister. But it was a trip she was never able to make.
Mr LaBrie remembers his last conversation with his good friend, knowing she had plans to return to her country of birth.
“I thought it was like a romantic notion of being in touch with her heritage at that stage of her life,” he said.
“Among other things, I said, ‘Shyamala, I’m glad to hear you are going back to India.’ She said, ‘Aubrey I am not going any place.’ She died shortly after that.”
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