Indians crack coconuts and pray for Kamala Harris in US election

If prayers could win a US election, Indians would give Kamala Harris the edge.

To secure victory for Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee and his running mate Ms Harris, the daughter of an Indian mother with roots in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, locals are taking no chances when it comes to the gods.

In the village of Thulasendrapuram, a seven-hour drive from Chennai on the Bay of Bengal and the boyhood home of Ms Harris’ diplomat grandfather P V Gopalan, V Shivakumar is preparing for his second political puja.

The first time the Hindu priest performed the ceremonial rites for a politician was in August, just before Ms Harris was chosen as Mr Biden’s running mate. The second will take place on Tuesday before Americans cast their ballots.

He will pour milk over Dharma Sastha Aiyanar, the deity of her grandfather’s family, known for knowledge and peace. “If she wins, it’s great,” said Mr Shivakumar. “It will definitely put India on a pedestal, showcasing a woman of Indian origin achieving great heights.”

For some Indians, a Biden-Harris victory would restore faith in the US as a country open to anyone with the drive to succeed. That Ms Harris was intentionally raised with her sister as “strong, black women” and rarely delves into her Indian heritage has not stopped Indians from claiming her as their own — or hoping she will advocate on their behalf.

But in Chennai, the city Ms Harris’s mother Shyamala called home before moving to study at Berkeley in California, apprehension was building in the hours before the vote.

“All my life, especially when I was young, we had looked up to America,” said N Vyas, a retired professor of medicine who was the Gopalan’s upstairs neighbour for years before they moved. “Now we are worried there will be trouble after the election.”

While My Vyas said his wife was looking forward to learning the election results, the 75-year-old “was waiting for a miracle”.

Indians hope that Kamala Harris will be their advocate if she become vice-president © AFP via Getty Images

Jayanti, his wife who is a retired paediatrician, said that as a child Ms Harris always had a “certain presence”. She added that the vice-presidential nominee and her mother were testament to the Gopalan philosophy that maintained women should be treated equally to men and education was paramount.

“For us Kamala is a success story,” said Ms Vyas. “Let’s keep praying to give America better governance.”

Their butter-yellow house is part of Besant Nagar, a leafy subdivision next to the ocean originally carved out for retired government workers. Most of those civil servants have now died or moved on and the neighbourhood is being slowly subsumed by the city.

Just across the road is Elliot’s Beach, where Ms Harris strolled as a child with her grandfather on fleeting visits to Chennai. Decades later, children were still playing cricket on the sand while fisherman stood in the warm surf casting nets.

Nearby lies the Varasiddhi Vinayagar temple, where Ms Harris’s aunt Sarala Gopalan has cracked hundreds of coconuts in rituals to remove obstacles for her niece.

R Rajagopalan, the custodian of the Varasiddhi Vinayagar temple
R Rajagopalan, the custodian of the Varasiddhi Vinayagar temple © Stephanie Findlay 

She broke 108 coconuts — an auspicious number — in 2010 when Ms Harris won the California attorney-general race, and again in 2016 when she was elected to the US Senate.

Like her mother, her aunt is well educated and still works as a gynaecologist and obstetrician. She has told local reporters how Ms Harris still calls her chithi, or aunt, loves to eat south Indian food such as lemon rasam — a spicy soup, and that she makes them proud.

“I’ve said it all,” she said simply. “All my best wishes and prayers are with her.”

The temple custodian R Rajagopalan said that Ms Gopalan had already dropped by in October to make a donation for her niece’s success.

Praying at the temple appears to deliver results and Indians continue to visit the temple when they need help, such as getting a visa to seek their fortunes in the US.

“At least 60 per cent of the people who used to live in Besant Nagar now live in America,” he said. “The gods will fulfil.”

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