October 14, 2021
THE MATRIARCH OF THE HARRIS FAMILY
Before Kamala grew into these multitudes, she was the firstborn of Shyamala Gopalan Harris, a woman of multitudes herself. Shyamala was a leading cancer researcher, an ardent civil rights activist, and a devoted mother. Shyamala refused to allow anyone to define her by just one thing, and she passed that same wisdom on to her daughters. “Don’t let anyone tell you who you are — you tell them who you are” was a common lesson repeated to all the Harris women, and it’s one that they all live by.
Shyamala’s parents — Kamala and Maya’s grandparents — P.V. Gopalan and Rajam Gopalan, lived a traditional life by some regards. They were born to Tamil Brahmin families (the upper caste in Hinduism), their marriage arranged by their families. P.V. began his career as a stenographer for the British government, and served in the Indian government after independence. Rajam focused on raising their four children and getting the family settled in their new home every few years, due to P.V.’s job.
When it came to their four children, P.V. and Rajam prioritized education and letting each child forge their own path over arranging marriages with other Tamil Brahmin families. The typical path for a woman like Shyamala was to marry a man selected by her parents, raise a family, and teach singing (she was an accomplished singer in India and won a national competition as a teen). With her family’s blessing and financial support, Shyamala immigrated to the United States in 1958 to earn her Ph.D. in nutrition and endocrinology at the University of California, Berkeley.