When Pramila Jayapal got elected last week, she became the first Indian American Congresswoman, who will serve in the House of Representatives.
The 51-year-old Democrat has represented the 37th legislative district in the Washington State Senate since 2015, and beginning 3 January 2017, when she takes her oath of office, Pramila will represent Washington's 7th congressional district in the 115th United States Congress. In recognition of her work with immigrants, the White House conferred on Pramila the “Champion of Change” award.
Back in Bengaluru, India, her proud parents — her 74-year old writer mother Maya Jayapal and her 85-year old marketing professional father MP Jayapal — spoke to Firstpost with pride, of their daughter’s journey from Chennai, India to the US Congress.
Born in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, Pramila spent her childhood in Jakarta and Singapore and went on to pursue her undergrad studies in America when she was just 16 years old. She became a civil rights activist, serving as the executive director of OneAmerica, a pro-immigration advocacy group, formed after 9/11. Like her writer mother, Maya too leaned towards literature and has written the book Pilgrimage: One Woman's Return to a Changing India, about her sojourn in India in 1995 and even now, writes articles and poetry.
Pramila is the younger of the Jayapal’s two daughters. Susheela, 54, their older daughter, is a lawyer and works in Portland. Pramila took up English literature and economics for her Bachelor's degree at Georgetown University and did her MBA from the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University. She worked in a banking company on Wall Street for a couple of years, before stepping into activism and then into politics.
Reminiscing about Pramila’s childhood, Jayapal says, "We call her Munna". Maya explains how the nickname stuck: "When we were in Jaipur and I was carrying my second child, our maid used to say 'chhota munna ayega', and when Pramila was born, my older daughter Sushi started calling her Munna.
The Jayapals spent 24 years abroad — 11 years in Jakarta and 13 years in Singapore. Their girls studied in the Jakarta international school, before they both went to America to pursue their higher studies at 16.
"I was lucky, as both my sisters were in the US and my sister in Washington DC is a doctor and was their local guardian. But, you know, now when I look back, I think, we pushed them to be independent probably a couple of years earlier. Maybe they were too young, but they have turned out all right. But I do feel sorry that we didn’t keep up speaking Malayalam at home... Pramila understands Malayalam but can’t speak it. However, Pramila has an ear for languages. She picked up Thai — it’s a tonal language like Chinese — when she worked in Bangkok for a brief while. When she came back to India for two years on a fellowship, she and her husband went to Mussoorie and she picked up Hindi and speaks it fairly fluent Hindi now," says Maya.
About Pramila’s years as an activist, Maya says, "After 9/11, people were ringing Pramila up and telling her 'Why don’t you do something?' and she started the Hate Free Zone, later changed to OneAmerica. She wanted to publicise the fact that all aliens were not terrorists, nor dangerous and that they were individual human beings. She ran this organisation for 10 years, then she got tired of fighting from the outside and wanted to see what she could do from the inside. She came into politics only two years ago. I don’t think any of us thought that she would become a politician. She was always interested in social justice, always was forthright. Maybe in a subtle way, as parents, we fostered it, by giving them permission to do what they wanted to do."
Asked whether they had seen in Pramila the making of a politician, Maya says, "Pramila was always a good organiser, was very good at persuading people to her point of view. She’s always been very forthright. The other day a friend who had worked with my father, Balakrishnan Menon, who was the director, vigilance and anti-corruption in Tamil Nadu, was saying, 'Pramila is beginning to look like your father.' My father had a reputation for being blunt and not giving in to pressure. He used to tell the grandchildren that you have been given a pack of cards when you were born and you have no choice there. But what you do with it, is important. My father was impactful, sought social justice, spoke what he felt, was frank to the point of bluntness. Although Pramila has learnt to word her feelings more diplomatically now, if anybody has influenced her, it would be her grandfather. When she got elected, both of us said the same thing: 'I wish acchan had been around'.”
Jayapal adds, "Yeah, we never thought of her becoming a politician. I am very happy with what she’s done. I was never worried about what the future would hold for her... I sort of felt that she would be working in a company, not necessarily a politician. Actually, I am very proud of both our children, I feel they have done well, worked well, studied well. And I want to add that both our children didn’t change their names after their marriage. They’re still Pramila Jayapal and Susheela Jayapal. They’re very proud of their names."
When asked whether she was afraid or worried for her daughter, Maya says, "Yes, there is concern. When she was with Hate Free Zone and was handling minorities, I asked her whether it was dangerous for her and she said, 'Mom I get death threats; my office staff show me only the worst things. But it is something I want to do. I want to make a difference.' Sometimes, I wish she had gone for a safe job, but Pramila’s intention was not to go in for a safe job, she was always interested in social justice."
Pramila lives in Seattle with her husband Steve Williamson, an officer and director of UFCW 21, and their dog Otis, while their son Janak visits home when he is on break from Wesleyan University.
"Pramila met Steve on the bus, when they were replicating the journey that Martin Luther King took. Steve has kept her grounded, he follows the Buddhist philosophy, meditates and has provided balance in her life. He is very supportive and always there for her," says Maya.
About Pramila’s 19-year-old son, Janak, who was born in Mumbai, the proud grandmother says, "He was born at six months, weighed only 750 gm. It’s amazing that he has grown up to be this handsome man. He’s a musician, took up African American literature. He told me on Skype the other day, 'Amamma, I am very proud of my mother, she’s going to be on that phone more than ever'.”
When asked what comes next in the journey for their Congresswoman daughter, Maya says, "I don’t know her plans yet, whether she will move to DC or commute from Seattle. She is going through her one-week orientation right now. I know she wants to improve the status of women, she wants to build a community college, subsidise education for more people. I see this only as the beginning of a journey for her. There’s so much more coming up for Pramila."
As for the Jayapals, they are looking forward to their own journey to the US to be with their daughter for her swearing in on 3 January as the first Indian American Congresswoman to serve in the US House of Representatives.