The Story of Shyamala Gopalan Harris

The Story of Shyamala Gopalan Harris

Once upon a time, in India, there was a 19-year-old girl named Shyamala. Shyamala was studying at the Lady Irwin College, the most exclusive school for girls in New Delhi, and her family had great expectations from that institution, but pretty soon, Shyamala and her parents realized that she wasn’t being taught the necessary skills to make important work! She was taught how to be the wife of a man who did important work.

“You’re too smart for that!” her parents told her and encouraged her to apply for a masters program at the University of Berkeley in California.

The day the response from Berkeley University arrived was filled with trepidation. She had been accepted in the program and that meant that now she had to move on her own on the other side of the world.

It was hard to say her goodbye’s at the airport: Shyamala didn’t want to leave her family and friends behind, and she was scared to move to a place where she didn’t know anyone but, in her heart, she knew that attending that master would give her the opportunity to help find a cure for cancer and that was more important than her fear.

When Shyamala arrived at Berkeley, a whole new world opened up.

When she was not studying at the department of zoology and in the cancer research lab, she was attending exciting meetings and organizing protests with fellow students who wanted to end discrimination of people of color in America.

Since phone calls were too expensive, Shyamala sent her family aerograms, which were letters written on very thin paper that she would then fold in the shape of an envelope. Those letters, light as air, would cheaply carry to her parents’ home in India the joy she felt for all the discoveries she was doing on her own.

In California, Shyamala was growing freer every day. And by growing freer, she was changing the world.

One day, at one of the political meetings she attended, she met a Jamaican young man named Donald. He was a professor of economics, and - just like her - he was an immigrant.

The two started talking about justice, about freedom, about their dreams, about their families back home, and about their countries. Chat after chat, they fell in love.

In 1963, Shyamala and Donald got married, and in 1964 they had a daughter that they called Kamala. Being a mom didn’t change Shyamala’s commitment to research and politics. While she cared for Kamala, she was also making important contributions in the research on breast cancer and attending as many protests as she could.


One day, during a march, Kamala started crying out loud from the stroller; Shyamala patiently bent down to her and asked her:
“What do you want, baby girl?”
Kamala’s voice was loud and clear as she answered: “Fwee-dom!”

Donald and Shyamala’s eyes filled with happy tears as they went on marching side by side. They secretly both knew that this fight for freedom would stick into their baby’s mind.

And so it did.
Kamala’s parents went on to have another baby, Maya, but then divorced a few years later.

It wasn’t an easy time for the Shyamala: she found herself as a single mom, having to raise two kids while working full time, but she never lost hope. She knew she owed it to herself and to her daughters to be the free woman she had learned to be, and to make the most of her freedom so that - one day - her daughters could make the most of their freedom too.

One day, the sisters put up a protest against a building’s policy that didn’t allow children to play in the communal garden.
The two girls were the only ones attending the protest, but they still managed to have that rule changed.

That evening at dinner, Maya couldn’t wait to tell their mom what had happened - she was sitting on the edge of her chair and was talking at a million words per hour, hardly breathing in between words while spitting out all her admiration for her older sister.

“Oh, Kamala” her mom’s chuckle turned into a big, warm smile
“You may be the first to do many things, but make sure you are not the last” - she said while caressing her daughter’s hair.

The rest is now history: both girls grew into wonderfully acclaimed women, never forgetting the woman who - by owning her independence and by overcoming her fears - had shown them how to experiment, celebrate their heritage, and to always keep their chin up.

Today, Kamala Harris is the first woman to be sworn in as Vice President of the United States of America. It’s our job to honor her mother’s wish and make sure she isn’t the last.

Sometimes, we think moms should sacrifice their freedom to grant their kids a better future. But it’s actually by honoring it that mothers can allow their children to spread their wings and soar higher.

Francesca Cavallo
Sylvia K. Bertolotti