Until recently, American elections used to evoke in me, not angst, but wonder. When Bill Clinton ran for president, I watched The Man from Hope, a documentary about his life, over and over again, feeling inspired by the story of a boy who rose from an abusive childhood to reach the highest office in the world.
Through the summer of 2008, as the world teetered on the edge of a financial meltdown and my mother lay dying in our house in Nagpur, I sat by her bedside, reading Barack Obama’s memoir, Dreams from my Father, and marveling at the miracle of America.
Even today, as a criminal occupies the White House and I dread the demise of the American promise, I come across the story of Shymala Gopalan and feel I’ve met my soulmate.
I am talking of Kamala Harris’ mother, who, until recently, I did not know was Indian. Why, as Harris rose through the political ranks, she never spoke of her mother, remains a mystery, but I find Shyamala to be a fascinating figure. I can’t imagine a young woman from Madras – now Chennai – venturing into the University of California, Berkeley, at a time when few Indians had even heard of the place.
I recall when I was a school kid in the 1960s and America was just entering into my consciousness. The Kennedys had appeared on the world scene and Jackie Kennedy was visiting India.
I imagine the young Shyamala leaving Madras, a place of Hindu orthodoxy and spicy food, and arriving alone in Berkeley just as the ‘60s were in the offing. I can envision her being thrown into the tumult of Vietnam War protests and civil rights movements.
Nearly two decades later, I arrived in Berkeley to find myself just as exotic as Shyamala once was. In the ‘70s, there were still very few Indian women on campus and even fewer role models to follow.
How had Shyamala navigated this terrain nearly twenty years earlier? What were her guiding principles? Did she find Berkeley’s liberal politics and culture just as invigorating as I found it? Did the Americans of Berkeley, a breed unto themselves, wrap their arms around her just as they had done around me? Did she relish this place where she could live without restrictions or fear of judgment, just as I had done? Did she welcome the absence of expectations?
I am convinced that she did. Why else would she fall in love with a black man from Jamaica? Why, when it became imperative, would she divorce him and strike out on her own as a single mother?
But the question that haunts me is this: how did Shyamala have the courage of her conviction that I’ve had to struggle to maintain?
Arriving in the US decades after Shyamala, I experienced the stigma of divorce out of my arranged marriage. I was ostracized, not by the Americans, but by the Indian community, which had just begun forming in the Silicon Valley. Later, I felt the taboo of my marriage to a white Englishman.
I felt I had been wronged.
But Shyamala overcame so much more. When Kamala mentions that her grandparents had no telephone and had to rely on writing flimsy aerograms that took two weeks to arrive in Berkeley, I tear up. Decades after I arrived in the US, my parents too did not have a phone. For them, calling me involved an expedition at a prearranged time to my cousin’s house in another suburb.
I imagine that the lack of communication made it easier for Shyamala to break away, to assimilate into North American society; to eventually take the professorship in medical research at McGill University in Montreal and move her two daughters there.
Just as it had enabled me to strike on my own path.
Recently, I came across a picture of Shyamala walking her daughters to an elementary school in Berkeley. In the photo, she is wearing black stockings, a short plaid skirt, matching vest, and a black blouse. With her strong Indian features, curly hair, and beaded earrings, she looks like a woman who is working hard to assimilate. The picture reminds me of the first skirt and vest outfit I had purchased nearly forty years ago for attending job interviews. With my knee-length hair and off-the-boat expression, I’d perhaps looked just as out of place in it as Shyamala had done.
The thought fills me with a kinship that I haven’t experienced with any other immigrant female. I marvel at the miracle of our nation which, every four years, presents us with unique stories of the American journey.
Sarita Sarvate (www.saritasarvate.com) has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and many nationwide publications.
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