Tag Archives: mindy Kaling

Never Have I Ever Seen An Indian-American Teen Sitcom Like This!

When I saw the trailer for “Never Have I Ever” I was disappointed, annoyed, and consumed with secondhand embarrassment. How could they make a TV show about an Indian girl who was obsessed with losing her virginity, “popping her cherry”, “getting railed” or any of the provocative phrases that were used in the show?

Short answer: they didn’t.

“Never Have I Ever” is a new Netflix teen comedy show made by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher. It features an Indian-American teen Devi Vishwakumar, who wants to make a fresh start after a traumatic freshman year in which she experiences a three-month-long paralysis following her father’s death.

After the trailer, “Never Have I Ever” surprised me. Devi Vishwakumar, who is excellently played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, is relatable. She wasn’t your Indian stereotype, consumed just with her schooling, and obeying her parents. She is a three-dimensional character, with motive, pain, and emotions.

Devi is a firecracker. She is angry, she is resentful, she is competitive, she has a penchant for swearing and a habit of insulting people. In other words, that part of her personality – the overachieving yet angry nerd – was me in a nutshell.

Yet she was given substance beyond that. We are given a character who struggles through trauma, makes bad decisions, and she is not glorified for it. She is called out by her friends for being self-centered, a liar, and every mistake she makes. Devi is a character who feels real. While she takes from parts of the Indian stereotype, she is made into a three-dimensional character who I related to and it made me happy.

Initially, the element that did turn me off, the obsession with her virginity, was a little over-the-top. I felt as though Devi was being idiotic and foolhardy, trying to “pop her cherry” just for the sake of it, but the way the show tackles it is well-done. Every action of Devi’s is meant to happen. Whether she’s getting stupidly drunk at a party or insulting a college counselor, it makes sense in the context of her character. Devi’s character is built around her mistakes and her regrets, rather than her triumphs, and it makes the show move forward smoothly.

It’s why the show worked for me. In the beginning, I was skeptical, due to the supposed idiocy of the plotlines. As a high schooler, most of these things didn’t or couldn’t happen to me. But somehow these characters, all-too-human and none a true stereotype, carried the show so well.

Nalini, Devi’s mother, is the best example. She is a tough woman who is struggling through maintaining a dermatology practice, running a household, trying to be a mother, and also going through her grief. She is not your Indian stereotype. Yes, she is strict, but she is sassy, and Westernized. She’s not always likable, but she’s never truly the villain. The clash between Devi and her mother makes them both human. Nalini makes mistakes and she comes to terms with them. She grows as much as Devi does.

Another great example is my personal favorite character, Devi’s supposed rival, Ben Gross. Ben is a well-written character. His rivalry with Devi is hilarious and competitive yet he is also given his moments to shine, such as his own episode: “… been the loneliest boy in the world”. Ben is initially rude and callous, but he grows just as Devi does, side-by-side and he is revealed for the sensitive, sometimes a little dumb, sweet guy he is.

“Never Have I Ever” disappointed in some of its technicalities. Tamilians everywhere are pointing out the cringe-worthy reference to ‘thakkali sambar’ made by Devi’s dad. Let me break it down on behalf of my Tamilian mom. First, ‘tomato sambar’ isn’t a thing. Second, he mispronounces the Tamil word as ‘bald’, not as ‘tomato’. Since Tamil is used sparsely in the sitcom, this truly was annoying for Tamil viewers.

While I did enjoy Mindy Kaling’s storytelling overall, she seemed a bit out-of-touch with her audience.  For instance, San Fernando Valley in Southern California near Los Angeles is teeming with Indians. So Sherman Oaks High School must have its fair share of Indian American students. There’s simply no way that Devi could be the ‘only Indian’ in her school or class or even row. It did not make sense.

Yet, despite the minutiae that annoyed me, there are details that made me smile. 

Throughout the show, you see Nalini’s ‘vanki’ ring, a traditional ring of curved gold inset with stones. It made me pause the show and stare for a moment. My mother wears an almost identical ring.

