In my first year as a graduate student in America, I started collecting bills and envelopes with misspellings of my rather conspicuously foreign-sounding name. Despite the care with which I enunciated it and spelled it out over the phone when I spoke to pizza places, university admissions offices and others, my name showed up in ways very different from what my parents and their Telugu culture had chosen. It went East (“Wen See”), South (“Juan C.”), and to many other places unknown to any phonetic map I knew. Finally, one exasperated Midwestern pizza guy obviously had enough of it, and sent me a bill for my pizza with just “Uh!” written as my name. It was warmly amusing, and I could empathize with his dilemma. Even in a campus town, diversity could be challenging. I decided that “Uh!” is what Americans do when they acknowledge their limitations, that is all.
But this friendly mauling of my name was not the only point of difficulty between them and us. One night, as my friends and I walked home from the grocery store at the edge of town, our backs found themselves in the path of some high-velocity viscous-yucky projectiles flung from a moving car. We had half-consumed milkshakes thrown at us, and then eggs, and racial epithets, and even advice on geographical relocations (“go back to Africa”) from passing cars over the next two years.
Like many formerly sheltered and privileged Indian students, I felt what it was to be on something like a color line for the first time. And as a student of media, I could also see that this line existed with even greater ruthlessness on the surface of the luminous screen too. We were invisible on TV, as we were in the real life streets of milkshake-flinging dudes. The only Indians that Americans knew in the media it seemed were Gandhi and the monkey-brain-soup relishing princes from Indiana Jones. And then, right about the same time, began The Simpsons, and Apu.
Apu’s character grew with my cohort’s lives and careers in America, even if his occupation didn’t change. He got “arranged married” to the intelligent and beautiful Manjula, had many more kids than any of us ever did, stayed true to his family, culture, traditions and dietary ethics (and along with Paul and Linda McCartney turned Lisa the Conscience into Lisa the Vegetarian too), and became, well, “American.” Apu remained comfortable in his own spiritual space, but also seemed to fit into his new American avatar of civic duties, even charming Springfield’s single women to the beat of Foreigner’s Hot Blooded. Apu, to me, has been endearing as he has been enduring.
And yet, Apu is a stereotype, a cliché, and most importantly, a sign of a deeper ill that a whole generation of South Asian American children growing up since the 1990s seem to have endured. Hari Kondabolu only gave the pain a vivid form and voice with his much acclaimed documentary, The problem with Apu. The most insightful and deeply felt part of it is where he sees Apu’s character as not just an assault on children like him, but on their parents. The humor, as he points out, is all about a white guy imitating the accent of people like his parents.
Kondabolu’s heartfelt critique touched a nerve, and a wave of aggrieved voices came to his side in the media last November. Naturally, one believed that a show as cutting-edge, socially aware, and indeed compassionate as The Simpsons, would somehow address the Apu problem raised by Kondabolu and his friends. But all that happened last Sunday was that Lisa, the conscience and ideal child-citizen of the future world, deadpanned and went what sounded to me like: “Uh.”
This gesture has been perceived by Kondabolu and his supporters as a haughty and hurtful act of dismissal, while some others have appreciated it as an appropriate comeback to “oversensitive” liberals. As an old fan of the show, and someone who has studied and participated in the politics of Indian representation in America closely, I can’t help thinking that both views are somewhat off the mark. I don’t think the concerns raised by Kondabolu in his film are frivolous. Yet, I also don’t think that The Simpsons is mocking these concerns (and Kondabolu’s film). I saw not so much arrogance as much as an admission of inadequacy.
No one knows, it seems, where Indians fit with all their complex diversity, in the American multicultural landscape, where the “colorline” historically and politically lies, as it were. A passionate charge that a “white man” doing a “brown voice” was inappropriate and racist rallied many voices to its side for sure, but was in the end not persuasive enough to make the “white man” feel guilty enough and back down. Hank Azaria knows, and America knows. It is the nature of things, for good or bad. Indians are people of color, sure, and yet face deep resistance to being heard as such when they speak of their pain as people of color. And to some extent, the reason for this lies in a divide within the community about its understanding of privilege and identity.
For many years now, Indian Americans, particularly if they happen to be Hindu, have been described in writings about them not as minorities from a long-colonized nation worthy of historic sympathy, but as the opposite; as a monolithic group of privileged, and sometimes oppressive group. And the people who have made this charge have been people in the community itself; American-born, Indian-accent-free, second-generation Americans of Indian parentage. Angered by what they see as their parents’ lack of self-awareness about privilege, and more recently, by the support extended by some Hindu Americans to Donald Trump, they have sought very hard to form solidarities with Brown, Muslim and other South Asian identities to fight racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia. This part, is of course, not problematic and even commendable.
Where this supposed struggle has conspicuously failed to recognize though, is in ignoring the fact that there are forms of prejudice that the “Brown/Desi/South Asian” people routinely face that do not emanate from some generic “Brownphobia” or “Islamophobia.” These prejudices have to do with something very relevant to Apu’s character as well, and yet remained unaddressed in Kondabolu’s documentary, and most of the commentary that followed: Apu is Hindu. His being Hindu is a significant part of how the show characterizes him. Sometimes, the show reduces his Hindu identity to old orientalist tropes and clichés like “angry gods” and “dots,” and throws in some corpses in “the Ganges” too. At other times, it depicts Hindu culture with a recognition of the beauty, life and goodness in what it means to Hindu Americans. Even the response to Kondabolu in last Sunday’s episode played, at its core, to this; the scrawl on Apu’s photo says “Don’t have a cow, man!” suggesting that critics cool off, and also that, well, don’t eat beef.
Yet, in all the heated conversation about Apu and racism the broader question of Hindu representation in American public discourses has not come up at all. There have been other instances though, where it has; the debate about Yoga and appropriation, the use of Hindu deities on toilet seats and other inappropriate contexts, the depiction of Hinduism in California’s history textbooks, and most recently, in the controversy about Reza Aslan’s sensationalistic and inaccurate excursions into cannibalism in the sacred Hindu city of Kasi (which CNN bizarrely changed from the “City of Light” to the “City of Death”). The two worlds it seems, of “South Asian/Brown” struggle, and “Hindu American” struggle, seem to avoid each other, and sometimes clash with each other, needlessly.
It is perhaps telling that virtually every South Asian American voice in Kondabolu’s documentary (except his parents perhaps) has an American accent; a marker of inclusion and advantage (and often citizenship, as opposed to endless legal limbo for newer arrivals) as I am sure he knows too well. By contrast, the voices of most of the Hindu parents who supported their children’s calls for improving the California history curriculum still had that marker of distance, their Indian accents. And unsurprisingly, the outrage about Apu too seems to come largely from second-generation South Asian Americans like Kondabolu, while first generation Hindus and their families seem more concerned with the long term preservation of Hinduism in the face of what they see as entrenched denial and bias in classrooms and textbooks. Can we hope to ever take charge of our representation if this sort of silent polarization continues unexamined?
The future of the community, and ultimately America of which it is now so deeply a part too, depends on that, and on the will to fine tune our critiques of power and identity beyond old assumptions and cliches. By expending much of its energies on fighting its own, the South Asian American community has inadvertently postponed a much needed moment to claim its place. For all their calls to Hank Azaria and his team to witness their pain as subjects of color, in the end, nothing changed at all, not even with the agent of change who is Lisa. Apu lives, maybe for a better story to tell.
Vamsee Juluri teaches media studies at the University of San Francisco and is currently working on a book about representations of Hinduism in American media and pop culture.