'NEVER HAVE I EVER' AND THE TRIUMPHS AND PITFALLS OF THE DIASPORIC NARRATIVE
Feature photo courtesy of nytimes.com
Never Have I Ever is not and will never be the definitive South Asian diasporic narrative
Mindy Kaling’s new Netflix series Never Have I Ever begins with fifteen-year-old Devi Vishwakumar praying to her statue of Ganesh: “I’d like to be invited to a party with alcohol and hard drugs. I don’t actually plan on doing them, I just want to be able to say, no cocaine for me, thanks I’m good.”
Never Have I Ever seems to have launched a thousand think pieces—or at least become the topic of much discussion among young South Asians in the past few weeks. The series, released on Netflix on April 27th, tells the story of a teenage Devi Vishwakumar and the trials and tribulations of her life in Sherman Oaks, California one year after her father tragically passed away from a heart attack at her school concert. Devi’s life appears to revolve around trying to become perceived as cooler at school, losing her virginity, and getting in Princeton—all narrated by tennis champion John McEnroe.
The series is worth analysis-- not just because of the content of its ten episodes but more so due to the dialogue that surrounds it. What does it mean to create a TV show about a diasporic teenager, and what, if any, are the responsibilities that Kaling has in exploring this territory? To what extent should Devi’s life be contextualized by her South Asian heritage, and to what extent is having a teenage girl praying to Ganesh for a boyfriend and an invitation to a party with alcohol gimmicky?
Upon first glance, the show appears to be a simple reimagination of the high school sitcom, with a cast of recognizable, albeit more diverse characters. The first few episodes are slightly grating but entertaining. For those who are remotely familiar with an Indian accent, and in particular a Tamilian accent, it becomes apparent that Kamala (Devi’s attractive cousin from India) and her father sound like a poorly executed imagining of what an Indian accent sounds like. Both characters feel like caricatures of an immigrant Indian—floral sentences abound.
Other uncomfortable moments in the series include a montage of images of India meant to convey Ganesh Puja that includes footage of Bengali’s celebrating what is very obviously Durga Pujo and not Ganesh Puja. The writer Naben Ruthnum explains this phenomenon in his book Curry: Eating, Reading and Race. He writes about how diasporic imaginings of the homeland can often be just that—imaginary—and capture a longing and rupture from a place that never truly existed in the way the diaspora imagines it did. These recollections of the homeland, especially by second generation immigrants are often a collection of images that flatten and essentialize the homeland in ways that erase the very real chasms of class, caste and religion that exist on the subcontinent as well as through the diaspora in a way that homogenizes the South Asian diasporic experience. This is something that Never Have I Ever can easily be accused of; the word “brown” comes to mind here as the apex of this homogenization. What exactly is “brown culture” and is Never Have I Ever a “brown” Netflix series? What are the implications of making a show under that guise?
These two critiques of the show, the homogenization of South Asian culture along with the often unconvincing accents put on by two actors who were born and raised in America (there are 1 billion Indian people, surely there was someone from India you could cast to play an Indian immigrant?) feel necessary and constructive. With them, however, come the critiques that are more structural in their nature than individual to Never Have I Ever.
One of these critiques revolves around the plotline that Kamala feels she must break up with her boyfriend for an arranged marriage. The discourse around this is that it paints a stereotypical picture of Indian culture—namely that all Indian women are deeply oppressed by Indian men (a trope used in colonial literature about India) and cannot make their own decisions. Other negative reactions to the show have ranged from “this is not an accurate representation of the South Asian diasporic experience” to “how could Mindy Kaling depict Devi as a self-hating Indian” and “Devi’s character is whitewashed.”
The problem with this is that when a white auteur produces a TV show or movie, they are never tasked with representing the realities of every white person’s experiences because historically, white narratives and, in particular, narratives centering white men are the norm.
The problem with this is that when a white auteur produces a TV show or movie, they are never tasked with representing the realities of every white person’s experiences because historically, white narratives and, in particular, narratives centering white men are the norm. They are allowed the freedom of not having to carry their entire culture on their backs, and the luxury of depicting artistic choices in specificity on screen, which is really what the foundational aspiration of films and television are. The Godfather isn’t PR for the entirety of Sicily just as Never Have I Ever isn’t PR for the entire diasporic South Asian community in America. What makes shows like Phoebe Waller Bridge’s Fleabag so moving is not that most millennial women have had tumultuous relationships with Catholic priests (or maybe you have and if so, good for you) but because the bizarre specificity of Waller-Bridge’s fictional narrative was undergirded by emotional reality. Can the same be said of Never Have I Ever?
