Move over Sundar Pichai, Mindy Kaling. Kamala Harris is the new icon of Chennai


File photo of US Senator Kamala Harris | Sergio Flores | Bloomberg


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Hong Kong/Bangalore: When Democratic Party presidential nominee Joe Biden picked Kamala Harris to be his running mate, it sparked a frenzy on the other side of the globe to track down her connections to Chennai, the southern Indian city where her mother was born.

On Twitter and Facebook, a flurry of users chronicled every minute link including her grandparents’ home in the Besant Nagar neighborhood, from where her mother Shyamala Gopalan set off as a teenager to pursue a doctoral degree at the University of California Berkeley. Undated photos surfaced of Kamala and younger sibling Maya in saris, smilingly posing with their grandparents during a visit. Many saw Harris a step away from the White House, and the de facto Democratic Party front-runner in four or eight years.

Writer Cauvery Madhavan captured the hysteria in a tweet: “If you’re wondering what that loud windy up sound is – it’s all of Chennai cranking the #SixDegreesOfSeparation machine!! Any moment now my mother is going to triumphantly reveal that her pharmacist’s father was @KamalaHarris’s grandma’s preferred tailor.” Another Twitter user, Priya Ravichandran, jested, “I was asked to Google and find which relative lives in besant nagar. People are this close to renting party bus and do drive by near their house and celebrate kamala.”

Senator Harris is the first person of Indian descent and the first Black woman on a major ticket in a U.S. presidential election. Indian media outlets vied with American newspapers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal to analyze the geopolitical impact of her rise and what a Biden-Harris win could mean for U.S.-India relations. Local outlets and TV crews raced to hunt down an assortment of Harris’s aunts and even a great-uncle who detailed her visits to the sprawling metropolis and her strolls on its humid beaches discussing democracy and equality with her grandfather, a retired government official.

A prominent local newspaper, The Hindu BusinessLine, carried the headline: “Kamala Devi Harris and the destiny-changing coconuts from Chennai.” The story described Harris’s aunt praying for her victory in the California Senate elections nine years ago by breaking 108 coconuts, a popular religious ritual, at the local temple. The paper quoted Harris phoning her aunt to say, “Chithi (aunt), please pray for me and break coconuts at the temple.”

Twitter users highlighted her Indianness beginning with the name Kamala, which means lotus in several Indian languages. CNN’s local partner tweeted that “Kamala Harris loves idlis. And, sambhar” — fluffy rice cakes and spicy lentil stew often eaten for breakfast in India.

The fuss over Harris’s political elevation this week far outstripped the excitement over the rise of other Chennai-connected personalities such as actor Mindy Kaling and Alphabet Inc. Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai.

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