Why Apu Nahasapeemapetilon matters – a response from an Indian immigrant

*Trigger Warning* If you need a trigger warning, you’re a moron.

Right, so I’ve been moved strongly enough to write what I think about the whole Apu from Simpsons issue. And considering that I too am an Indian immigrant to the West, somehow that endows me with more special powers to talk about this, than someone who doesn’t share my background. Why? Because #identity reasons (apparently).

So why is the loveable Kwik-E-Mart owner suddenly in the news? Well thanks to a “comic” (a really elastic use of that term is in play here) called Hari Kondabolu who made a documentary about Apu last year called, The Problem with Apu. I can think of only one – there was no spin-off. The reason why I find it hard to call Hari a comic, is because of the following ‘bits’ he does in his Netflix standup:

That’s not terrorism okay, cause a white dude did a shooting. That’s mental health issues. As opposed to a suicide bomber who completely has his shit together.

My healthcare proposal wasn’t about a redistribution of wealth. My healthcare proposal was about a redistribution of organs from the rich to poor. Like a bunch of scalpel-wielding robin hoods in the night.

*crickets*….

You see these are from the Netflix trailer of his stand-up – and if these are the best bits they thought would entice an audience, I dare not imagine what the rest of the show is like. And I made a vow at the beginning of the year to not subject myself intentionally, to things that I know are highly likely to piss me off. So I opted instead to re-watch Bone Tomahawk on Netflix rather than watch this “documentary” (elastics flying all over here now). And I’m fairly certain that enduring the simultaneously masterful, and grotesque, dramatic representation of a scalping, followed by the stuffing and hammering of the scalp in the victim’s mouth, before flipping the victim on his now exposed brain and then taking a giant axe to his genitals before ripping his entire body into two down the middle (seriously Bone Tomahawk is a hidden Netflix gem); was still a more pleasant experience than enduring yet another millennial with a chip on his shoulder.

So what is Hari’s main problem with Apu? In his own words, Apu is “funny, but that doesn’t mean this representation is accurate or right or righteous. It gets to the insidiousness of racism, though, because you don’t even notice it when it’s right in front of you”. That’s right – it’s racist.

But by that account, so is Groundskeeper Willie, Fat Tony, Carl Carlson or Rabbi Krustofsky. And what of the other stereotypes? The Comic Book Guy, Moe Szyslak, Mr. Burns, or Chief Wiggum? By this logic, the Simpsons is the most hateful television show imaginable. Except it isn’t. It’s brilliant. It’s funny. And it’s a cartoon. It’s not a documentary.

After moving to the UK, I grew up on a cocktail of Simpsons, Friends, Seinfeld, Blackadder, A bit of Fry and Laurie, The Paul Merton Show and Yes (Prime) Minister. I opted to watch these because, one, I wanted to be able to speak English fluently and, two, because they were hilarious shows. At no point during that time, did I ever think about whether I was being represented. Who cares? And how entitled would I need to be, to think that television shows must represent me! Why would they? Why should they? I’m not in India. This is the U.K. and this country has its own identity and amazing culture. I moved here so it’s incumbent upon me to integrate and embrace the culture here, because when I do, I will automatically “be represented” in its TV shows, should that itch ever flare up.

That’s not to say, that if I noticed the odd Hindi song playing in the background of an English movie, I wouldn’t smile. I would – because to me, it always seemed like a sign of appreciation of the culture I was born in (which is now threatened by the deranged idea of “cultural appropriation”, jeez!), even if I had no direct input into what was being appreciated. When Goodness Gracious Me appeared on television, I would be in stitches, because it was all funny, be it BhangraMan, the dad who claimed everything good originated in India, or the Rasmalai duo. These were hilarious to me, because I had grown up around these types of people (not BhangraMan of course). And they were not an attack on my culture or the country of my birth, or me. They were observations about people with a similar background to me and to milions of other people. And they were astute and funny observations. If anything, they provided talking points for people who were genuinely curious about whether I knew someone like this character, or whether I really thought like that character. Why is that so deeply offensive?

And how is Apu different? Apu always appeared to me as a hardworking Indian immigrant who is genuinely happy that he has achieved his life’s mission of living the American dream. Why is this a negative image? Because of the accent? Because the man voicing this cartoon character is not Indian? What of the male characters voiced by Nancy Cartwright? Should there be outrage about that too?

I had the misfortune of attending a boys only school in London, and also to join it directly in Year 9. Here’s what that meant for me – alliances were already built, groups had already formed, the Arabs, the Pakistanis, the Sri Lankans, the Serbs, the Somalis and the Blacks all stayed in their own groups. There was one additional super group which I called, “The Cretins”. These were idiots who never did their homework, smoked behind the bikeshed, got into various altercations with community police officers, and were either preparing for a career serving fries at McDonald’s, or being found stabbed in the face in some alley in Harrow Town Centre. The dynamic was almost what you would expect in a prison environment, except every now and then, one member from a group may unknowingly start acting like a cretin and join the cretinous group, and before long, could be spotted behaving badly with a supply teacher, or making zoo noises in class before being thrown out.

And where was I; well I was frequently the lone Indian in the group along with one or two white boys. On my first day at school, when I introduced myself, I had no idea that for the next three years, the phrase “I’m Mayank and I have come from Bombay”, would be parroted and made fun of mercilessly, usually in the accent that I have long since abandoned. Looking back I can see why I was made fun of. If I went back to my former self, I’d probably make fun of him myself. Rotund frame, pubescent beard, body odour – it’s a miracle I wasn’t given a wedgie, every single day while I was there.

But here’s the thing – I wasn’t alone. Everybody was made fun of. It was part and parcel of growing up in a school with a mixed demographic of students. I’m not belittling true bullying here; but not every jeer about my accent was a racist affront and a malicious attack at me or my Indian heritage. It was, as many of us described back then, “jokes innit”.

So why this short history lesson of my life? Because I think that if you can be afflicted by a cartoon which is chock full of cultural stereotypes, for the primary function of eliciting a laugh; then you better eject from this life now, because newsflash – it gets infinitely more difficult. Indians are the model minority in the US and in many countries around the world, so when did we get so sensitive over a funny cartoon character? Hank Azaria’s talented voice acting should be celebrated, not denigrated to the point that he feels he needs to apologise. And no it isn’t racist for a white man to voice an Indian cartoon character. Seriously, lighten the hell up.

Personally, I find that all of this stems from a noxious case of identity crisis. It’s nauseating that one can’t seem to get over the different level of melanin in their skin compared to those around them, and this has a real impact on them, even though the rest of the world has moved on and does not give a monkey’s itchy ass about the colour of your skin, or whether or not you’re related to someone who says, “thank you, come again”.

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