The networks had barely called the US presidential election for Joe Biden when a friend, who happens to be Tamil, forwarded a joke circulating on her family WhatsApp group. Since then the same joke has popped up all over social media. It goes something like this:
Actually, Kamala Harris is Padmanabhan’s sister’s son-in-law’s father’s sister’s husband’s brother, P V Gopalan’s granddaughter! I’ve seen her Chennai cousins at my niece’s child’s first birthday.
There are non-joke versions too. Shatrughan Sinha claims his niece has been “closely associated” with Harris. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, riffing off Harris’ call-out to her chittis (aunts in Tamil), has tweeted her victory is a “matter of immense pride not just for your chittis, but also for all Indian-Americans”. Seeing everyone falling over themselves to find their six (preferably two) degrees of separation from Harris, a friend wondered wryly whether all of them would have been as enthusiastic about a political Indian woman falling in love with a black man in their own families that too over 50 years ago. I am not sure that much has changed even now.
In 1991, Mira Nair made Mississippi Masala where Meena falls in love with Demetrius, a black man in the American South. She tells her mother: “I love him. That’s not a crime, is it?” The mother retorts: “You call this love? When all you have done is bring such shame on our heads.”
Nair was making a stinging point about race. Bollywood, on the other hand, remains oblivious to its race problem. In Madhur Bhandarkar’s Fashion (2008), the model played by Priyanka Chopra realises she has hit rock bottom when she wakes up next to a black man in bed. The newsletter splainer put together a walk of shame of Bollywood’s encounters with blackness from Helen dancing while black men in a cage slavered at her in Intaqam (1969) to blackface caricatures in the Govinda-starrer Hadh Kar Di Aapne (2000) to Akshay Kumar getting excited about a “private security search” from a blonde woman and then being crestfallen when a black woman (actually in blackface) shows up in Kambakkht Ishq (2009). As splainer notes: “Each of these scenes features highly successful actors — and not one of these scenes sparked a murmur of protest, let alone outrage, at the time of release. And no one has regretted their participation in retrospect.”
No one regretted it because no one even thought of it as racist. At best it was a joke. When I went abroad to study, a jovial uncle ribbed me about whether my parents were worried I would come back with a blonde girlfriend. Why do you assume she will be blonde quipped my aunt, she could be “a black” and everyone chortled in mock horror. I squirmed but said nothing.
This US election has been a wake-up call for much of the world. We have watched with amazement as politicians in the United States went out of their way to scupper voter confidence in their own electoral process. A country that monitors free and fair elections around the world finds its own vote being called tainted by its own President. With President Trump digging in his heels in the White House, an internet meme sarcastically commented that Americans were discovering it was much easier to change presidents in other countries than in their own. Meanwhile Indians are smug that elections in Bihar have seemed less chaotic and contested than the ones in the United States.
But we are ignoring a more inconvenient lesson — Kamala Harris’ personal life story. Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, wanted to be a biochemist but at Lady Irwin College she had to study home science instead, reported the New York Times. Shyamala’s brother teased her then. He realises now in retrospect, “She would have been frustrated like hell.” She went to Berkeley on her own to study biochemistry, the first member of her family to go abroad, and got involved with a black study group (where she was the only non-black member), a group that became part of the Black Power movement of the 1960s. After her divorce, she became a single working mother raising two daughters in America. None of this fits the playbook of the good Indian woman. Even now all of this could still invoke that line in Mississippi Masala about bringing “shame on our heads”.
When Harris was nominated, many Indians complained she seemed to identify more with the black part of her heritage though she brings up her late mother often. Now that she has won, we are anxious to find kinship with Kamala Harris. But this should also be a moment to look into the mirror and reflect on our own attitudes towards race, gender and the acceptance of difference.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.