What my dad and Kamala Harris’s mom shared

Editor’s Note: Anita Raghavan is the author of “The Billionaire’s Apprentice: The Rise of the Indian-American Elite and the Fall of the Galleon Hedge Fund.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

Sixty years ago, two young people, living disparate lives in different parts of India, embarked on an odyssey that would change their future and over time help shape the complexion of a new country: America.

Anita Raghavan

One came from a tiny fishing village on the country’s southwestern coast. The other was a diplomat’s daughter, studying in New Delhi, imbibing the intoxicating vapors of a newly independent India.

My father, Valayamghat Raghavan, and Shyamala Gopalan, Kamala Harris’s mother, weren’t acquainted but they were pilgrims in the great post-war migration of highly skilled Indians to the United States.

Both traveled to America in 1958 for their doctoral studies, my father at Princeton University and Gopalan at the University of California at Berkeley.

The America they arrived in was a vastly different country than the one I live and work in today.

In 1946, in a symbolic relaxation of historic anti-Asian immigration policies, a quota was set of 100 Indians – yes, 100 – that were allowed into the US for permanent residence each year.

Underlying the strict limits on Asian immigration was an ugly but undeniable truth: America’s embrace of immigrants was rooted in skin color. In the 1920s, one’s whiteness even came to be a perquisite for citizenship through naturalization for Asians.

In rejecting the quest for citizenship of an Indian immigrant who had served in the US Army during World War I, the US Supreme Court ruled in 1923 that he was not White in “the understanding of the common man.”

“The children of English, French, German, Italian, Scandinavian and other European parentage quickly merge into the mass of our population and lose the distinctive hallmarks of their European origin,” the Court wrote in its opinion. But “the children born in this country of Hindu parents would retain indefinitely the clear evidence of their ancestry.”

My father and Gopalan had come to America on student visas which were more plentiful in supply. However, had they wanted to settle in the US after their studies, they would have fallen within the 100-person limit, which made the US unattractive to most Indian students.

But my father and Gopalan were not most Indians.

Anita Raghavan's father, Valayamghat Raghavan, in Kerala, India, around 2008.
A photo of young Kamala Harris with her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, posted on Harris's Facebook page in March 2017.

Like others who would follow in the decades to come, they were the crème de la crème. As Professor Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, who studies migration, told me, the average Indian in the US is “ten thousand times more likely to have a doctorate” than the average Indian in India.

Their journeys – Gopalan became a breast cancer researcher while my father had an acclaimed career as a botanist – marked the early stirrings of a wildly successful immigrant group which vaulted to great heights in a single generation.

The Indian community’s collective success in America today is often celebrated. Yet long forgotten are the struggles of the pilgrims – like my father and Gopalan.

At a time when America appears to be lurching back to a darker era of prejudice and discrimination, Harris’s triumph has to be tempered with a full recounting of the journey that brought us here.

Growing up as a young Indian girl in America, I was steeped in the story of my father’s odyssey from Cochin, India, to New York Harbor.

He boarded a ship named the Flanders in the summer of 1958 and set off on a month-long journey, stopping along the way in Aden, as Yemen was then known, where he bought a watch, and later Naples where he indulged in a trip to Pompei.

When he arrived in New York, he was immediately reminded of his foreignness.

An immigration officer thrust his chest x-ray on a light box to check for lesions, a clear sign of tuberculosis, a well-known scourge from India.

There were other reminders of his status as an outsider over the years; some were quite pointed.

One time, during a trip to the deep South, my parents accompanied friends of theirs, a Polish couple, to a restaurant. The couple were offered a seat in the main dining area. My darker-hued parents were shuttled to the back and served in the kitchen.

The visa issued to Lakshmi Menon, Anita Raghavan's mother, which allowed her to take up a job at Brooklyn Public Library in 1959.

