Around this time of year, as I remember the anniversary of my father’s death, I take time to reflect on what my life looked like with him, and now without him. Processing my grief looks like unpacking the past, often introduced by a new chapter in the present. This year, as I remember my father, I am thankful for shows like Never Have I Ever, which helped me process my father’s death through an ethnic lens.
In 2020, when the whole world stopped in the middle of a pandemic, I was in my basement watching season one of Never Have I Ever on Netflix and sobbing. What started as me curiously clicking on a show that had South Asian representation turned into a journey of healing and processing grief, loss, and trauma alongside the main character, Devi Vishwakumar.
Nearly 5.4 million South Asians live in the United States, and I thought I was just another Indian girl that saw herself in Devi. What I didn’t know when I started watching the show was how it would help me wrestle with my grief and trauma. Just like Devi, my dad died when I was a young girl. He was diagnosed with stage four brain cancer when I was eight years old and passed away two years later.
“Never have I ever” seen a Tamil-American girl my age on a TV screen dealing with grief and loss. I watched Devi wrestle with her grief through denial and confusion. She often tries to distract herself, but her grief builds up, having a cataclysmic effect through her outbursts. A normal South Asian person watching this might think Devi has a temper and needs to learn how to behave. The reality is, she is going through tremendous internal pain and is a teenager who doesn’t know how to express it.
My own trauma has manifested in similar ways throughout the years. I may not be as rebellious as Devi, but I also have dreams about my dad coming back to life (just like in Season 1, Episode 1). In the show, Devi had just had the worst day at school. Her nemesis – Ben Gross – called her an “unf—able nerd.” She was devastated. She walked downstairs to her living room, and her dad was watching tennis. He tells her that she is beautiful and she needs to stand up for herself just like the tennis player he admires, John McEnroe. She takes his advice to heart, but then quickly realizes that he is not supposed to be alive. The scene shifts, and she wakes up from a dream, startled.
I have these same dreams. Waking up is one of the hardest realities when you are struggling with grief, especially when your dreams preserve the memory of your dad.
I had a counselor who would encourage me to talk about my deeper trauma instead of my everyday frustrations, which used to distract me. At the time, my immediate concerns were making the cheerleading team, middle school drama, and my brothers stealing the last granola bar. I channeled my deeper pain into these mundane situations, enlarging and amplifying their actual significance.
There are so many ways my story intersects with Devi’s. I, too, had a depressed Indian mom who was an immigrant in a foreign land, alone and scared, just like Devi’s mom. I had an older sister/cousin who was so much better than me at everything, just like Devi’s relationship with Kamala. For a time, our grandparents even came to live with us for extra support, just like Devi’s pati (grandma). Every time Devi’s mom or pati calls her “kanna” or “kannamma,” I cry because I hear my own mom or grandma’s voice. These are terms of endearment that my mom and grandma still call me to this day. When my avva (grandma) came to live with me, she would dote on me but also scold me, like a second mother. In Indian families, it’s common for your grandparents to parent you, and Devi’s pati does the same thing. Every time Devi’s dad came on the screen, loving and cherishing her, I saw my appa (dad). Just like Devi, I was a daddy’s girl and had a soft spot for my appa.
When they come together to eat dosa, vada, and idli, I see my own family around the table. When they go to the temple to bless their books and socialize with the gossipy aunties, I remember the Indian community that raised me. In my town, the Indian community always came together around birthdays and holidays. We would put on our traditional Indian clothes, make the best Indian potluck, and gather in convention centers or smaller gatherings in people’s homes. Just like Devi, I would feel like I didn’t belong in these spaces.
My cultural assimilation and ethnic erasure were too powerful for me to feel comfortable in my Indian clothes. It has taken me time to embrace my Indian heritage and honor the community that raised me. There are so many beautiful components of Indian culture. They are hospitable and communal. They always show up. Devi and I both had to face our hatred of our own culture. Her friend had to call her out in the episode where she was at the Ganesh Puja, realizing how much she truly hated being Indian as she mocked everyone internally (Season 1, Episode 4). I had these same moments, but reconciling this hatred for my culture has been a theological journey as I explore the tensions between Christianity and Euro-American idealism. I think Devi has more ways to grow in embracing her culture, and I hope to see them explore this more in future seasons.
