What Kamala Means to Indo-American Women

Kamala Harris with her mother Shyamala Gopalan.

By Chaya Murali

I cried when Slumdog Millionaire won the Oscar for Best Picture. I didn’t expect the tears, but there they were, brought on by the sight of little brown children onstage at the Academy Awards, the sound of A.R. Rahman dedicating his statue to God in Tamil. I had never dreamt of such a thing.

I moved to the United States when I was 4 years old. Back in the early ‘90s, there were no South Asian faces on television. Instead, my sister and I grew up watching Full House and Saved by the Bell. I used to admire the rosy cheeks of the white female leads and curse my brown skin for lacking that dewy glow.

Our mother dressed us in paavadai sattais for first days of school and picture days, billowing silk skirts with intricate gold borders and contrasing cotton blouses. The finishing touches were fresh flower garlands for our hair and Velcro sneakers for our feet. The outfits, like every other aspect of our lives, marked us as different, curious hybrids of East and West that didn’t seem to fit into any one place. Like most diaspora kids, I struggled with my identity throughout childhood and adolescence, eventually coming to a sort of peace in my twenties. These days my pangs of immigrant melancholy are provoked by the future – the worry that the next generation of our family will not learn the language, that my sister and I will never absorb enough custom and tradition and culture from our parents.

Still, the desire to see myself reflected in the country I call home remains. I was talking recently to an Indian American who had immigrated as an adult. When I mentioned that South Asians who grew up here had never seen faces like theirs on television, on billboards, at the front of the classroom, he was flabbergasted—he could not imagine how that must have felt. I thin

These days South Asian celebrities abound, from Kumail Nanjiani to Aziz Ansari to Mindy Kaling to Padma Lakshmi. South Asians are prominent in business, technology, healthcare, and, increasingly, government.

And yet one of the troubles with minority representation is that once a representative, or a handful of them, rise to the fore, they can never be enough. People complain about the vapidity of Never Have I Ever, the sexpot exoticism of Priyanka Chopra.

Something similar happened when Kamala Harris was announced as Joe Biden’s running mate. For me, the announcement felt like another logical step towards greater representation. But almost immediately, the declarative opinions came out.

Some pointed out that Harris is American, not Indian, that it doesn’t make sense to identify her as the latter when she was born and raised here in the States. Others murmured that Harris had long identified not as Indian but as Black, an identity underscored by her alma mater. Still others crowed that Indians generally, and South Indians and Tamil Brahmins in particular, should consider Harris’s nomination a point of pride, their language oddly evoking a sense of personal ownership.

The thing is, I think most of these things are true. Harris is Indian. She is American. She is Black. She is Tamil. She is Jamaican. She can be all of these things at once.

I’m not here to argue about Harris’s policy stances. I’m here simply to say that it feels good, in my thirties, to finally see a national politician who shares part of my heritage. Sure, she hasn’t made her Indian roots a centerpiece of her political life, but perhaps this reflects that her identity, like all of ours, is complex.

The older I get, the more I see the immigrant experience as a new type of arithmetic: not dividing, but multiplying. Those of us who were born outside of the United States, whose families speak something other than English, whose childhood homes were fragrant with spices unfamiliar to their schoolmates—we are not split between our identities. We exist within them all, our sense of self expanding and engulfing our component parts.

The same goes for Kamala. She shows us that a person can contain multitudes, can be one thing and another thing and many other things yet. And she shows little brown girls throughout this country that they belong, that they can contribute, that they are needed. I know that Harris is not a perfect representation of Indian America, but who is, really? My hope is that her nomination is the first of many more to come, that one day there are so many South Asian Americans of note that none will carry the weight and expectations of being an all-encompassing and faultless representative of their community.

For me, Harris’s nomination means something. This woman strode the beaches of Chennai, visited her grandparents in Besant Nagar, casually wore saris, ate idli and sambar and dosa. She grew up with a South Indian mother whose accented speech probably opened her up to judgment and ridicule. She knows what it is to be different, to be an outsider, to have to imagine yourself in places where no one who looks like you exists. In some small way, I think Harris understands how it feels to be me. She shares her name with my maternal grandmother. Her niece shares her name with my chithi. When Harris casually mentioned her own chithis in her acceptance speech, my husband asked me how I felt. Suddenly, unexpectedly, those tears were back. I felt good.

Chaya Murali is a pediatric genetics physician and personal essayist. She lives in Houston.