Never Have I Ever: Between the cracks of Indian identity in the US

Chintan Girish Modi | Updated on May 29, 2020

House on fire: While Devi, the teenage protagonist, wants to score a hot date with Paxton, the high-school heart-throb, the mother forbids the very idea of premarital sex. IMAGE COURTESY: INSTAGRAM

The Indian diaspora in the US gets centre stage in Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever, streaming on Netflix

* Despite being one of the most visible minorities in the country, Indian-Americans are reduced to stereotypes in popular culture. Never Have I Ever tries to change that with a plot that is entertaining, provocative and well packaged.

Never Have I Ever is the kind of web series that is hard to miss if you are interested in race, migration and caste. Created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, it revolves around the life of an Indian-American teenage girl named Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), who is desperate to lose her virginity and raise her social status in high school. The first season, with 10 episodes, is now streaming on Netflix.

The show has been widely appreciated in the US because Americans of Indian heritage rarely get to see a mainstream show focusing on their lives; one where they are not playing a cab driver, terrorist, science nerd, motel owner, or spelling bee champion. Despite being one of the most visible minorities in the country, they are reduced to stereotypes in popular culture. Never Have I Ever tries to change that with a plot that is entertaining, provocative and well packaged.

However, the series has also drawn flak for anti-Semitic, casteist and Islamophobic references scattered throughout the narrative. Devi makes a tasteless jibe at her Jewish classmate Ben, wishing for his death at the hands of Nazis. She is summoned by the principal but let off after a half-hearted apology.

Devi belongs to a Tamil Brahmin family in California, and her mother Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) is deeply committed to casteist ideas about purity and pollution. While the daughter wants to score a hot date with Paxton, the high-school heart-throb who is a biracial white-passing boy of Japanese heritage, the mother forbids the very idea of premarital sex. Nalini also boycotts Jaya, a Hindu woman, at a puja, because the latter chose to marry a Muslim man. She also tries to regulate the sexuality of Kamala, Devi’s cousin.

Since we are quick to assign labels, especially to people we despise, Nalini has been called a ‘sanghi’ by many. This word has now become shorthand for referring to upper-caste Hindus who endorse right-wing parties and display religious bigotry. It includes Americans of Indian heritage who constitute a large support base for the current regime in India. Nalini’s character is almost a caricature with little depth. Her professional life as a dermatologist is hardly talked about.

Never Have I Ever is partially based on Kaling’s own childhood as a brown girl raised in a significantly white Boston. The theme of migration is not a passing interest; it is intimately connected to Kaling’s personal life. The conflict between Devi and Nalini stems from a clash of values; while one seeks autonomy, the other expects obedience.

On the one hand, Kaling is flooded with applause for writing and producing a show that expands the meaning of what it means to be American. On the other hand, Kaling is being called out for pandering to a white audience and also passing off an upper-caste, Hindu identity as an Indian identity. The show also uses disability as merely a plot twist and a source of crass humour.

I think that both reactions are equally valid. This is not a cop-out; it is an admission of the fact that art will always evoke a multiplicity of responses. When we begin to watch a show, we bring our desires along. We hope that the characters would affirm our identities, and become spokespersons for the ideologies we subscribe to. When things align perfectly with our expectations, we rejoice. If we are disappointed, we believe the show does not have a right to exist.

Perhaps a healthier way to approach art is to speak honestly of what it evokes in us rather than shutting down people who view it differently. A critique built around identity politics can help us learn about the insidious workings of structural violence, and following the emotional arc of the storyline can give us insights into how people navigate the ups and downs in their journeys. These approaches need not be mutually exclusive.

Devi appears to be a spoilt brat who hates the controlling ways of Nalini, but what really bothers her is an inability to process the trauma associated with the death of her father Mohan (played by Sendhil Ramamurthy). She not only loses sensation in her legs for three months, and is compelled to use a wheelchair, but is also emotionally damaged in ways that Nalini does not understand. What the mother perceives as tough love feels abusive to the daughter. Also, Nalini does not get to speak of her pain as a widow.

Devi remembers her father as a loving man who genuinely cared for her. Through flashbacks, we see how gentle he was, and how Devi felt deeply nourished by his presence. Her desperation to find a boyfriend is a coping mechanism to compensate for her loss.

Due to the self-destructive phase she is passing through, Devi is attracted to Paxton but cannot get herself to be physically intimate with him. Paxton is embarrassed to acknowledge his attraction to the ‘Indian girl’ when he is among his white friends. Devi does not realise this until her friends Eleanor and Fabiola point it out to her. Ben is the one Devi eventually chooses; he has stopped being the fat-shaming, ableist boy he was. He respects her for who she is, appreciates her family, and is able to find beauty in her brokenness.

Chintan Girish Modi is a Mumbai-based writer, educator and researcher

Published on May 29, 2020

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