KT Opinion: Of idli, Saravana Bhavan, and Kamala Harris
Even though she is equally proud of her Indian heritage, she is not what her Indian fans think she is.
Persons of Indian origin doing well on a foreign land usually arouse strong emotions, sometimes a monsoon of nostalgia, among Indians.
The latest one to pique the interest of Indians is Kamala Harris, the woman who has just been nominated as the US Democrats' vice-presidential candidate. She will be deputy to Joe Biden, the party's presidential candidate, and will have a reasonable chance of a shot at the White House if the incumbent chooses not to run.
The Indian press, particularly social media, has got worked up and is digging out every bit of information - on her lifestyle to food habits - that would reaffirm her Indianness. The focus is on how her mother nurtured in her various qualities that made her who she is today.
Harris, we are told, has particular fondness for idli, a type of rice cake made in South India. Chefs in India and establishments outside have started to rave about how the fluffy dish will go global with the prospective US vice-president - and a potential president - talking about it. The many known and unknown qualities of the idli are being documented for their supposed benefits, especially for the ill and convalescing persons. So the idli has suddenly found itself as a global brand.
When the idli makes a big splash in the political curry, why should the dosa sulk in the pavilion? The sister dish too saw its global ratings go up.
An old video where Kamala was seen conversing with actor Mindy Kaling in her kitchen went viral soon after Biden made the announcement on his running mate. The video was made when the California senator was competing with Biden for the party ticket. She watched with interest as the actor, who is also of South Indian origin, went about making dosa. Even as she devoured the snack, she admitted she had never made one, but recalled some anecdotes about her grandfather and her Chennai trips.
The ebullient vice-presidential candidate is made to look more South Indian than she actually is. One angry Twitter user nailed this in a telling comment: "Kamala Harris is a US senator and not a Saravana Bhavan. She does not have to advertise her South Indianness."
Though she is half Indian, she is made to look like a full Indian. They fall back on her mother's overwhelming influence on her life to amplify her Indianness. Her father Donald Harris, the distinguished professor emeritus of Stanford University and a Jamaican, is non-existent in the narratives. They do not want her to be Kamala Harris; they want her to be Kamala Gopalan.
Shyamala Gopalan, according to the media reports, was acutely aware of the identity crisis that her two daughters - Kamala and Maya - were going to confront in their future lives. She brought them up as Black girls because that is how the rest of the community is looking at them. No effort was ever made to make them feel they are different from the African Americans.
The future California senator studied at a predominantly Black Howard University, which had the most formative influence on her. Later the same experiences shaped her career and politics. Between Black and Brown, she has chosen to be the former because that is how she sees herself. Though she is equally proud of her Indian heritage, she is not what her Indian fans think she is.
Questions of identity were always raised. In reply to a pointed query, Kamala told The Washington Post: "I am who I am. I'm good with it. You might need to figure it out, but I'm fine with it." This is how she negotiated her way through racial fault lines.
Kamala, with her pronounced pro-liberal views, may not measure up to the expectations of an average Indian nationalist, who most likely is a supporter of India's pro-Hindu ruling party. Her views on Kashmir and other issues have not gone down well with this group.
The cyber soldiers of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), popularly known as bhakts, are a touchy lot who get incensed or excited for the flimsiest of reasons. Kamala, the Hindu name more than the actual person, has stoked their pride, though her stated views may not be to their liking. Kamala in Sanskrit means lotus, which is BJP's party symbol, an additional consolation for the nationalist zealots.
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