Indian roots matter to Kamala

Mrs Kamala Devi Harris has deftly moulded her dominant African-American identity with that of her Indian background as a Tamil to create the evergreen American classic of the immigrant dream.

Born in Oakland, California, to immigrants, cancer researcher Shyamala Gopalan from India and economics professor Donald Harris from Jamaica, Mrs Harris, 55, is now a heartbeat away from the United States vice-presidency.

On Tuesday, Mr Joe Biden, 78, who is the Democratic Party's presidential candidate, announced that she would be his vice-presidential running mate for the 2020 presidential election.

Mrs Harris' multi-racial background - which includes a white Jewish husband, Mr Douglas Emhoff, and two step-children - gives her a degree of identity fluidity to navigate American society riven by race and ethnicity.

She has become the first black and Indian-American and fourth woman to be chosen on a major US party ticket.

Despite her mixed parentage, Mrs Harris is presented as an African-American, meeting the current party sentiment driven by the movement against discrimination against African-Americans and police brutality. But she is actually more Indian than many people imagine.

"My name is pronounced "Comma-la', like the punctuation mark," Mrs Harris wrote in her 2018 autobiography The Truths We Hold. "It means lotus flower - a symbol of significance in Indian culture."

When her parents separated, Mrs Harris was seven years old. She and her younger sister Maya, 53, were raised by their Indian mother in a black neighbourhood during the civil rights movement. Maya later became a lawyer and adviser to former US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

"It was really my mother who took charge of our upbringing. She was the one most responsible for shaping us into the women we would become," Mrs Harris wrote in her memoir.

The Washington Post wrote last year: "Mrs Harris grew up embracing her Indian culture but living a proudly African-American life."

Mrs Harris has said that she has not grappled with her identity and describes herself as "an American".

But people who know her say she straddles both communities effortlessly.

In a video with Indian-American comedian and actress Mindy Kaling, Mrs Harris is seen cooking Indian food and chatting about their shared south Indian background.

Ms Kaling asks Mrs Harris whether she was raised eating south Indian food. Mrs Harris reels off names of Indian dishes made at home: "Lots of rice and yogurt, potato curry, dal, lots of dal, idli." In her book, she writes about making biryani at home.

In her younger years, almost every year, Mrs Harris and her sister would visit their grandparents, uncles and aunts in Chennai, Tamil Nadu.

In her memoir, she wrote: "My mother (who died in 2009 at age 70), grandparents, aunts and uncle instilled us with pride in our South Asian roots. 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 (Tamil) - which seems fitting to me, since the purity of those emotions is what I associate with my mother most of all."

Mrs Harris' maternal grandfather P.V. Gopalan was deeply involved in India's movement against colonial rule.

And she credits her maternal grandmother Rajam, who never attended high school but was a community organiser taking in victims of domestic violence and educating women about contraception, for the crusading civic spirit that both her mother and she inherited.

Mrs Harris' career is filled with several firsts. She was the first woman and the first person of colour to be elected district attorney in San Francisco and attorney-general of California.

In 2016, the night Mrs Clinton lost her bid to become the first female US president, Mrs Harris became the second African-American woman to be elected to the US Senate.

Mrs Harris has many things in her favour: She's bi-racial, has fought for marriage equality and abortion rights and she drove a hard bargain with big banks to win a billion-dollar deal for homeowners.

But the media isn't sure whether she will be embracing her Indian roots during her campaign.

Nevertheless, Indian-Americans view her as one of their own, her candidacy suggesting a potential wider recognition of the Indian and South Asian communities in the country.

"What an electric moment for the Indian-American community. Indian-Americans are now truly a mainstream community in the national fabric," Mr M.R. Rangaswami, an eminent Indian-American and the founder of Indiaspora, told the Press Trust of India news agency.

IMPACT, the leading Indian-American advocacy group, said it will raise US$10 million for Mrs Harris' campaign.

"Her candidacy is historic and inspiring, not only for black Americans, but for millions of Asian-American voters, the fastest growing voting bloc in the country," said IMPACT's executive director Neil Makhija.

Indo-Asian News Service

"My mother, grandparents, aunts and uncle instilled us with pride in our South Asian roots.

We were raised with a strong awareness of and appreciation for Indian culture." - Mrs Kamala Harris

 
 
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