There are not many kinds of Indians on television. There are, now, maybe four: the Assimilated Guy (see: Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation, played by the inimitable Aziz Ansari, the delightful Mindy Kaling as Kelly Kapoor on The Office, and Sendhil Ramamurthy as Jai Wilcox in Covert Affairs), the Harmless Muslim (see Aasif Mandvi as Samir and others as family in Today’s Special), and the two Hindus, Tortured and Hidebound (see, respectively, the lovely Reshma Shetty and the unremarkable Rupak Ginn as Divya Katdare and Rajan Bandhyopadhyay in Royal Pains, and for more Hidebound characters, any Hindu parent). The Harmless Muslim is a relatively recent add-on in the wake of our slow recovery from anti-Muslim sentiment in recent years, and I applaud it, but it doesn’t change the central issue of our stereotyping by the media.
This arises from a thing in American culture, which I can best describe as a failure to holistically understand a person or imagine how their background might differ from yours. Every way that I am different from you is viewed as an individual deviation from the default—if I’m assimilated enough—or as a part of a system of deviations that makes a stereotype. Either I’m just a dude who is just like you, except I can cook Indian food, or I’m a taxi-driving doctor who yells at his parents in rapid Hindi while cringing from an arranged marriage. Neither of these things is the case! The facts are more complex.
The majority is a lot more fortunate. There are lots of white people on TV, of many creeds and kinds and professions. If you look at religion alone, you see so many kinds of Christians on television: faithful but not particularly devout, nuns, priests, the lapsed, the doubting, the ones that believe in their hearts but reject the community of church, and others; it’s a great and laudable diversity. You see atheists and Jews and the occasional outlier with a less well-known creed.
But we are not so fortunate. Hinduism is a joke.
I think it’s pretty scary that you Christians pray to a statue of a bleeding corpse. That’s pretty much what people say to me about Hinduism, more often than not. “It’s pretty crazy that you pray to a statue of a guy with six arms. You have so many gods! How do you keep them straight! Who’s that guy with an elephant’s head?”
These are the kinds of questions you get when your religion is Other. I could say the same thing about Christianity, but I don’t; you’d look at me as if I suddenly grew an extra pair of arms. “You have so many saints! How do you keep them straight? Who’s that dude with wings and his head is on fire?” Those questions seem crazy because, here, it’s expected that you have a grounding in Judeo-Christian lore as part of your basic cultural education. You wouldn’t believe how often people act surprised that I don’t know Bible stories—because for some reason it’s sensible to expect me to read the holy books of the invaders that killed and conquered my people, replaced their governments, infrastructures, and cultural values with their own?
It doesn’t have to be like this. Why doesn’t Tom Haverford have a stylish, post-modern Ganesh statue in his house? My parents do, and they’re pushing 60. Why is his religion, his very Indianness, completely erased? Why is Divya’s faith and her cultural practice the central conflict of her character? We can do better.