Months after joining forces to help elect the Biden-Harris ticket, members of an Indian-American network known as The Chitthi Brigade gathered virtually on Inauguration Day to celebrate and plan their collective future.
The group, now comprising 150 to 175 members, was formed in the wake of Vice President Kamala Harris’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in August, when she used the Tamil word “Chitthi” in reference the Indian aunties on her mother’s side of the family and her close ties to them.
That widely-broadcast (and memed) moment went viral and catalyzed three Indian-American women in Westchester who, in turn, organized other Indian American women across the country. These include Nandini Murthy, who lives in Massachusetts and awoke at 4 a.m. on Inauguration Day. She was so excited that she couldn’t get back to sleep.
“Like a kid at Christmas Eve,” she said, with a laugh. Like her new Vice President, and many other Democrats across the country, she wore pearls and dressed in blue, and took in the proceedings over TV.
Murthy, who moved to the U.S. thirty-three years ago, said the ceremony gave her a sense “that we’re taking our country back.”
Murthy said she was deeply moved by President Biden’s reference, in his Inaugural Address, to previous periods of struggle in American history, such as the Great Depression and World War II.
“In each of these moments,” he said, “enough of us came together to carry all of us forward.”
“That was profound,” said Murthy.
She wasn’t alone, as many Chitthis took in the inauguration from points around the country, checking in with one another, and describing the incredible sense of relief and excitement they felt. Some had joined in a large art project known as Kolam 2021, which drew upon the traditional South Indian art form of kolam. That project included thousands of tiles which were intended for display on the National Mall. The mall is now closed, after a far-right extremist mob of Trump supporters attacked the Capitol on January 6th. For the same reason, and because of COVID-19, the Chitthi Brigade was forced to cancel plans to meet in Washington, D.C., for the Inauguration Day celebrations.
One Chitthi, Barna De, watched the Inauguration ceremony from Dublin, California and said she was moved to tears, noting “the number of ceilings” Harris was breaking through.
“The first woman, first Black, first South Asian, I mean, it's just unbelievable,” said De. “And I hope my daughters can see this and be inspired.”
As a librarian, De hopes to use her position to shape a more meaningful conversation about race in her community.
Over Zoom, she excitedly held up a book she was about to read to 1st graders, ‘My Hair is Magic,’ which centers on a Black girl.
“I love this ending,” said De. “It says, ‘I see my hair is natural, my hair is beautiful, my hair is free and my hair is me.’”
Listen to reporter Arun Venugopal's radio story for WNYC:
Like others in the Chitthi Brigade she followed the Black Lives Matter protests, then watched as a white mob engaged in an insurrection at the Capitol.
Chitthi Brigade co-founder Shoba Viswanathan said the events at the Capitol convinced her and others that the group’s work would continue well beyond the Inauguration.
“This is not someone else’s battle,” said Viswanathan, who lives in Westchester. “This is not something we can just hand off."
After the Inauguration, the Chitthis gathered virtually to sit through a lecture on combating disinformation. In the evening, they met online again to raise a glass to President Biden and Vice President Harris.
Viswanathan says they’re currently firming up plans for a big Chitthi Brigade bus trip, after the pandemic, to meet up with other members of the Indian-American community across the country.
“More and more I realize there is no immediate disbanding of this group.” Viswanathan said. “People like us have to continue to stay engaged.”