Nalini isn’t overly religious, but she hates when books fall on the floor (because in Indian culture books are blessed and tossing them on the floor is a major offense). Their altar, placed in a corner of the house and decorated with photos and statuettes of Hindu gods, looks similar to my own. They make masala dosa (one of my favorite foods), and they call each other “kanna”, a Tamil term of affection that’s been used on me a couple of times.

As a half-Tamilian, these details resonated with me. But they hit home for my mother who enjoyed ‘Never Have I Ever’ a great deal. It is likely the first time in either of our lifetimes that there has been a three-dimensional Indian character on the American screen.

We are seeing Indian cultures, Indian characters as #1 on Netflix. We are seeing ourselves represented on the largest stage outside of India. And that is incredible.

What’s more – the show featured some top Bay Area talent – Richa Moorjani who plays Devi’s gorgeous cousin Kamala, dancer Jaya Kazi who choreographed the moves to Nagade Sang Dhol in the Ganesh puja scene and Rashmi Rustagi who plays an older Indian woman in Episode 1.

Rashmi Rustagi
Joya Kazi
Richa Moorjani

               

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ultimately, I loved this show. Though it made me cringe from time to time (and what teen show doesn’t?), it made me feel seen. I know the rage Devi feels and I know the culture she shirks. This is a show that may not be made for my generation, and it may not be perfect, but it speaks to us. My generation lives with Indian culture and American culture, and we are the ones who are stereotyped as “just another overachieving Indian”. We are Devi, despite how much our personalities may differ. 

This show isn’t just for me, in California, cushioned by my South Asian friends and South Asian culture; it’s also for those in middle America who are scared of being seen in Indian clothes and afraid of eating Indian food at school. 

This show is for all Indian-Americans who bridge the gap between cultures and deal with its inherent problems. This show is not a one-note story and nobody is close to perfect. The characters and their lives are imperfect, but it all comes together in one touching story. 

Just remember – don’t forget your tissues!

Kaavya Butaney is a sophomore at Los Altos High School in Los Altos, CA. She writes for her school newspaper, The Talon, and loves speech and debate and choir. Kaavya is an intern at India Currents.

Make Life an Option

Mindy Kaling, the famous actor-producer in the hit series – The Office – stated on Twitter I just signed up! All my fellow South Asians, let’s make a difference here – it’s so easy, and one day it could be you or someone you love.” She was referring to the search for a marrow donor on behalf of Liyna Anwar, a podcast producer for The Los Angeles Times who is fighting an aggressive form of cancer. When certain cancers strike, a bone marrow transplant becomes a lifesaving option and South Asian representation is woefully negligible in registries.

An effective treatment option for several blood cancers, and one which often results in a cure, is hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT). In addition to blood cancers, this procedure is invoked in the treatment of other serious illnesses including lymphomas, immune-deficiencies, and anemias. In all these instances an allogeneic HSCT is required, in which a matched donor is the source of healthy HSCs.

‘Matching’ involves the identification of human leukocyte antigens (also called HLA), which are proteins present on the surface of the transplanted cells, and ensuring that those present on the donor cells are compatible with the patient receiving these cells. This is dependent on genetics, and it thus follows that a match will be procured from a donor of the same ethnic background. Unfortunately, at the present time the probability of an Indian finding a matched donor in an international registry is approximately 10% (compared with the 80% probability of a Caucasian finding a match). Thus, there is an urgent need for increased representation of donors of Indian and south-east Asian descent in international donor banks, including those right here in America.

