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TV/Film "Never Have I Ever" represented the hell out of me, and I don’t know how I feel about it

May. 12, 2020
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Growing up, I had a love-hate relationship with being Indian. Outside the comfort of my own home, it was considered weird. People associated the entire subcontinent of India with Apu, Slumdog Millionaire, and that kid from Jessie with a really big lizard—and that was in the liberal bubble that is Manhattan. When I moved to New York at age 4, I remember girls would giggle about the daal my mom packed for lunch and the lenghas I wore to school on Diwali (even though I remember all of them wanting to order the Indian princess costume from the Oriental Trading Halloween catalog every year). It just wasn’t cool to be Indian—so, like a large majority of Indian kids, I resented my heritage. When I heard about Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever, I was, as you can imagine, pretty excited at the thought of something that might finally tell people what it’s like to grow up brown in America, hating your culture for making you stick out but kind of loving it. Something about the experience of a teenage first-gen girl who wasn’t a token FOB seemed so exciting. 

Devi, the ballsy, brilliant, and totally cringey protagonist of this show represented the hell out of younger me and I’m very unsure of how I feel about that. Fifteen-year-old me, in the depths of my India-hating phase, would’ve been overjoyed to know that she wasn’t the only girl praying to Ganesh before blacking out at a party. Devi’s struggle with fitting into her mother’s view of a good Indian daughter while being a confused American teenager coming to terms with her sexuality and pent-up grief hits almost uncomfortably close to home. 

And it’s not always explicit, the way Devi handles her cultural dilemma. In one scene, she starts off in a strappy red dress, leaves the frame, and comes back with a t-shirt underneath. If you’re a first-gen brown girl who hasn’t been instructed to go put a shirt under that top, sharam nahi hai kya? before going out with friends, mad props. The first time I managed to slip out of the house in a crop top (read: overcompensating bra) without immediately being sent to my room and being asked “Pooja, what is this behavior?” I actually sent a prayer up to Ganesh, Hindu god and remover of obstacles, for clearing the path for me to catch a certain someone’s eye that evening. 

As I mentioned, Devi (and other characters) can be extremely cringey; there are dramatized, satirized depictions of overused, dated stereotypes that I’m tired of seeing in any media associated with Indian-American culture. I was particularly ticked off by Kamala, Devi’s cousin and the token FOB of the show, and her flowery accent. The actress who played her, Richa Moorjani, was literally born and raised in the Bay. Come on. Devi also imagines Paxton, her crush, saying she “has the beauty of Priyanka Chopra” and says her chores make her feel like an “indentured servant.” Stereotypes like these have been used so many times, and I was hoping the show would move on from relying on them.

Something else that contributed to my very mixed feelings on this show is what I mentioned earlier—how Kaling deals only with the hate part of most brown kids’ love-hate relationship with their culture. During the entire episode about Ganesh Puja, a Hindu holiday, Devi trashes puja and Hindu culture, and makes snide remarks about Bollywood dance. I’m not going to lie and say that this sentiment isn’t common. I felt so self-conscious wearing parkas with a lengha to Diwali parties or Garba. Even when walking the few blocks from where we parked to wherever the party was, I’d draw my jacket tight to hide whatever outfit my mom had dressed me in. It’s not like I hated the clothes and wanted to hide them—in fact, I felt like a goddamn princess twirling around in bedazzled skirts with a bindi carefully placed between my brows. I was always just a teeny bit embarrassed about what other people would think about it. So, I understand where Devi is coming from with her I’m-above-it-all attitude at Ganesh Puja. However, to anyone unfamiliar with this conflicting sentiment, this episode reads as an arrogant girl who hates her religion. And how can non-brown people begin to understand and respect Indian culture without seeing some form of pride for it within Indians themselves? 

There’s another moment in this episode when Devi runs into a family friend visiting from college. Devi asks him why he’s at Ganesh Puja, because aren’t things like this too lame for him now that he’s off in college? He responds saying that growing up, he was ashamed of being Indian but after going to college he realized just how much he missed things like puja. He says he saw people from other cultures being proud of their heritage and learned from them. She just dismisses this and walks away, continuing to hate on the entire affair. 

This moment really resonated with me, and in my opinion, is one of the most poignant of the series. It made me reflect on my personal growth and acknowledge for perhaps the first time just how embarrassed I used to be of my culture, and how it wasn’t like that for all other immigrant cultures in America. I remember when my Japanese best friend brought sushi to school, she’d proudly take it out of her lunchbox and have to fend off kids who wanted to literally pay her for a homemade avocado maki roll. Only as I grew older and went to college did I develop a similar appreciation and pride for my Indian background. Something about not being physically home and having nothing forcing me to keep in touch with India made me miss it more than I ever had. I started decolonizing my life. 

This dialogue was dismissed far too soon, and I think there was a real opportunity for Devi to pause and think. The episode could’ve been a lot more than making Hindu functions seem like cringey, weird traditions we only go to because our parents drag us to them. I know in that situation, even in the depth of my I-hate-India phase, if I was told to stop hating my culture for a moment, I would’ve probably been a little shaken. But no, Devi goes and curses out a college counselor. 

I totally love and get that Devi is this sassy, loud teenage girl, but I think moments like these are examples of how Kaling’s off-color, cringey sense of humor shines through—not necessarily in the best ways. Cursing out a college counselor is something I’m really unsure any brown girl would do. As is running away from home with no warning and not picking up Mom’s phone call—things like this just aren’t even a question. Another example of this sort of humor is the narrator: the entire show is told through the perspective of an old white tennis player. He claims his narration makes sense since he meets Devi in the end and helps her with a slight panic moment. Fine, I understand if it’s a creative decision to help the plot or whatever, but this man didn’t get her name or any brown pronunciation correct the entire series. It was borderline infuriating to hear him butcher the name Devi Vishwakumar so many goddamn times. And it’s not like we’re not used to hearing our names messed up—I think it’s one of the most common experiences among brown people, how we kind of just accept that there’s a white-people way of hearing our names and then the real way. We respond to both. I would’ve loved to see the narrator perhaps acknowledge this instead of just perpetuating the norm that it doesn’t matter when people mess your name up.

Anyways. I think it’s unfair to place the heavy responsibility of representing all brown coming-of-age stories on Kaling—there are so many different stories to be told, and we’re just starting out. Kaling told her story, and the sheer fact that there’s a show about a brown girl on Netflix is honestly still mind-boggling to me. To mesh all narratives into one show would be an injustice to the diversity within the Indian subcontinent, and not everyone has the same experience growing up. Never Have I Ever is a wonderful start to mainstream media for Indian Americans. Representation is invaluable. Could it have been better or different? Yes, for sure. But there’s room for growth in a second season, and the series has already validated so many young brown girls looking for themselves on TV—and that feeling—hey, look—that’s me!—is worth everything.