Between cracks and creases of identity

(An edited version of this review was first published in The Hindu Business Line.)

Never Have I Ever is the kind of web series that is hard to miss if you are interested in conversations about race, migration and caste. Created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, it revolves around the life of an Indian American teenage girl named Devi who is desperate to lose her virginity and raise her social status in high school. The first season, which is spread out over ten episodes, began streaming on Netflix in the last week of April 2020.

It has been widely appreciated in the United States because Americans of Indian heritage rarely get to see a mainstream show focusing on their lives; 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 received flak for the 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. They are academic rivals but this hardly gives her a license to speak so insensitively about the Holocaust. 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 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 thought of pre-marital sex. Nalini also boycotts Jaya, a Hindu woman at a Ganesh puja, because the latter chose to marry a Muslim man. She also tries to regulate the sexuality of Kamala, Devi’s cousin who is completing her Ph.D. at Caltech.

Since we are quick to assign labels, especially to people we despise, Nalini has been called a ‘sanghi’ by people who dislike her politics. This word has now become shorthand for referring to upper caste Hindus who vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party and display religious bigotry. It includes Americans of Indian heritage who constitute a large support base. Nalini says things that I would find difficult to tolerate in my family but I hesitate to call her names. Her 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. Her Tamil father, Avu Chokalingam, grew up in Chennai. Her Bengali mother, Swati Roysircar, was brought up in Mumbai. 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. Indian teenagers who have felt marginalized in American schools on account of their race can now see someone like themselves on screen in a story that is utterly relatable. On the other hand, Kaling is being called out for pandering to a white audience and also passing off a Hindu, upper caste 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. This ‘cancel culture’ is toxic.

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 human beings navigate the ups and downs in their journeys. These approaches need not be mutually exclusive.

I think that 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. 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 are not understood by Nalini. What the mother perceives as tough love feels abusive to the daughter. Nalini does not get to speak of her pain as a widow.

Devi remembers her father as a loving man who genuinely cared about 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 earth-shattering loss. What she needs is a nurturing partner but she is not fully aware of this. Dr. Jamie, her therapist, offers support but Devi is not prepared to talk about her grief.

Due to the self-destructive phase she is struggling with, Devi is attracted to Paxton but cannot get herself to be physically intimate with him. He is embarrassed to even acknowledge his attraction to the ‘Indian girl’ when he is among his white friends. Devi does not realize 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.

(Note: All images are from the show Never Have I Ever on Netflix.)

Writer, educator and researcher

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