Harris' use of Tamil word creates buzz in India

United States Senator Kamala Harris stoked interest in her Indian roots yesterday when she referred to her Tamil-born mother and "chithis" in her speech when she accepted the Democratic Party's nomination for vice-president.

The word "chithis" means "aunts" in Tamil.

Ms Harris spoke glowingly of her mother Shyamala Gopalan, who at 19 left her native Tamil Nadu in India for the US to become a cancer researcher.

She said her mother, who died of cancer in 2009, was "looking down on me from above".

In a reference to her Indian roots, Ms Harris thanked her family. "Family is my uncles, my aunts and my chithis."

The US vice-presidential nominee's Indian background has received blanket media coverage in India and yesterday was no exception.

"Kamala Harris mentions her "chithis" in her Democratic Convention speech, Twitter can't keep calm," blared a Hindustan Times newspaper headline.

Some parts of Tamil Nadu saw banners in support of Ms Harris pop up, a traditional way of marking momentous occasions in the southern state.

The state's deputy chief minister O. Panneerselvam had earlier described her nomination as a "moment of pride for Tamil Nadu".

Said Mr Sumanth Raman, a Tamil Nadu-based journalist and television anchor: "I think that there is a fair amount of interest and the fact that she used to visit Chennai in her younger days is known to everybody (here)."

He added: "There are people who are happy she has Indian roots but people are also saying that she should be judged by whatever she does and not just for being of Indian origin."

The 55-year-old junior senator from California is of mixed heritage as her father Donald Harris was a student from Jamaica who went on to teach economics at Stanford University.

She has been described in US media as the first black woman and the first of Indian descent as well to be nominated as a running mate in the presidential election.

In India, a debate has also been raging on what her nomination means for the South Asian country.

India-US ties have had bipartisan support through Democratic and Republican administrations over the years, and analysts here noted that Ms Harris' foreign policy direction would likely take its cue from Mr Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate.

"There is bipartisan support. Even then, issues of human rights could be raised on the Kashmir front (if the Democrats win)," said Distinguished Fellow Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan of New Delhi-based think-tank Observer Research Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 21, 2020, with the headline 'Harris' use of Tamil word creates buzz in India'. Print Edition | Subscribe