- Unlike Mindy Kaling’s “Never Have I Ever,’ being Indian American is not a one size fits all – there are different shades that must be identified.
ABCDs, fobs, coconuts, the college Brown Town … chances are you have identified with at least one of these labels as a millennial member of the South Asian diaspora. But it is highly unlikely that you would have seen a South Asian character on television or film representing that diaspora.
Growing up as a first-generation Indian American in the 90s, seeing someone with the same skin tone as me on television was rare. Without YouTube or any digital streaming, I met most South Asian on screen characters with forced laughter or a subtle eye roll. I scoffed at the Simpsons’ Apu, the imaginary Vikram on Friends, or Michael Scott’s enthusiasm for Diwali on The Office. Even the Scripps National Spelling Bee didn’t cut it. I was looking for substantial representation, not the caricature-esque, occasional nod.
But now, South Asian inclusion in Hollywood is the new yoga and has started spreading quickly as new shows with diverse casts rapidly emerge. One such emergence is Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever,” a teenage drama written and produced by Mindy Kaling. The show stars a first-generation Indian American teenager, Devi, as the protagonist splashing through the waves and tides of a vibrant high school in southern California. When I first heard about the show, I was looking forward to seeing myself in Devi and brewing up some nostalgia of my own teenage years.
But Devi’s story is nothing like mine. The show begins with Devi’s first day of sophomore year; the pilot episode introduces Devi’s rebellious ways of rage and apathy. Devi is a live wire who erupts at a moment’s notice and lies to her mother a mile a minute. She resembles the female protagonist of millennial Bollywood – independent, brash, and brazen. But I grew up with actresses from decades’ past. The women I saw on VHS were shy and demure. They would not founder much, do exactly as they were told, and put high emphasis on family values. No points for guessing which protagonist I admired; I looked up to the 1990s actress as the gold standard every woman should strive to be. A woman more like … Kamala, Devi’s older cousin.
Kamala is Me and I Am Her
Born and raised in India, Kamala is a Ph.D. candidate at Cal Tech. Kamala is obedient and polite like many of the female leads I grew up watching. She is a people pleaser who will go to great lengths to make sure everyone is at peace with her actions. It is strange but Kamala is me and I am her. Perhaps Kamala also missed the rebellious phase of most teenagers. As a teen, I did all I could to appease my elders, especially when it came to academics. Expectations of me were always met with my reward being taciturn parental approval. Watching Kamala attend Ganesh Puja yet silently go through and accept the heavy pressures of giving into a chosen suitor is especially relatable. When I was a teenager, I willfully participated in many Sunday religious gatherings at the local high school and performed the cultural folk dances that Devi scorns at.
Like Kamala’s well-marked personal and professional path, I too had a path laid out with plenty of roadblocks, but zero detours. There was no room to zig zag like Devi does; instead I marched diligently towards the perfect report cards, that coveted college and graduate school, professional licensing exams, or my very own office. Watching Kamala on screen was like traveling that conventional, orthodox path all over again.
But even Devi has a rock, solid plan. Devi dreams of attending an Ivy League university and strives for academic perfection. She is obsessed with getting into the right university and has packed her high school life with a million extracurricular activities. Model UN, countless honor societies, debate club, science olympiad (I know, incredibly cool), I joined every extracurricular I could squeeze in time for and that matched my mom’s schedule so she should pick me up after school. Like a devoted Indian daughter, Devi is dutiful and helps her mother in the kitchen after dinner every night. In my childhood home, we, too, have a Hindu calendar taped firmly in the kitchen where I still man the sink, washing dishes smeared with scraped sabzi and daal, because my mom also refuses to use the dishwasher.
Maybe Devi and I are more similar than I initially thought because superficial labels like ‘ABCD’ fail to explain the South Asian diaspora. Being Indian American is not a one size fits all – there are different shades and layers that must be identified and acknowledged. Each individual can choose how they wish to retain the traditions and heritage of the previous generation, if at all.
Only then can I be both Devi and Kamala, who each have their own redeeming qualities. Both are trying their best to be a source of strength to Nalini, Devi’s mother. The inner strength of Devi (meaning goddess in Sanskrit) could parallel that of a deity and Kamala’s and Nalini’s very namesake is that which blooms so powerfully from the deepest mud – a lotus flower. Sure, a goddess and lotus are already beautiful independent of each other. But place a lotus at the feet of a goddess and instantly they become an inseparable splendor.
Growing up as an Indian American is like this splendor – you need the deep-rooted foundation and tradition to coexist with modern ideals to really have a fulfilling experience. And maybe that is what being Indian American is all about – it is to feel so comfortable in your skin, including the many tones, that you eventually break out, like a lotus flower into a divine sort of light. Who knows, maybe the next Mindy Kaling will be so at ease in that skin and opt to be credited as Vera Mindy Chokalingam.
Ithi Joshi is a lawyer and dancer. Her interests include Ashtanga yoga, autobiographies, and baking desserts. She currently lives in Washington, D.C.