It was an extraordinary Saturday night for 18-year-old Shastika Jagadambal, an interior design student from Thulasendrapuram village in the southern Indian city of Chennai.
Like many people in the ancestral home of Kamala Harris' Indian grandfather, Jagadambal was closely following the agonising vote count unfolding in America when one of her relatives in Boston called her and said that California Senator Kamala Harris was now vice-president elect Kamala Harris. Jagadambal's family rushed to switch on the television and watch it live. The next morning, the tiny hamlet of around 350 people celebrated the historic victory by offering prayers, distributing sweets, dancing, singing, organizing mass meals and setting off fireworks.
“This is an inspiration to all of us,” Jagadambal told VICE News. “Many women will come out of their cocoon now and liberate the world.”
Harris, 56, will be the first person of South Asian descent, the first woman, and the first woman of colour to hold the office of vice president in the U.S.
Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, was 19 when she left India for the U.S. to study at the University of California. In 1963, Gopalan married Donald J Harris, a Jamaican immigrant.
Through her remarkable rise, Harris has put the lush, nondescript Indian village on the world map. Residents there were on edge while waiting for results, with many expecting the election to be called on Nov. 4. But as the tight race came down to a few key states, villagers constantly checked updates through newspapers, phone calls, WhatsApp groups and other online platforms.
On Wednesday, a prayer service was conducted at the local Hindu temple to ensure results tilted in favour of Harris and Biden.
Indians took a high level of interest in the U.S. presidential contest due to Trump's stance on various geopolitical issues, his perceived bonding with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and, of course, Harris’ India connection.
Data shows that on Nov. 4, “US election” and “American election 2020 result” accounted for over a million individual online searches in India.
“People were anxious as if it were a local election,” 58-year-old village resident Kalidas Vamdayar told VICE News. "Until she [Harris] filed her nomination, people here only knew that she lives in the U.S. and has donated some amount to the local temple.”
Names of both Gopalan and Harris are mentioned in the list of donors sculpted inside the temple.
Harris’ name is engraved in a black marble stone on one of the walls. among its list of donors. It reads “Kamala Harris…Chennai…5000 (the amount in INR).”
Harris' maternal grandfather, PV Gopalan, moved from the village to Chennai around 80 years ago.
“We used to have regular prayers. Suddenly, politicians as well as villagers are thronging, all rooting for the lady who is connected to this village,” Ramanan SV, a local administrator, told VICE News about the frenzied atmosphere.
Posters and cutouts with Harris' pictures and “huge success” written on them were distributed in the village on Sunday, as Thulasendrapuram residents gave interviews to local and global media outlets. "Lot of people appeared on TV channels. I'm not sure when something like this will happen again,” Ramanan said.
Indian leader Modi has described the U.S. vice-president elect's success as “pathbreaking, and a matter of immense pride for her relatives and also for all Indian-Americans.”
Harris herself referred to her South Asian background in her acceptance speech, particularly hailing her mother: “And to the woman most responsible for my presence here today — my mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, who is always in our hearts.”
“When she came here from India at the age of 19, maybe she didn’t quite imagine this moment,” she added. “But she believed so deeply in an America where a moment like this is possible.”
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