Religion and Irreverence”in Religion, Race, and “Never Have I Ever” Season 3: A Roundtable Discussion.” Anxious Bench

Mindy Kaling’s comedy Never Have I Ever returned to Netflix for a third season earlier this month, and as with the first two seasons, there’s much to discuss about how the show portrays Asian Americans, religion, and race.

In a follow-up to the roundtables organized for Season One and Season Two, I brought together five scholars to reflect on different aspects of the newest season of NHIE: Dr. Shalini Shankar considered themes of class and caste, Dr. Swapnil Rai discussed the irreverent portrayal of Indian American religious life, Dr. Himanee Gupta examined the show’s portrayal of the model minority myth, Dr. Rupa Pillai addressed the possibilities of the American Dream, and I connected the show’s depiction of Navratri with broader patterns in Asian American religion and home life.

Please note: we include a couple spoilers here, so you might want to watch Season Three in full before proceeding with this roundtable!

Class, Caste, and Diaspora

Dr. Shalini Shankar

Professor of Anthropology and Asian American Studies, Northwestern University

Caste is an engrained system of inequality that has survived centuries in South Asia. High caste individuals who have long had the greatest access to education are also the ones who immigrated as skilled professionals, addressing the U.S. call for STEM workers in both 1965 and 1990. In NHIE, Devi Vishwakumar’s family is presumably part of the latter cohort, and based on language use in the show, part of an Indian elite colloquially known as Tamil Brahmins or “Tam Brams.”

NHIE has consistently signaled its commitment to upper caste status in Seasons 1 and 2. In earlier episodes, Kamala breaks up with her non-Indian boyfriend and begins to take the process of meeting suitable boys seriously. The women—Nalini, Kamala, Devi, and eventually Pati—publicly celebrate major holidays like Ganesh puja in ways only available to upper caste Hindus. Nalini, having lost her beloved husband Mohan in flashback, continues to prominently wear her wedding tali or wedding necklace, one that distinctively marks her as Tam Bram.

In Season 3, Episode 2, when Pati’s disappointment about Kamala’s broken engagement becomes untenable, her only way of moving forward is to find her granddaughter a new fiancée. Her clique from the temple dress up their nerdy Tam Bram sons to compete for Kamala’s attention but their efforts are foiled when Devi’s teacher Manish crashes the party.

Manish does not perform caste, class, or diasporic status like Devi’s family or the temple boys. He cannot answer Pati’s questions about his grandparents and instead casually tells her how his divorced parents violated numerous social taboos, including running a night club and marrying a white person.

While his unsavory background promises he does not come from money, his public school teacher’s salary suggests a frugal life with minimal economic mobility. Zeroing in on this lack of status, Pati is unequivocal in her disapproval of Manish, dramatically avowing that she cannot show her face in temple if Kamala were to date him. When Pati eventually softens to Manish due to his kindness toward Devi during one of her many teenage blunders, she still openly calls him weak and in need of protection, rendering him the opposite of a powerful high caste man.

Even with arranged marriage being glamorously reinvigorated in trendy reality shows like Netflix’s Indian Matchmaking, scenes like this remind us that the underlying goal is to maintain caste and class endogamy. NHIE has many options in representing caste and class in diaspora, but thus far has taken a highly predictable, normative path, one that aligns with conservative Hindu right values. A show that is otherwise invested in progressive politics of gender and sexuality would do well to consider the negative implications of reinforcing high caste values and instead use this platform to altogether reject this system of violence.

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