The quest for a suitable donor usually begins with finding a match with a sibling or a relative, but only an estimated 30% of matches are found from within relatives. More often than not an unrelated donor is sought and a wider net is cast that spreads over three source tissues, and the repositories which house them. Three sources of tissues may be used as starting material for a HSCT: (1) bone marrow harvested from the pelvic bone, (2) peripheral blood stem cells (PBSC) isolated from blood after being mobilized from marrow, and lastly (3) cord blood (CB) stem cells. The first two are harvested from adult donors (optimally 18-45 years of age), while the third one is harvested from the umbilical cord after childbirth. Of these, the bone marrow and peripheral blood derived stem cells are preferred as they pack a concentrated bolus of stem cells. Cord blood has advantages in that the requirements for a match is less stringent, but the number of stem cells per sample is limited and the time taken for engraftment is longer. Another significant difference lies in logistics and infrastructure. Registries exist for the adult-derived stem cells where a database is created to record HLA characteristics of registered samples. Once a match is identified the donor is contacted and tissue harvested, processed, and shipped to the recipient’s hospital. In contrast, physical samples of cord blood harvested at the time of childbirth are stored in tissue banks awaiting a request once a match is identified.

Prominent international stem cell banks and registries include the World Marrow Donor Association (WMDA) which is headquartered in the Netherlands, and the Anthony Nolan Trust based in the UK. The Be The Match registry (also the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP)) is maintained by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the US Department of Health and Human Services (https://bloodcell.transplant.hrsa.gov/index.html), and in addition to the registry provides a trove of information about current research and options available to patients. As there is a widely acknowledged need for donors of non-Caucasian ethnicities in these international banks, the HRSA also provides information related to initiatives and funding for establishing registries focused on these populations. One such initiative is a California-based non-profit Mixed Marrow that is focused on finding bone marrow and blood cell donors of multi-ethnic descent. South Asian Marrow Association of Recruiters (SAMAR) is a community-based network partner and official recruitment center of the Be The Match Registry. Although they were initially focused on recruitment of the South Asian ethnic group, they now serve diverse racial groups. Information may be obtained for other registries including DKMS and Gift of Life.

Of specific interest to patients of Indian and South-east Asian ethnicities are stem cell registry and banking initiatives in India. Currently five registries exist, namely, Marrow Donor Registry India (Mumbai), Genebandhu (Delhi), Bangalore Medical Services Trust (Bangalore), Datri (Chennai), and Jeevan Stem Cell Foundation (Chennai). Jeevan also houses a cord-blood bank. In addition, there is an ongoing initiative of the Government of India to create a national registry. Dr. Srinivasan Periathiruvadi, Chairman of Jeevan, estimates that when the registry touches the million mark approximately 60% of patients of Indian origin will find a matching donor. Since 45% of the Indian population is between the ages of 18-45 which is optimal for a donor, he opines that reaching this goal should be possible in a year or two. HLA typing is performed on registered donors, and once matched, the requisite tissue sample may be shipped to national and international transplantation sites.

India Currents editor Nirupama Vaidhyanathan remembered a high-profile campaign in the South Asian community about 10 years ago in the Bay area, when there was a big push to include participation among Indian-Americans in bone marrow registries. “The registration process was very simple,” she said, “I went to the Hindu temple in Fremont – volunteers swabbed inside my mouth for a sample and then sent the details to the registry. I was contacted about five years later saying that there was a possible match with a patient. Then, they contacted me again saying that they had found a match that was even closer to the patient’s tissue structure. I am still registered and I encourage all to do so. I can only imagine the pain that family members go through when they try to hunt for a possible donor.”

Registering in a database is not difficult, and instructions for sample submission, along with the relevant form, is available on the respective websites. Data obtained from the HLA typing is stored in the database, and the donor will be contacted only when there is a potential match. Donations are usually performed by isolation of PBSCs, which is likened to a prolonged session of blood donation and is appreciably less intrusive than marrow extraction from the pelvic bone. Cord blood is collected from the umbilical cord which is usually discarded, and may be donated with little effort. Both these actions can save lives.

As a community we could contribute to the health of our generation and the next by creating robust registries and cord blood banks. Having this option to fall back upon in the face of a dreadful illness could indeed be a blessing for the international community of South Asian descent.

 L Iyengar has a Ph.D., and has been involved in researching the biology of stem cells for about two decades. She has been involved in research programs both in the USA and India.