The Progressive Grandfather Who Inspired Kamala Devi Harris

P.V. Gopalan

As a 5-year-old, Kamala Devi Harris spent time with her maternal grandfather, P.V. Gopalan, in Lusaka, Zambia. It was the late 1960s. Gopalan, an Indian civil servant, was sent to the African nation on an assignment. It was from him that Harris was introduced to the joy of public service. Although Harris, who lived in California, didn't spend a lot of time with him, he remained her pen pal and guiding influence until his death in 1998. "My grandfather was really one of my favorite people in my world," Harris told the Los Angeles Times in a recent interview. In her latest book "The Truths We Hold," and during her campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination, Harris often mentions her mother Shyamala V. Gopalan. She says her late mother, Shyamala, "a diminutive and dauntless breast cancer researcher" taught her and her younger sister, Maya, to strive for excellence and lift others up. And Harris says these were principles her mother inherited from her grandfather. Gopalan and her mother Rajam were strong influences in her mother's life, she says. Gopalan started out as a stenographer and climbed the ranks of the civil service.

"My grandfather felt very strongly about the importance of defending civil rights and fighting for equality and integrity," Harris said. "I just remember them always talking about the people who were corrupt versus the people who were real servants." He is said to have taught Harris to play five-card stud poker.

And if she misbehaved, Gopalan would take her into another room and pretend to slap her on the hand — urging her to shriek in mock pain — before reemerging to tell Shyamala, "I handled it."

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