Editor’s Note: Raakhee Mirchandani is a journalist and author of the children’s books “She Persisted: Kalpana Chawla,” “My Diwali Light” and “Hair Twins.” The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Note: The following contains spoilers for the final season of “Never Have I Ever.”
Growing up, there were a lot of mothers on TV — Mrs. Brady, Roseanne, Angela Bower, Clair Huxtable, Aunt Viv and a host of other 1990s sitcom moms who all felt interchangeable to me. Some of them were tough, others were “cool moms” — but none of them were like my mama, an Indian immigrant raising an American girl.
I never searched for either of us on TV. Truthfully, as a kid, I never knew I could.
I wouldn’t have found us there anyway, because mothers of the diaspora were largely left out of pop culture and so were we, their first-generation kids. Growing up, I was ashamed of everything: the hair on my arms and my face, my Indian name and my chutney sandwich lunches. I was ashamed of my mother’s accent and her clothes. (She pioneered athleisure; I had it all wrong.) And while she wasn’t embarrassed by me — well, I’m sure she was, I had a mouth on me - she never let me know.
The only Desi moms I saw on screen growing up were the overdone Bollywood types, or the overwrought Indian soap opera ones. There was nothing in the world — movie, music, songs — that showed them, us, in our glory. There wasn’t a single space where I could see myself or my family reflected in relatable terms — imperfect, sure, but still worthy, the main characters. It was like we didn’t exist, unimportant details in the larger American stories unfolding around me.
So if there’s anything about the just-concluded Netflix series “Never Have I Ever” that I’m grateful for, it’s that this next generation has a powerful, beautiful and indestructible archetype in Nalini Vishwakumar, played to perfection by Poorna Jagannathan. I’m grateful NHIE gave Indian moms — Brown moms, Desi moms, South Asian moms — the crown we deserve. My mother certainly does. The show — thanks to creators Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher and the talented writer’s room — didn’t just pull off the sidelines. It built a much-needed pedestal for our matriarchs.
We — the mothers and babies, then the babies who grew up to become mothers ourselves — straddled different worlds and languages, oceans, cultures and ancestral values. We argued if eggs were part of a vegetarian diet — my mama said no, I said yes, my kid thinks we are both ridiculous and barely touches eggs because, as she put it, they taste too “eggy.” (I haven’t eaten an egg in decades because in the end, it’s true, we all turn into our mothers. Resistance is futile.)
Brown moms have never had their moment. Certainly not in the way we deserve. But now, among the cohort of timeless TV mothers, there’s Devi’s mom — and let me tell you: Nalini, as realized by the inimitable Jagannathan, certainly has got it going on.
Last week, I sobbed my way through the entirety of the fourth and final season the day it came out. I curled up on the sofa, staying there till well past two in the morning, spending time with the Vishwakumars for just a little longer.
It felt less like a binge and more like a pilgrimage, watching Devi (played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and Nalini find their way back to each other after grieving the sudden death of Devi’s dad, but also, choosing their own independent ways forward.
I wasn’t prepared for how hard the last episode (when Devi finally leaves home for college and Nalini starts dating again) would hit me, how much it would make me reflect on my own teen years and my daughter’s soon-to-be tween ones. (She’ll be 10 this fall and she’s as delightfully spicy as a satisfying chaat.)
Will she and I have distance, too? How will we find our way back to each other? Will I be able to break the cycle of mother-daughter drama — or, at least, create some new, healthier loops, so she feels like she can talk to me about sex and relationships? If my daughter goes to therapy, will her therapist be as fabulous as Jamie Ryan, played by Niecy Nash?
Nalini is a little bit of both of us - my mother and me — a fierce protector, a no-nonsense realist who takes Devi’s textbooks to a priest to be blessed but also sends her to therapy. She’s tough on Devi but also brings her a chip salad, or packs her suitcase, in a sari, because she knows her daughter needs her help. And those one-liners — “What did I say about slamming doors? It’s for White children” or “You should have thought about your bagel bites before you called me a bitch” — is the kind of acerbic, top-shelf parenting I aspire to.
Sure, there’s the joy of the show’s expansion of representation on television, but to me, it’s the elevation of the Desi mom that cemented “Never Have I Ever” as an important and insightful part of diasporic story telling. The show centered us and our matriarchs in a way we never had been before. It created a place for us beyond stereotypes —though, let’s be honest, Devi’s dream school of Princeton is also something I talk to my daughter about. A lot.
As much as NHIE was about Devi’s coming of age, it felt like Nalini’s too, an authentic representation of both childhood and motherhood, our hyphenates worthy of exploration and celebration.
Nalini is the disciplinarian but also an object of desire. She serves looks and lewks. (And anyone with a Brown mom knows the eyes; one look is all it takes.) She’s not Devi’s best friend but she’s in her corner. She doesn’t throw around “I love you” — the way I do — but the love is very real.
The immigrant parent, first-generation child relationship is a nuanced blend of history and hope. It’s an uncharted pathway we pioneered together. There were wedding dances and senior dances, though I was only allowed to do the former. There were fits and fights, a deep desire to break free and settle in a dorm 200 miles from home. And then, there was the journey back. I suppose that’s the thing about roots, they, like a strong mother, are a powerful anchor.