Kaling, however, subverts the expectations of her viewers. The plotline of Devi’s cousin Kamala’s arranged marriage initially follows all the recognizable and regressive cues, but Kaling turns it on its head with the casting of her potential future husband, Prashant. In the episode where Prashant comes to visit the family for the first time, the viewer, through the cues of the show, is expecting a specific type of man to appear. Devi reflects the reaction of the viewer when she opens the door to him and says, “Whoa… damn you’re hot…it’s just like, we were expecting an uggo.”
Similarly, Kaling’s portrayal of Devi as an Indian who experiences doubts about her culture doesn’t mean that the authorial intent of the show was cultural doubt. Quite the opposite, in fact. In an encounter with her friend Harish, who has gone to college and then returned to their community Ganesh Puja, Devi’s discomfort with her heritage is critiqued by the show itself. Devi seems perplexed that Harish had decided of his own volition to return to Ganesh Puja, to which Harish responds, “Why do I think it’s so weird and embarrassing to be Indian?I just thought, am I going to be this insecure Indian guy who hates doing Indian things? ‘Cause that’s its own identity, it’s just a shitty one.”
The critique that Kaling is portraying a “white-washed” Indian--whether unfounded or grounded in reality--strikes me as interesting because it touches upon an anxiety about culture that goes beyond the show. The notion that an immigrant to a new country has adapted to their new culture is a sell-out, has its roots in colonialism. Many, including myself, have watched some of Kaling’s previous shows and felt that she performed for the white gaze, but our discomfort and community policing of this behavior is worth examination. Scholars have investigated the fear within South Asian communities of women in particular adopting the outward markers of western culture. The scholar Homi Babha writes about the notion of hybridity in which a hybrid ethos is created between an encounter between two disparate cultures. The hybrid culture created is not as many view it--a bastardized version of both cultures never fully becoming one or the other—but rather something entirely different and of value.
Similarly, the anxiety over Devi’s non-South Asian love interests and her lack of obvious interest in her heritage echoes the scholar Partha Chatterjee seminal article “Nationalist Resolution of the Women’s Question.” Chatterjee writes about how during colonial India, Indian male reformers used Indian women as symbols of untouched culture and purity that were kept separate from the pollution of Western culture. An example of the need for women to “uphold” the culture can be seen at South Asian weddings and functions, in which women are expected to wear regional garments like kurtas and saris, whereas men often show up in Western attire—suits etc—and this is perfectly acceptable. There is something particularly heinous about the reaction towards a South Asian woman who adapts to Western culture. She is perceived as a traitor to her community in a way that her male counterpart is not.
Finally, despite some very reasoned critiques against the show, and some projections of pre-existing anxieties, is the fact that this show is not actually about a confused South Asian child of immigrants navigating her identity, nor is it really about a teenager learning to deal with hormones and high school. The Trojan horse of Never Have I Ever is Devi’s relationship with her mother and grief over the sudden passing of her father. Devi and her mother’s relationship throughout the series includes the humorous bickering that is a staple of the high school sitcom. In the second-to-last episode, however, we get a glimpse into Devi’s flashback of the night her father died and the fight that occurred with her mother. The jabs they throw are no longer lighthearted and funny, but hurtful and loaded with meaning. This depiction of a familial fight in a South Asian household was one of the moments in which the show is emotionally real and vulnerable in a way that was almost uncomfortable. The stakes felt high while watching Devi and her mother fight, and yet so did the ties that bind them together.
Kaling masterfully depicts both Devi and her mother in a critical yet sympathetic lens that demonstrates the profound grief felt in the wake of her father’s death, and the tremendous strain that this has put on their relationship. While not the exact reflection of my own experiences, the emotions rang true as someone who lost her brother to cancer at a young age. The same frothiness and frivolity that seemed forced and tedious at the beginning of the series made the sudden transition to darkness so moving. There is ostensibly no momentum near the beginning of the series which often feels like a progression of high school hijinks that ultimately lead nowhere, only for the last two episodes of the show to accelerate in urgency. It all builds to a final crescendo in the series finale in which Devi joins her mother and cousin to scatter her father’s ashes at the beach. The warmth and sincerity of the final scene resonates deeply because it is no longer trying to encapsulate the universal experience of every South Asian family who has ever experienced grief but the Vishwakumar family in particular.
Ultimately, Never Have I Ever is not and will never be the definitive South Asian diasporic narrative because there is no definitive South Asian diasporic narrative. It does however, like most works of art that are flawed by dint of their inherent humanity, reveal in our reactions something fundamental about us as viewers and about the types of people that get to tell our stories.