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Never Have I Ever Season 2 Poster

Never Have I Ever’s Second Season Had a Few Redeeming Moments

The controversial Netflix series Never Have I Ever, produced by comedian and actress Mindy Kaling, released Season 2 on July 15, 2020. The series is based on a high-school-aged Indian American girl named Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and addresses the experience of an Indian teen living in America. Season 1 brought an uproar of reviews and opinions, good and bad. To me, however, season 1 was nothing short of a disappointment. Finally, someone with an identity like Kaling had been given a platform to create a show which would dispel the hurtful stereotypes of the Indian-American experience. Instead, Kaling approved a Season 1 which further played into those harmful tropes. Despite my outrage at this wasted platform, I decided to give Season 2 a chance hoping that the negative reviews from Season 1 would help the creators rethink their plotline. While Kaling continued to propel some awfully stereotypical ideas, Season 2 brought to light a lot more progressive lessons and experiences. 

The positives: 

The introduction of Aneesa Qureshi 

Megan Suri as Aneesa in 'Never Have I Ever' episode still.
Megan Suri as Aneesa in ‘Never Have I Ever’ episode still.

Season 2 brings the arrival of a new South Indian to Sherman Oaks. Aneesa (Megan Suri) is Muslim and transfers from a snobby private school following the diagnosis of her eating disorder. Not only does the recognition of eating disorders dispel the traditional Desi ignorance of body dysmorphia and mental health, but Aneesa’s parents deal with her trauma in healthy ways – a way in which Indian parents aren’t traditionally portrayed. She mentions her intense rehab program and ongoing support from, both, professionals and her parents. In fact, when Devi accidentally shares Aneesa’s disorder with the school, Aneesa’s mom insists on moving her to a new school once again. It makes me hopeful to see immigrant parents, that too, South Asian parents, finally being portrayed as progressive and aware of the importance of mental health and wellness. As someone from a family where mental health is prioritized and checked in on often, I am thankful to Kaling for including this storyline to show others that not all South Asian parents are ignorant and the same. 

Though Aneesa is Muslim, it is nice to see that she feels empowered to have a boyfriend. Though she feels like she cannot tell her parents, her religion is not a constant conversation topic when she is dating Ben. Sure, if Mindy wanted to be even more progressive, Aneesa could have told her parents about her boyfriend, but maybe that’s pushing it! However, my point is that Ben doesn’t once make a negative comment or have a doubtful thought about Aneesa’s religion. Some may see this lack of recognition as a bad thing, however, I like that Aneesa’s whole storyline isn’t about her being a Muslim woman. She wears modest clothing and talks about eating Halal, but she still gets to act like a teenage girl who sneaks out and has sleepovers. 

Lastly, Aneesa is introduced as the second Desi in Devi’s year, but as the “cool” one in comparison to Devi. In the beginning, I was wary of this competition because even women producers tend to pit the lead female characters against each other, but as the show progressed, the audience sees Devi warming up to Aneesa, and at the end even being friends. I appreciated that Aneesa was portrayed as trendy and relevant because one of my biggest issues with Devi’s character was the way she was seen as the typical nerdy, uncool South Asian. While I could have done without the typical “two confident women fighting over a mediocre boy” drama, I appreciated that they were able to maturely work through their differences. I could have used some more “women supporting women” scenes at the beginning.

Nalini Vishwakumar’s romantic progression

Nalini's kiss with her romantic love interest in 'Never Have I Ever'
Nalini’s kiss with her romantic love interest in ‘Never Have I Ever’.

Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) and Devi lost their husband and father, respectively, right before Season 1. In Season 1, Nalini was strongly against Devi dating, even slapping and lecturing her about it in the stereotypical Indian parent way. It was another stigma I worried the show would play into. In Season 2, however, Chris Jackson was introduced. Dr. Jackson was Nalini’s upstairs neighbor at her dermatology clinic. As two dermatologists in the same building, Dr. Jackson and Dr. Vishwakumar had a dramatic competition over things as trivial as parking spots. Somehow, though, their shared loss of partners, as well as constant bickering, made them fall in love. While Nalini ultimately ends the relationship for Devi’s sake, it was so refreshing to see Kaling give this uptight, stereotypical Indian mother a relationship of her own. I particularly enjoyed that Chris Jackson is a Black man, erasing the idea that Indian immigrants like Nalini are racist. Nalini’s feelings were shown in such a raw way — they even showed Chris and Nalini kiss! Nalini’s character initially felt like a slight to all Indian mothers for being so overprotective and antiquated in their beliefs, so this addition to the storyline was much appreciated. 

