When Kamala Harris realised she wanted to work in the district attorney’s office, she knew equal justice was an aspiration. “I knew that the force of the law was applied unevenly, sometimes by design,” she writes in her memoir The Truths We Hold. Yet, she held on to the belief that systemic wrongs don’t have to be immutable.

Her mother’s words resonated with her, as they would during all major moments in her life: “Don’t let anybody tell you who you are. You tell them who you are.”

Last week, Harris, the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants, became the first South Asian American and African American woman to run on a major political party’s presidential ticket after Joe Biden chose her as his VP pick.

Desi roots

Harris was born in Oakland, California, in 1964. Her father, Donald Harris, a Jamaican, moved to the United States to study economics at the University of California, Berkeley. Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, who met Harris at Berkeley during the civil rights movement, was a cancer researcher from Chennai.

She writes of them in The Truths We Hold, a campaign biography that serves as a memoir and manifesto. The book, published by Penguin Press in 2019 to lukewarm reception, goes over ground that’s personal, professional and political: why she decided to become a prosecutor; her positions on issues such as healthcare, housing, security, immigration; the influences of her family, her struggles, and her wins.

Allusions to her Indian-ness pop up regularly in the book. In the more biographical sections, she recalls that her childhood was filled with books, Indian spices and her mother’s singing (Gopalan won an award for her singing in India, she says). Even today, she writes, one of her favourite Sunday dinners is an “Indian biryani”. The personal and political meld later in the book, as she mentions the floods in South Asia and promises that “conserving water and safeguarding against scarcity” is a top priority for her.

But understandably, her experience of Indian culture and political consciousness is informed by her mother and grandparents. She writes:

“My mother had been raised in a household where political activism and civic leadership came naturally. Her mother, my grandmother, Rajam Gopalan, had never attended high school, but she was a skilled community organizer. She would take in women who were being abused by their husbands, and then she’d call the husbands and tell them they’d better shape up or she would take care of them. She used to gather village women together, educating them about contraception. My grandfather P. V. Gopalan had been part of the movement to win India’s independence. Eventually, as a senior diplomat in the Indian government, he and my grandmother had spent time living in Zambia after it gained independence, helping to settle refugees. He used to joke that my grandmother’s activism would get him in trouble one day. But he knew that was never going to stop her. From them, my mother learned that it was service to others that gave life purpose and meaning. And from my mother, Maya and I learned the same.”  

Shyamala Gopalan’s life had begun “thousands of miles to the east”. Her parents supported her passion for science, and she graduated from the University of Delhi at 19, before going to Berkeley, “a university she’d never seen, in a country she’d never visited”.

In many ways, the unconventionality of Harris’ story runs parallel with that of her mother’s – when Gopalan sought her parents’ permission to move to California for college, despite the nascency of commercial air travel, Harris’ grandparents didn’t say no. Her mother ended up leaving home for the US in 1958 to pursue a doctorate in nutrition and endocrinology, and later became a breast cancer researcher.

“My mother was expected to return to India after she completed her degree. Her parents had an arranged marriage. It was assumed my mother would follow a similar path. But fate had other plans. She and my father met and fell in love at Berkeley while participating in the civil rights movement. Her marriage–and her decision to stay in the United States–were the ultimate acts of selfdetermination and love.”  

Harris’ own marriage to Douglas Emhoff was another melding of cultures. In August 2014, they had an “intimate ceremony” that her sister Maya officiated, while Harris’ niece, Meena, read from Maya Angelou. Harris put a flower garland around Emhoff’s neck, in keeping with some Indian traditions, and he stomped on a glass, in line with Jewish customs.

Harris says she stayed in touch with her mother’s brother, Balu, and two sisters, Sarala Chinni (whom she calls ‘Chitti’, which means ‘younger mother’ in Tamil), despite the long distance. She writes:

“They lived many thousands of miles away, and we rarely saw one another. Still, through many long-distance calls, our periodic trips to India, and letters and cards written back and forth, our sense of family–of closeness and comfort and trust–was able to penetrate the distance. It’s how I first really learned that you can have very close relationships with people, even if it’s not on a daily basis. We were always there for one another, regardless of what form that would take.”  

Balancing her multiracial identity was never a struggle for her. In one paragraph, she acknowledges her Indian roots.

“My mother, grandparents, aunts, and uncle instilled us with pride in our South Asian roots. Our classical Indian names harked back to our heritage, and we were raised with a strong awareness of and appreciation for Indian culture. All of my mother’s words of affection or frustration came out in her mother tongue–which seems fitting to me, since the purity of those emotions is what I associate with my mother most of all.”  

In the next paragraph, she switches to her Black experience, which also shaped her mother’s life in America. “My mother understood very well that she was raising two black daughters,” Harris notes. “She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women.”

In another instance, Harris speaks of her mother’s “people”, who elevated the Black experience and taught classes on Black studies. “In a country where she had no family, they were her family—and she was theirs. From almost the moment she arrived from India, she chose and was welcomed to and enveloped in the black community. It was the foundation of her new American life.”

In the end, then, Harris’ experience of desi values is not distinct from her Blackness. “My mother inherited my grandmother’s strength and courage,” she writes. “People who knew them knew not to mess with either. And from both of my grandparents, my mother developed a keen political consciousness. She was conscious of history, conscious of struggle, conscious of inequities. She was born with a sense of justice imprinted on her soul.”

To the political pundits, her multiracial background had seemed a liability when she ran for the attorney general of California in 2010.

“Plenty of fellow Democrats had considered me a long shot…One longtime political strategist announced to an audience at UC Irvine that there was no way I could win, because I was ‘a woman running for attorney general, a woman who is a minority, a woman who is a minority who is anti-death penalty, a woman who is a minority who is anti-death penalty who is DA of wacky San Francisco.’ Old stereotypes die hard.”  

Harris disagreed with them: “I was convinced that my perspective and experience made me the strongest candidate in the race, but I didn’t know if the voters would agree.”

On election night of 2010, she “lost the race for attorney general”. Three weeks later, she writes, she won.