A Singaporean Indian Reviews Netflix’s Never Have I Ever

Never have I ever written a review on a Netflix TV series (or any other series, for that matter) but I was compelled to do so given the premise of the show— the comedic adventures of an Indian American high schooler. It was impossible for me to not laugh and cry along with the main lead, Devi. While I definitely related to her as a Tamil-Indian girl myself, the similarities between the Singaporean me and the American Devi are far and few between as well. As such, I have mixed feelings towards Devi: let’s unravel them.

I Have… Doubted My Indian Identity

I couldn’t help but draw parallels to Devi. From being forced to wear painfully uncomfortable traditional costumes for Ganesh Pooja to eating only vegetarian food at home because “It’s Friday,” it was easy for me to empathize with Devi’s struggles of being an Indian.

Being born and bred in Singapore, I often feel like I am from another universe when I mingle with Indian nationals in our country. Speaking only for those that I have interacted with, their piousness as well as inherent submissiveness to family and cultural traditions make me question if I am really an Indian. Even the Tamil they speak is so proficient; I feel like I have to go back to school to take classes again to understand what they are saying (mind you, I did take Higher Tamil in secondary school).

Devi’s cousin, Kamala, decides to break up with her Chinese boyfriend, Steve, to meet a suitor, Prashant, arranged by her family in order to appease them. This is a fine example of how Indians are supposed to revere their parents as Gods and to never go against their words— something that neither Devi nor I will ever oblige. And when Devi’s mum, Nalini, told her neighbor that “smacking is still an acceptable punishment in many minority cultures,” I felt that to my soul because the proverbial “spare the rod and spoil the child” is a saying that will always be etched in the minds of Indian parents, no matter which country you hail from.

It was apparent Devi reached the pinnacle of her anti-Indianness when she was chided for refusing to take a picture with a random stranger whilst wearing traditional clothes. I vividly remember being asked to take so many pictures with children by their parents during my exchange in Hong Kong because I was an Indian and honestly, sometimes I wished I wasn’t a minority that stood out or perceived as exotic… Devi, I feel you, girl.

Perhaps the reason why Devi felt so miserable and anti-Indian was because she couldn’t claim her Indian identity without truly understanding her cultural traditions. Be it when the priest chanted some convoluted, unfathomable Sanskrit chants during the Pooja or when she could only eat vegetarian food at home or not date till she’s an adult.

This is where Indians parents need to really up their game to explain the significance behind the traditions that the Indian culture bears. This was a role that Nalini failed at terribly. But Mohan, Devi’s dad, really excelled at it. This could be why Devi was so close to him. Unlike her mum, who just demanded her to do things to avoid being “problematic”, her dad never failed to patiently explain her faults. He encouraged Devi to learn the harp, joking that it was musically superior to the guitar. Honestly, Mohan is the kind of modern Indian dad every diaspora family deserves for he is so good at helping his child grow into their Indian identity, no matter which part of the world they are in. Even after Mohan’s passing, something tells me that Devi is really trying to be Indian and we have to give our home girl some credit. Despite her misery, Devi still listens to her mum duly from wearing an elaborate traditional costume to listening and executing everything as instructed during Ganesh Pooja.

When Devi initially despises her cousin for being so Indian, one can’t help but sense the jealousy simmering beneath because why would she care if she didn’t feel inferior? And the fact that Devi thinks Kamala was not perfect anymore because the latter sneaked Steve into their house reflects how she believes Kamala is the perfect version of a child she ought to be. One could sense how Indian Devi was in show’s opening scene as she is praying to the pictures of Gods at the prayer altar— something I do every morning as well. We only cling on tightly to our traditions when we need the workings of a Godly miracle to help us attain what we want.

Never Have I Ever… Prayed to the Gods for a Boyfriend

…and this is where our American-Indian Devi diverges from most Asian Indians or even Indian nationals in the USA, like Kamala and Prashant. Her freedom to speak her mind, if not anything, is probably the most American thing she’s gained growing up in the land of free will. It certainly wouldn’t be a common facet to see Indian youngsters being blatantly rude to their mums. Oh, trust me, if I told my mum I wished she would be dead, I wouldn’t be willingly leaving the house but rather, forcefully kicked out and disowned instead.

And the fact that she even considered emancipating herself from her mum really defines her free-spiritedness. In actuality, it isn’t uncommon for American children to move out of their parents’ house in their teens anyway, which reflects how American Devi has become. I am not sure about Devi but I was glad to remain invisible in my high school and not be known for having a hot boyfriend who “rocked [me] all night long”.

Despite being portrayed as a really smart and studious teenager, Devi still succumbs to major notions of a typical American high school, desiring to be popular in school and not being a “Unfuckable Nerd” by clinching a hot boyfriend instead of another spelling bee medal. In some sense, I am quite thankful for Nalini because if she was not a strict Asian Indian mum who schooled Paxton and kept her mischievous daughter in check, I am not quite sure what might have happened to rebellious Devi.

I Have… High Hopes for Season 2

Here are my hopes for the second season of Never Have I Ever. I mean, if you are reading this, Mindy Kaling. *glaring and in Nalini’s hair-chilling voice* There better be one. I am glad the Gods above responded to Devi’s pleas by blessing her with not one but two romantic partners whilst he never listened to any of my prayers to help me ace that test in college I didn’t study for… thank you for your magnanimity, Gods.

Anyway, let us hope that Devi tactfully dedicates her energy between her two new beaus – Paxton and Ben, and her best friends – Fabiola and Eleanor, something she failed to do so rather spectacularly in season 1.

My aspiration for Devi is that she learns to do what is best for her as well as for those who love her. Because as her besties proclaimed, life doesn’t only revolve around her. Concurrently, Devi should also learn to make her own mark in this world and break the stereotype of the typical Indian with the perfect SAT scores and numerous academic medals, as mentioned by the snarky college counsellor.

More importantly, I hope she grows to embrace the Indian in her. May Season 2 exhibit 100,000 other ceremonies to highlight the richness and vibrancy of the Indian culture, on top of exploring how the diasporas are really desperately trying to uphold their culture for their children. And hopefully that means more flashbacks of the ideal American-Indian dad, Mohan. Yes, I have a major crush, sue me.

Feature image by Andrea Abeysekara, follow her on Instagram @art.byandrea.

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Mitheera V

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