Photo Credits: Netflix
A few days after Mindy Kalings “Never Have I Ever” released on Netflix, I came across this article titled “NEVER HAVE I EVER…SEEN A SHOW SO CASTEIST AND RACIST” which claimed the following:
“Kaling’s ‘Never Have I Ever’ is more interested in packaging upper-caste Hindu American identity”
and that the TV show effectively:
“…mentions Islamophobia, anti-Dalitness, anti-Blackness, anti-Semitism, ableism, and fatphobia.”
Curious to see what this was all about, I decided to watch the TV show myself to form my own opinions. Before this article came out, I never actually
Warning: This article has many spoilers!
I’m The Girl They Tried To Represent
Yep, that’s me. I come from a Tamil Brahmin family who grew up outside of India. Many of Devi’s struggles resonated with my own. I wanted to see how accurate the portrayal of a Indian-Tamil-Hindu-Brahmin teenage girl and what it is like growing up in America, completely different to my parents’ traditional upbringings in India.
Brahmin’s actually are one of India’s smallest minority, comprising of only 4.3% of the Indian population. Given Devi’s case, her identity as a Tamil Brahmin, this would be <1% of the overall Indian population and <3% of Tamil Nadu’s population. Given that there are atleast 3 million Hindus in the U.S, why they chose to represent a Tamil Brahmin in particular was quite interesting.
One of the biggest reasons I could think of was the Anti Brahmin movements in Tamil Nadu which actively denied Brahmins an education and access to any government benefits should they become poor. Brahmins were painted as barbarians by many Periyarists who validated these claims and spread it across Tamil Nadu. As a result, many Brahmins decided to move to the U.S. because of ethnocide of their culture.
So How Do They Represent This Tiny Minority?
When I first saw the trailer for Never Have I Ever, I noticed the way that Devi prayed to all the gods. It made me slightly tingle and even cringe. I felt what they were portrayed was subtly offensive to Hindu Americans, who recited shlokas in Sanskrit daily.
And as someone already pointed out –
That being said, I tried to give the TV show a chance. Here are a few of my observations:
If they were trying to totally represent a Tamil Brahmin family, this wasn’t completely accurate.
It was surprising to me in the first place that they would try to portray a Tamil Brahmin family – but if it was the case, it was a half hearted attempt with a few issues here and there. There were many accurate descriptions and not so accurate descriptions which I will illustrate:
The last name
Devi Vishwakumar – the name in itself did not make sense. Majority of Tamils (and South Indians for that matter), irrespective of caste and religion, take on their father’s firstname. In this case, it should have been Devi Mohan if anything. This isn’t something that is unique to a Tamil Brahmin family.
Misogyny in the Brahmin community
This is actually an interesting topic – is there really misogyny in the Brahmin community? Kamala, Devi’s cousin, is being told to behave like the mother of Prashant. She’s told to know how to cook, clean and take care of the house.
Women have been described to be one of the highest educated community; especially given the context of Kamala’s Tamil Brahmin upbringing. Sadanand Dhume, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, draws parallels between Tamil Brahmins and Ashkenazim. Even though Tamil Brahmin households tend to be more patriarchal, it is to be noted that Tamil Brahmin women are treated with much more respect than their counterparts in other communities.
This is not to curb out issues that Tamil Brahmin women (or any South Asian) face: but for a community that is focused on education for all (men and women) and self made success, it does not make sense to suggest misogyny is rampant in Tamil Brahmin households and society. In fact, many Tamil Brahmins prefer women to be independent in their professional careers rather than a typical live at home South Asian wife.
This was an excellent portrayal of what many Hindus (not only Tamil Brahmins) believe happens to any form of life after death. Although the body itself may no longer be of use, the atma is believed to still live on – formless. This can be found in the Bhagavad Gita 2.23 where Lord Krishna states:
The soul is eternal and will continue to live on despite death to the physical body
One of the biggest beliefs is that the process of reincarnation will continue until moksha is achieved, and the soul is relieved of all the karma tied to it. Life begins to manifest itself in many physical forms until this is possible. The theme of bringing in reincarnation to foreshadow the underlying pain that Devi faces due to the death of her father was wonderfully put.
Although I really appreciated having the Ganesh Puja Scene: it generally felt insulting. Why? It felt as though it was a complete mockery of Sanskrit, and did not felt like the general crowd appreciated the shlokas. It seemed as though reciting shlokas in Sanskrit was considered backwards and meaningless, hence disrespecting the beliefs.
That being said, it also seemed to portray the Brahmins as the ones who were “qualified” to say these sacred chants when in reality, there are many temples across South Asia where the priests are not brahmins. It went along the stereotype that Brahmins were the only ones who can say these prayers, which is not the case, especially in India.
Not showering in the morning
On the day that Prashant visits the house, Devi wakes up in the morning and gets ready immediatley.
This is completely different to what a typical morning routine that a Brahmin family would follow. Tamil Brahmins typically follow a custom known as “madi” – where there’s a huge separation between “clean” and “unclean” clothing especially. This term madi is used to indicate whether someone is clean and has showered in the morning. Tamil Brahmins follow these traditions to the core – therefore Devi not showering in the morning doesn’t make sense.
Obviously, this isn’t exclusively a Brahmin thing or a Hindu thing. Sambar is very common gravy used in South Indian cuisine. Thakkaali is the Tamil word for tomatoes – which is not typically used in Sambar.