A progressive mother & mother-in-law! 

Narmila (Nalini's mother-in-law) played by Ranjita Chakravarty in 'Never Have I Ever'.
Narmila (Nalini’s mother-in-law) played by Ranjita Chakravarty in ‘Never Have I Ever’.

Season 2 also introduced Devi’s two grandmothers. When Nalini goes to India to make arrangements for a move which never happens, we are introduced to Mohan (Nailini’s deceased husband) and Nalini’s mothers. Nalini’s mother has less airtime but is portrayed as an independent woman. While I didn’t agree with some of her rude comments to Nalini and her poking fun at feminism, her personality dispels certain stereotypes of Indian mothering. Nalini asks her mom to come along to help her make arrangements for the move and her mother denies her, saying that she has a party to attend. It is a quick interaction, but often Indian mothers, especially when they become grandmothers, are expected to drop everything to help their children. Instead, Nalini’s mother leaves Nalini, telling her maid to cook something as she leaves for a social event. It may seem like a negative interaction to some, however, I was ready to overlook the grandmother’s rudeness as she broke a stereotype with only a few words. 

Devi’s paternal grandmother, Narmila (Ranjita Chakravarty), has a larger role as she moves to LA to live with Nalini and Devi. Often, Indian mother-in-laws are seen to have bad relationships with their daughter-in-laws, but Mohan’s mother is nothing but kind to Nalini. This sentiment struck me when Patti (what Devi calls her) yelled at Devi for speaking to Nalini terribly. The comment Devi made was about how Nalini was moving on too fast from Mohan. Patti could have easily taken Devi’s side since Nalini was moving on from her own son, but she stood by her late son’s wife. Additionally, Patti never gave Devi any of the typical Indian grandmother talks. Not once do I remember Patti telling Devi she couldn’t date Paxton because he wasn’t Indian or that she should start looking for a nice Indian boy soon. Actually, Patti often commented on Paxton’s looks and probably wanted him for herself! I appreciated Patti’s role — she added humor and was the second grandmother to dispel a stigma. 

Kamala’s Professional Reckoning

Kamala working at a lab in ‘Never Have I Ever’.

In Season 2, Devi’s cousin, Kamala (Richa Moorjani), gets a job at a lab where she makes an important discovery leading to publication in a renowned journal. Her peers — the white men at the lab — don’t take her seriously, leaving her out of their activities and out of the paper. Prashant (Rushi Kota), Kamala’s boyfriend, helps her through it. Prashant’s support was a great way to show how men should act.

Kamala is highly intelligent and not once does Prashant feel intimidated by her. In fact, he is vital in helping Kamala realize her value. Ultimately, after Devi gives her the courage to, Kamala stands up to her boss and gets what she wants. I appreciated this storyline on Kamala because it not only diverted from Season 1’s dragged-out story on Kamala’s relationship, but it showcased the struggles of women of color who are trying to make it in the professional world. While Kalama’s solution of sneaking onto her boss’s computer was simply theatrical, her speech at the end about equal treatment as well as her own realization of self-worth was unexpected and inspirational. Kamala’s job struggles were helpful in two ways: One, they eliminated the idea that South Asian men should be and are intimidated by their highly functioning. Two, that all women of color should be aware of their self-worth and advocate for equality.

The negatives:  

The Kamala & Prashant saga continues 

While I appreciated the decrease in the Prashant and Kamala romantic scenes, the ending of the season repeated a mistake of Season 1. Prashant’s parents come to visit, seemingly, because Prashant is going to propose to Kamala. The pressure of Kamala having to decide if she wants to marry Prashant in front of his parents is unfair. Furthermore, Kamala is clearly uncomfortable with the idea, but no one sees that, causing her to panic and hide at Devi’s winter dance for the night. I was shocked that Nalini, who knows Kamala well and is quite progressive, couldn’t tell that Kamala wasn’t all in with the idea of Prashant proposing. It seemed as though everyone was so excited for the proposal that they forgot that Kamala’s feelings mattered too. It’s a typical portrayal of Indian culture where a woman is pressured by her ignorant family, both directly and indirectly, into marrying a man they have picked for her. I just thought that Kaling would at least allow Kamala to stand up for herself after her growth this season.