What affected me the most was the episode in which they scattered her dad’s ashes. I still remember scattering my dad’s ashes. We often see moments of immigrants holding onto their culture through food and language, but this scene was different. Never Have I Ever was able to capture a new picture on the screen: the immigrants who hold on to their unique traditions through mourning and loss. There is nothing rawer than an Indian widow spreading her dead husband’s ashes on Santa Monica beach. It shows perseverance in the face of adversity and isolation.
In the show, Nalini and Mohan Vishwakumar (Devi’s parents) arrive in the United States in September 2001, which the show states is “a difficult time to be a brown person in America.” Nalini is a dermatologist, and although her father’s occupation is not known, one might assume he is a doctor, engineer, or in the tech industry. This would fit the model minority stereotype that often narrates the story of South Asians in America. My father, although he had a Ph.D. in physics, secured a job in the tech industry to chase the “American dream.” Even with the tech job, there was always anxiety about how long we could stay in this country before our permanent residency was officially granted. After my father’s cancer diagnosis, the medical bills began to pile up, and there was even more anxiety. I can only imagine that although Nalini and Mohan seemed to be well off with their high-paying careers, the pressure to do all that they could to provide for their daughter and maybe even their family in India still persisted.
But this “model minority status” might give a false sense of financial security to the outside eye. According to an article published by the Colombia Business School, model minority immigrants do not represent the majority of the Indian population. Mohan and Nalini, along with my parents, came to America during the “tech wave.” From 1997 to 2013, half of the 125,000 H-1B visas were issued to Indian-born immigrants. The “H-1B visa program” is only granted to “specialized new hires who have already secured jobs and hold a minimum of a bachelor’s degree” This means that the U.S. is vetting those that are specialized, educated, high caste, and have the means to transport themselves here, which has reinforced the model minority myth. In Jonathan Tran’s work, Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism, he explores how the myth has critically affected Asian Americans by forcing them to succeed lest they suffer racial-economic oppression. In so doing, they are a tool used by white racial capitalists to further the economic barriers of Black communities. Minority success becomes plausible, but in turn, different minority groups are positioned to compete with one another.
Amidst all the pressures that Nalini, a single parent and a Brown woman in America, faces the model minority pressures for not just herself but her daughter, she does quite well. My mother, on the other hand, made some poor choices alongside her grief and impending economic turmoil. These choices were life-altering for me, resulting in abuse, neglect, and my placement in foster care. This is another story for another time, but that is why I admire Nalini’s perseverance as she stands on that beach, spreading Mohan’s ashes. She is caught up in a system in which she has to perform a certain way in order to ensure stability for her and her family, but dealing with immense grief and loss in the process.
Honoring the traditions (whether its celebration or loss) of one’s ethnic identity is a way to bring your homeland to you – no matter how far you are. When we are close to our original family and community, we take for granted the access we have to preserve our traditions. When all is going well, we do not have to face the pain that comes when we attempt to do our cultural rituals, funerals, or other ways of honoring those we have lost. When we do this, we are proclaiming that we are still Indian, no matter the geographical distance. Grief and loss are part of being human, and diaspora cultures have to learn how to face them in unique ways. For our family, I know it was difficult to have both an American funeral with an open casket and cremate my father in order to spread his ashes. In order to spread ashes in a body of water, you have to get special permission. Most people do not have to face these complexities. Practices of burial are so different depending on your culture and religious traditions, especially for immigrant communities where in their home countries, it wouldn’t even be a question. Dealing with these complexities in the midst of grief is not easy. No one should have to deal with the red tape of their visa or green card status while grieving a tremendous loss.
The beauty in all of this is that I have had the space to grieve and process now, as an adult, and I continually honor my dad’s life. There is so much spiritual significance for me, in my father’s death. It is an annual reminder of death and new life. My father’s death eventually led to my conversion to the Christian faith. I see his death as a sacrifice, planting the seeds that bred my new life in Christ.
Watching Never Have I Ever gave me the space to grieve in a South Asian way. Devi and I have grown alongside each other in the last few years as we both have learned how to embrace our identity, make South Asian friends, and truly heal. Our loved ones will always be with us, cheering us on, and I know they are proud of the young women we have become. I have grown into my identity as a South Asian, while for most of my life, I resented it. I began pursuing a career in theology when I was told that I had no place in that field as a woman. I am continually processing my grief and trauma, debunking the cultural norms in South Asian spaces that suppress mental health. What this show is doing is new and exciting, giving immigrant communities a way to process their trauma alongside Devi and her family. “Never have I ever” felt so seen or healed from a television show, but this opportunity helped me believe that there are more years to come for amplifying South Asian stories around mental health and trauma.