Nearly thirty years after Vaishno Bagai’s suicide, a slender twenty-year-old Tamil Iyer girl boarded an international flight in Calcutta, clutching an acceptance letter from UC Berkeley and the few dollars her bureaucrat father PV Gopalan had scratched together for her trip. A $3,600 annual scholarship awaited her at the other end.
Her father had joined the British Imperial Secretariat service before India’s independence and rolled over into India’s Central Secretariat thereafter, and held the rank of “joint secretary” before superannuating with a sinecure to Lusaka, Zambia.
Gopalan, born to a Brahmin family in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, was the first in his family to get a college education and make his way to Delhi, where he worked his way up the bureaucracy. In the capital, Gopalan and his wife Rajam first set up home in Karol Bagh, then a mostly south Indian colony, and their children initially went to Tamil schools.
All four children were born in Madras (now Chennai) since Gopalan would send Rajam home for “delivery”. As Gopalan went up the government hierarchy, the family moved to the appropriate “Nagars” of Delhi – Sewa Nagar, Shaan Nagar, Maan Nagar – each designated to accommodate a particular level of bureaucracy, and whose names were later changed to Kasturba Nagar, Bharti Nagar, Rabindra Nagar, etc, after outcry about the undemocratic nomenclature.
Besides Delhi, Gopalan also served in Simla, Bombay and Calcutta. The transfers gave Shyamala and her siblings an eclectic, cosmopolitan education beyond the scope of an orthodox Tamil Brahmin upbringing.
In 1958, Gopalan was posted to Calcutta (now Kolkata) to supervise the refugee resettlement from erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Staying behind in Delhi to finish her undergraduate studies, Shyamala Gopalan, who went by the name G Shyamala in those days (in keeping with the south Indian tradition of carrying initials with their name rather than a second name), stayed on campus at Lady Irwin College, where she was studying BSc in home science.
Her classmate Ambalini Selvaraj (née Bailur), who also lived in the college hostel, remembers Shyamala as studious and religious. The dorm warden was a terrifying lady from Bangalore, named Miss Bryant; the girls were not allowed to go out late. But on weekends, they would hire a tonga (a horse-drawn carriage) or an autorickshaw to go to Birla Mandir.
The BSc home science degree itself was something of a joke in the Gopalan family, and indeed in much of India those days. “We would tease her and say, ‘What do they teach you in home science? To set up dinner plates for guests?’” recalls G Balachandran, Shyamala’s brother two years younger than her. “You have no idea what I am studying and what I want to do!” an agitated Shyamala would retort, channelling her angst into a first rank in BSc.
She had set her sights high. Lady Irwin College had just begun a master’s programme in nutrition, and Shyamala was eyeing a spot there. What she really wanted was to study in America, which at that time had opened its doors to Indian students via Fulbright and other scholarships.
Unbeknownst to the family, and with help from her teachers, Shyamala had been scoping universities abroad to study biochemistry, microbiology, and other subjects of interest. It may be hard for the Internet generation to visualise applying and securing admission to a foreign or any university without the convenience of the net, e-mail, WhatsApp, smartphones, etc. It was hard but it helped that the United States Information Service (USIS) and United States-India Educational Foundation (USIEF) offices were close to Lady Irwin College. Early engagement between Eisenhower’s America and Nehruvian India encouraged many young Indians to study in the United States.
Shyamala joined the family in Calcutta after she finished her BSc, enrolling for a diploma at the All India Institute of Hygiene & Public Health, established with assistance from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1932. Her classmate and hostel roommate Sarla Patel, who also moved from Delhi to Calcutta for the same course, remembers Shyamala pursuing her US plans relentlessly, constantly badgering the dean for advice.
“She was very single- minded about anything she wanted to pursue,” Patel, who now lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, recalled. Shyamala kept her family in the dark about her plans, concerned that her orthodox mother, who was otherwise broad-minded, would not allow her to go abroad. The eldest daughter would have to get married soon, as per the family tradition.
Ambalini and Sarla remember Shyamala bailing out on them from a post-exam vacation to Sri Lanka with their classmate Olivia Wijesinghe. The girls thought it was on account of her mother, but it is entirely possible Shyamala was simply chasing her dream.
Despite India’s recent past and her father’s supposed involvement in the freedom struggle – politics was the one subject Shyamala was not interested in. Those seeds bore fruit only later. She read a lot but was not particularly political before she left India, recalls Balachandran. Other friends, her classmates and dorm partners too, attest to her lack of interest in politics and civic issues. In fact, none remembered that Martin Luther King Jr visited India in January and February of 1959, the year culminating with the visit to New Delhi of President Dwight Eisenhower.
PV Gopalan backed his daughter when she announced that she had made it to UC Berkeley – as long as Shyamala could fend for herself financially. At twenty, not only had she secured admission by herself, but had also arranged her tuition fee, revealing the single-minded focus and ambition that were to become her trademark.
An affidavit Shyamala filed with the US consulate in Calcutta said she had been awarded the Hilgard scholarship for the academic year 1958-59, which yielded a princely sum of $3,600. Shyamala’s mother Rajam acquiesced to her daughter’s wish, believing she would return in a couple of years, in time for a traditional arranged marriage.
The entire family went to see her off at the airport. Her sister Sarala Gopalan – one of Kamala’s chitthis – now a retired physician in Chennai, remembers her sister taking a Pan American Airlines flight.
Excerpted with permission from Kamala Harris: Phenomenal Woman, Chidanand Rajghatta, HarperCollins.