Side note, let’s get rid of Kamala’s FAKE Indian accent!

Nalini’s continued disapproval of her daughter’s romantic endeavors 

I appreciate Nalini’s way of dealing with Devi’s various bad decisions (spying on her during a date to being suspended for exposing Aneesa’s secret). However, what I still don’t get is why Devi’s mother is STILL being portrayed as the typical South Asian parent who won’t let Devi and Paxton study in a room with the door closed. I get it, ok. I get that many parents, no matter their race, have different feelings about dating, especially when it comes to their high-school-aged children. But why does Kaling have to go along with the stereotype that Nalini doesn’t want her daughter to have a boyfriend because it means she won’t get into Princeton. The constant lecturing about boys and kicking doors open to platonic studying is overdone and one-dimensional; if Kaling wants to comment on anti-dating, make it more than just about academics.  

Devi is still that nerdy, unathletic Indian kid

Aneesa’s appearance was pivotal in showing that not all South Asian kids are boring and nerdy, but Aneesa’s presence doesn’t mean that Devi still has to be shown as the typical Indian kid. I understand that different characters have different personalities and that Aneesa and Devi are meant to contrast each other. Some of Devi’s scenes are so dramatic that they are there to almost intentionally play into the stereotype. She is seen at the 24-hour relay, not being able to run a mile without a cramp and getting made fun of for it. She is seen being called an “academic beast” and being called on by the counselor to tutor a C-grade average student. The list goes on. Sure, Devi can be unathletic and intelligent, but Kaling has played into the dramatics of TV so much that she has forgotten that the goal of the show and Devi’s character is actually to uplift Indian-Americans. It always feels as though Devi’s actions are negative, and isn’t the main character supposed to inspire?

In conclusion, there is much to work on both with this show when it comes to the way Indian-Americans are perceived and portrayed — even by other Indian-Americans! But, growth is happening and that’s refreshing to see. Never Have I Ever has the potential to be a symbol of pride for the Indian American community. 


Ayanna Gandhi is a rising senior at Castilleja School in Palo Alto, California. She has a deep interest in writing and reading but also enjoys politics, singing, and sports of all kinds. 


 

Top: Photograph of indentured Indian labourers at Spring Garden Buildings. Jamaica, 1880 (Image from the National Archive); Bottom: Contrabands at headquarters of Gen. Lafayette, 1862. Contrabands was an expression coined by Gen. Benjamin F. Butler to describe escaped slaves (Photo by Mathew B. Brady courtesy Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library/Yale University via Wikimedia Commons)

Juneteenth Isn’t Enough: How Indian-Americans Can Use Their Pasts to Help Another Present

Though empires abolished slavery in the Caribbean islands during the 1830s, their move to the model of indentured servitude wasn’t much better. From 1838 to 1917, western European governments transported over 500,000 Indian indentured servants to work on their plantations in the Caribbean. Some were brought unwillingly and others consented to their servitude, however, most servants were not made aware of the horrific conditions and treatment that they would face. Really, the “indentured servitude” model that colonizers granted Indian laborers was a fancy word for slavery.

During the same time period, on January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation – enslaved individuals in the Confederate States had been freed. Unfortunately, even a document as official as the Emancipation Proclamation was flawed and freedom for all enslaved people would come only after the ratification of the 13th Amendment on December 6, 1865.

In a Confederate state like Texas, the power balance between the state and federal governments meant that Texas’ leaders could decide if they wanted to put the document into effect. Finally, on June 19, 1865 – hence the term “Juneteenth” – 2,000 Union troops invaded Galveston Bay, Texas, officially declaring freedom for all enslaved Texans.  “Juneteenth” marks the day that Black Texans gained freedom – the last state to adopt the Emancipation Proclamation in America.

Two centuries later, Juneteenth just became recognized as a federal holiday in the United States. July 4th may stand as the country’s day of independence from Great Britain, but Juneteenth stands as the country’s second independence day in recognition of freedom for all citizens. 

