Recently, I binged Season 1 of Mindy Kaling’s “Never Have I Ever,” a classic coming-of-age teen rom-com revolving around the life of a 15-year old Indian American, Devi Vishwakumar. At first I was uninterested in another heartfelt yet cringey Netflix series, but the show’s mixed reviews sparked my curiosity: While a few of my friends told me the show perpetuated stereotypical tropes of South Asian Americans — a sight I did not need to see — “NHIE” has also been acclaimed as “a watershed moment for the representation of South Asians in Hollywood.” Curious, but more so bored out of my mind during quarantine, I gave the ten-episode show a try.
In summary, the plot revolves around Devi’s standard trials and tribulations as a 15-year-old girl. She navigates the ups and downs of relationships with her best friends, her mother and of course, the boy she’s been crushing on. Yet, her adolescence and search for a different, newer and cooler identity is what made it a bit more complex when she loses her father to cardiac arrest. The show — as expected — is heartfelt, cringey and cute, but is also filled with vulnerable moments relating to her grief and her Indian heritage. Among all of these, my favorite trait of the show was that it made me feel represented.
When I think of Indian Americans in the shows I watched growing up, I think of Ravi from “Jessie,” Baljeet from “Phineas and Ferb,” Raj from “The Big Bang Theory” and a few other often socially awkward, teased, overly studious characters who did not represent me. Devi, on the other hand, does. She has a full American accent, cares about school while also caring about social goals (popularity, her crush, fitting in) like any normal teenager, hangs out with white friends, likes cheeseburgers and doesn’t outwardly exert her Indian identity. Watching her character — particularly how she navigates her heritage — reminded me of my young self. The painfully honest and genuine depiction of her uncomfortableness, slight disdain and forced acceptance of her Indian-ness triggered some unexpected introspection within myself while watching the show, especially during episode 4, “Never Have I Ever…Felt Super Indian.”
A hit Hindi song from the 1970s, “Dum Maro Dum,” kicks this episode off while Devi is being dressed up by her cousin. She is adorned with jhumka earrings, a thick set of gold necklaces and a bright blue and gold half sari. The look on her face is so recognizable; it’s a sense of claustrophobia in a seemingly foreign (and itchy) outfit, an expression I’ve held every time my mom gets me ready for an Indian wedding, religious event or family party. In this episode, Devi attends Ganesh Puja (a Hindu holiday) put on by the Hindu Association of Southern California. I smiled as I saw my own personal experiences in many parts of the show, like weird conversations with Aunties. But a huge moment of truth came out when Devi interacted with Harish, a family friend who came back from Stanford to attend the event. After asking why he would ever come to this “lame fest,” he replies:
“My roommate Nick is Native American, and he’s so into being Native American. At first, I was like, ‘You’re away from your parents. You don’t have to pretend to care about your ancestry or whatever.’ But then he took me to their campus powwow. No one was standing in the corner making fun of it. They were dancing and chanting, and having a great time, and it made me think, why do I think it’s so weird and embarrassing to be Indian?”
The juxtaposition of the two characters on my screen represented the chasm I’ve been stuck between for the past five years of my life. Five years ago, I was Devi — awkward about my heritage, wanting to escape it, resenting events like Ganesh Puja and constantly avoiding confrontation with myself and my own identity. But, like Harish says, why? What about being Indian makes it so weird and embarrassing to those of us who grew up surrounded by white neighborhoods, removed from our culture? This thought, one I thought was taboo and something I tried to hide and ignore for so many years, was being broadcasted to me on a top trending Netflix show — I needed to reflect and answer.
Part of it comes from the representation of Indian Americans in American media. As I had mentioned, Ravi, Baljeet and Raj were not the greatest example of what Indian Americans were like — but neither are the creepy gas station Indian man punchlines, or the emphasized portrayals of poverty and slums in India rather than the country’s beautiful and thriving spaces. I think a larger part comes from the inescapable difference it created in my identity (the color of my skin was different than let’s say, 90-95% of my grade) during a time where my only desire was to fit in. Thinking back, I used to blame the moments where I didn't seem as cool as other people, didn’t win over my crush or didn’t have the same family experiences as my friends on being Indian. I wish my family had fun Easter egg hunts. Maybe he didn’t like me back because my skin is brown. Why can’t my mom look like the other moms? At the time, I felt as if I stuck out like a sore thumb because the color of my skin, my background, was the most noticable difference about me. Rather than celebrating the uniqueness it brought me, I singled it out and hated it. So did others.
But today, I’m Harish. Mostly by surrounding myself with more diverse crowds of people, where being different and unique is treasured, I’ve come a long way from standing sheepishly at the side of Indian functions. I no longer feel the need to escape my heritage, or feel embarrassed by the color of my skin; rather, I’ve slowly started to show off my “Indian-ness” to those in my life, whether it be taking my white boyfriend to Patel Brothers for the first time and making chicken korma together, or showing mainstream media like “Never Have I Ever” to my friends to give them a glimpse into my life and growth as an Indian American. My roots are inescapable — in a good way. I find pride in the vibrancy, bright colors, big traditions and enormity of the Indian culture: the intricacy and beauty of saris and mehendi, the diverse tastes of my favorite gobi manchurian, the simplicity and individuality of Hinduism, the bangers Bollywood produces and in all that I come from which has created me. I’m so thankful that this quirky rom-com allowed me to have these moments of introspection and reflection and that I’ve been able to appreciate and adore the rich culture I hail from. Otherwise, as Harish says, I would just “be this Indian guy who hates doing Indian things,” which is “its own identity — it’s just a shitty one.”
Sunitha Palat can be reached at email@example.com