Often the slurs were not overtly racist, but the message was unmistakable. Students at Ohio State University where my father taught for decades would remark in reviews about his accented English, even though he had studied English in British India and his accent came from the Queen’s English and not from adopting its looser American-tinged twang.

In her book, “The Truths We Hold: An American Journey,” Vice President Harris touched on the complexity of being an immigrant.

“On the one hand, it is an experience characterized by an extraordinary sense of hopefulness and purpose, a deep belief in the power of the American Dream — an experience of possibility,” she wrote. “At the same time, it is an experience too often scarred by stereotyping and scapegoating in which discrimination, both explicit and implicit, is part of everyday life.”

She recalled her mother being treated as if she was dumb because of her accent or being followed around a department store with suspicion “because surely a brown-skinned woman like her couldn’t afford the dress or blouse she had chosen.”

Anuradha Subramanian, Kamala Harris’s mother’s first cousin, said Gopalan told her of instances when Gopalan would be standing at a bus stop and someone would walk in front of her.

Coming from India where queuing is not a social tradition, Gopalan first thought America shared the same cultural quirk. But then she noticed a pattern.

At a restaurant, “someone would walk in front of her as if she was not even there,” Subramanian recalled. “That woman had a right to a table while Shyamala had to wait.”

“It took her a little while to realize why they were doing it to her and that is when it ticked her off,” continued Subramanian. She once chided someone who ignored her presence in a queue, saying, `”Who do you think I am?”

Still the sting remained. “There were those incidents where she felt very uneasy, where she felt you don’t count for much,” Subramanian observed.

For my parents and Gopalan, who passed away in 2009, prospering in America meant assimilation and accommodation.

When speaking to colleagues, my father truncated his name to Val Raghavan, which he delivered, almost rehearsed, with a broad American accent and an inviting smile.

He bonded with coworkers by telling stories of opulent Indian weddings and the brocaded elephants that played a starring role. I suspect he never told them that his own marriage was quite simple; it took place before a justice of the peace in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

My mother, who like Gopalan came as an unmarried woman a year after my father to work at Brooklyn Public Library, shed her sari for a brief time and wore polyester slacks to fit in at work.

Anita Raghavan's mother, Lakshmi Menon, on her wedding day in 1962 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Hart-Celler Act which ended national-origins based immigration policies and paved the way for highly skilled immigrants, including Indians, to gain permanent residence.

Today, the results of the Johnson-era reforms are ubiquitous.

Two of the country’s biggest technology companies, Alphabet and Microsoft, are run by men of Indian descent, Sundar Pichai and Satya Nadella. One of the most visible symbols of Americana, drinks giant PepsiCo, was run until a few years ago by an Indian American woman, Indra Nooyi.

In politics, there’s former US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, touted as a presidential contender in 2024 and, in Hollywood, there’s actress Mindy Kaling. Her professional name is a shortened version of the Tamil name Chokalingam.

Kamala Harris was sworn into office as San Francisco's district attorney on January 8, 2004, with her mother, Shyamala, at her side.

As I watched the Vice President being sworn in last month, I thought of my late father and Shyamala Gopalan, whose odysseys made possible the Pichais, the Nadellas – and now Vice President Kamala Harris. At times, my father encountered people and situations that made him wonder if the opportunities America presented were just a mirage, but he persevered.

He left the US in 1963 after he received his PhD, only to return six years later with a coveted green card – thanks to Johnson’s immigration reforms.

Over the next several decades, my parents partook in the American Dream, buying a car and a house. But my father never quite shook his Indian-ness, perhaps as a reminder to himself that he would always be a stranger, set apart from this country and its people by his ever-so-visible foreignness.

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He held that truth to be inviolable because he arrived in the US long before multiculturalism and globalization had gripped it and long before the success of men and women like him would make Indian achievement seem as commonplace in America as ice cream and apple pie.

He arrived in the US at a time when the idea of an Indian and Black vice president was too fantastical to imagine. He arrived in a darker, less accepting America – a country that Indians amid their heady success today all too often forget once existed.