Similarly, India may be politically independent, but colonization still manifests itself in subtle ways. In fact, Raja Masood, an associate professor of postcolonial literature and theory, notes that “children are still taught to write an application using words and phrases that endorse a colonial mentality such as “Yours obediently” or “Your obedient servant.” Think of the word “boss” commonly used in the Caribbean and Asian communities. How about the titles Maiam (Madam) and Saab (Sir)? My English professor said, “Don’t call me sir, call me Mike.” Students in India and Pakistan are taught primarily in English and almost every school teaches the language as if it’s their native tongue.

Indian huts on a sugar plantation near Port Louis in Mauritius. (Image by Frederick Fiebig from the British Library)
Indian huts on a sugar plantation near Port Louis in Mauritius. (Image by Frederick Fiebig from the British Library)

Classism and casteism were amplified outcomes of colonization in India. In fact, the stratification and division that colonization brought to India pre-Partition, remains part of Indian ideology and society. Colonization has, also, pushed Indians to disassociate from Black people. The British, having created stratified structures, pit minorities against one another, “us” versus “them,” and unlearning this behavior has been harder than learning it.

June 19th, recognized as the day that slaves gained their freedom, also recognizes that Black people are still fighting for equality and justice. The murders of Black Americans such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are clear signs that anti-Blackness is ever prevalent and detrimental in society today. As Indian Americans, how can we use our riddled history to empathize with the plight of minorities in America?

Inter-minority division feels illogical. We often talk about the atrocities that slavery and colonization individually brought, but what we recognize less are the parallels between them. These parallels are proof that hegemonic institutions have inflicted trauma on a range of minorities. The treatment, which both the Indian slaves and African American slaves endured, was horrendous and, unfortunately, very similar. The governing bodies of both India and the United States exploited people for their own benefit.

Bibee Zuhoorun was one of the many laborers who was made to work in the Caribbean. She shares her testimony in an ongoing investigation on the India indenture trade. Zuhoorun says, “the injustice meted out to fellow labourers – a story of overworked men subjected to ill-treatment and corporal punishment. Labourers were often confined within plantations and denied wages if they refused to work. She felt stuck in a foreign land.” Zuhoorun was one of many.

Women were kidnapped off of the streets in India and brought to the Caribbean islands for the Indian male laborers. Kalyani Srinivas, a resident of the Bay Area and a person of Indian-Trinidadian descent, emphatically states, “Isn’t it a travesty that history misrepresents the blatant slave trade of Indians to the Caribbeans. My great-great grandmother was 16 and holding her child in India when she was taken forcibly by the British to Trinidad. She was brought as incentive for indentured male workers.” 

Sexual harassment was a common occurrence and Zuhoorun didn’t receive wages for 2.5 years of her labor. Britain profited largely off of the East India Company and did more harm than good; the British ran the company logistics and financials, and Indians did not get authority nor benefits from the company.  

Contrastingly, I note the words of Fountain Hughes, a slave who was interviewed in 1949 and whose words have been archived by the United States Congress. His story is long, but he emphasizes the idea that the slaves were alone, and the conditions they existed in were not worth living for. He says: “we, no more money, but course they bought more stuff and more property and all like that. We didn’t have no property. We didn’t have no home. We had nowhere or nothing. We didn’t have nothing only just, uh, like your cattle, we were just turned out. And uh, get along the best you could. Nobody to look after us. Well, we been slaves all our lives.” 

Worse of all is the similarity in the devastating number of casualties that both races faced. An estimated 35 million in casualties is said to have come from the irresponsible rule of the British in India and at least 17 million people died as a result of slavery and slave trade. Both times, abuse of power took the lives of millions of innocent citizens. Both times, these casualties were avoidable. 

Our shared narratives have been erased, omitted, and forgotten in written history. Let us remember that Indian-Americans are not far removed from their history of slavery and colonialism.

This year has brought about obstacles for the AAPI community. In fact, AAPI hate is running rampant our society, and in standing up for the AAPI and Black community, we create a united front – one that is stronger than any individual alone. 

Juneteenth is a day to celebrate the freedom of African American slaves, and for Indian-Americans, it is a day to reflect on our ancestry and shared trauma to empower others in our community.


Ayanna Gandhi is an 11th grader at Castilleja School in Palo Alto, California. She has a deep interest in writing and reading but also enjoys politics, singing, and sports of all kinds. 

Srishti Prabha is the Managing Editor at India Currents and has worked in low-income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.