What they did get right
Tamil Brahmanical Pronouns
This is interesting, because Tamil Brahmins use a set of pronouns which is unique to their community. For instance, calling the father’s elder brother (or elder cousin, who is a male) is referred to as “Periyappa” which other Tamil communities do not use, and simply resort to “mama”
We also notice Devi’s mother referring to Devi and Kamala as “Kanna” which is also very common in Tamil Brahmin homes to generally refer to kids in the house.
Textbooks should not touch the ground
There are certain customs that many families do follow. For instance, we believe that stepping on any type of paper, cardboard is wrong. This is the same with money too. Hindus believe that all forms of knowledge originate from the goddess sarasvati, hence stepping on such things, is disrespectful. This is the same concept where textbooks should not touch the ground.
Whenever we do accidently step on these items, Tamils do something called: “Thottu Othikirathu” and touch the textbook against our eyes.
Mockery of vegetarianism
While it’s true that Brahminism is a staunch supporter of vegetarianism, whereby majority of Brahmins (and Hindus for that matter) do not eat beef, there seemed to be a condescending tone towards this practice. A recent study by Go Branded showed that millennials are leading the vegetarian movement. India also has the largest number of vegetarians in the whole world.
However, many non – Brahmin Hindus only eat meat on select days. This means that some degree of vegetarianism is practiced in majority Hindu homes. There is no stigma associated with eating habits.
Love for Modi
There has been outcry from many viewers regarding a one sentence line which praised Modi. This doesn’t make sense. A report by the Washington Post described widespread millennial support and love for Modi, therefore it is expected that Modi’s fanbase is popular amongst young diaspora youth.
The reaction to a one line dialogue about Modi with widespread outrage speaks leaps & bounds to the fragility of Anti Modi activists without considering the views of the entire South Asian diaspora. What about the 50,000 people who came to see Modi during the Howdy Modi event in Texas?
Marrying a Muslim
Marrying a Muslim, especially within the Hindu & Brahmin community certainly does carry a huge stigma. But the reason for why it may have this stigma is antithetical to ground reality. South Asians are known to trying to avoid any kind of inter-caste, inter-religious and inter-ethnic marriage. There isn’t necessarily a stigma against marrying a Muslim in particular.
The way this TV show has portrayed it is as though inter-religious is common in Indian society and will be strongly condemned by anyone who does indulge in it. The truth is, it really isn’t.
A paper titled “Dynamics of inter-religious and inter-caste marriages in India” by K.C. Das has shown that inter religious marriages are extremely rare, constituting of <3% of marriages in India, a country with a population of 1.1 billion people. In addition, an article by NY Times does suggest that interfaith marriages have higher divorce rates – one of the biggest reasons as to why it is discouraged among many South Asians. The stigma against divorce is extremely strong within the community. For this reason, any inter-faith marriage is discouraged.
This notion extends to all South Asian communities – including inter-sect marriage. For instance, marriages between Shias & Sunnis are not encouraged in many Muslim (in particular Pakistani) families even today.
Blessing the Bike
In Hinduism, it is a common practice to bless anything the first time it is used – bike, car, clothes and everything else. It is considered auspicious to “bless” everything just before using it for the first time to ensure that it works properly.
It was nice to see these traditions continue and for Devi’s father to bless the bike before riding it.
Boyfriend vs Family
This is very common amongst Indian, and other South Asian families. There is a large stigma around dating in South Asian households. Immigrant parents do not take dating well, especially when it’s dating other castes, ethnicities and religion as aforementioned.
Parents are over protective: South Asian parents have moved across the planet to ensure that children are given a better life. They want their kids to be well settled in their careers.
So anything that can jinx this notion, is a threat
However, I thought this was wonderfully shown in the TV show whereby Kamala is open to Prashant and is visibly conflicted with her relationship with Steve – but decides for herself what is best for her.
Mental Health & Therapy
This is very accurate for a South Asian family – in many families – discussing mental health issues still remains a stigma. With immigrant parents who have moved across the world, the expectation from children can become overwhelming. With pressures at school, academics and family – mental health can become a big issue for South Asians.
When Nalini, Devi’s mother, tells Devi’s therapist that she doesn’t believe in therapy, I could personally resonate with that. Reports from Psychology today describe many reasons as to why long term therapy fails to address real mental health issues.
What is the need for South Asians to go to therapy?
Hear me out on this one.
South Asians have had a history of practicing indigenous customs and traditions which prove to reduce any forms of anxiety.
- YogaThe history of yoga can be found in the Rigveda and Upanishads, which origins stem from South Asian cultures & religious beliefs. The American Osteopathic association has listed both physical and mental benefits of Yoga – which includes balanced metabolism, improved athletic performance and stress management.
- Waking up early in the morning
Many prominent, mainstream media outlets have constantly outlined the benefits of waking up early in the morning. While this may be news to the west, South Asians have been embracing this tradition for several years now. This is ingrained into our culture.
The amount of latest mental health applications which encourage meditation and mindfulness resonates with South Asian practices, in particular, Hindu practices.
Given that there are so many resources out there that can improve mental health amongst youth in particular, many parents find it unnecessary to put children in therapy.
And if I’m honest, I completely agree. These three habits have changed my life and my mental stability beyond imaginable. No amount of therapy could have done the same.
Although there were many discrepancies that this show illustrated about the Tamil Brahmin community, it was not as toxic as I thought it would have been. I expected complete mockery and butchery of my culture that I have witnessed in Kollywood media over the last several years.
Thank you to Mindy Kaling who has made an excellent start for representation of South Asians in American Media. We still have a long way to go.