Ten minutes ago, I walked out of a job interview and into the Starbucks across the street. The interview went well, and if they make an offer I think I’m going to accept it. I order a chai and plug in my headphones to watch Aziz Ansari’s TV series Master of None on my phone, because I can’t stop hearing about it. I’m on the second episode, called “Parents.” Thirty minutes later, I think I can begin to make sense of the last nine months of my life.
Dev Wants To Do The Right Thing
Ansari’s character is Dev, a 32-year-old struggling Indian-American actor in New York City. He’s earnest, unassuming, and gives off the impression of an overgrown little boy, from the youthful charm in his face to the five-year-old Go-gurt commercial that is still responsible for paying his bills. He exists somewhere in the spectrum between pathetic and adorable– his most distinguishing trait, without a doubt, is how desperately he just wants to do things right.
In the first episode, an awkward hookup becomes the premise for a late-night trip to the pharmacy with the girl he met in a bar a few hours before. He “treats” her to Plan B, and “wait, you’ve never had Martinelli’s? Two bottles please!” Dev really just wants to do the right thing.
For a first-generation South Asian girl like me, the earnestness is skittishly familiar. Dev traverses that familiar terrain of hybridity, the feeling that you are both “here” and “there” at the same time, trying to manage your inherent simultaneity with as much grace as you can, knowing that at any minute, if you get too comfortable, let your guard down too much, the threat of permanence may shock you back to your teetering reality.
When he has a craving, Dev will spend an entire afternoon Yelping reviews of taco trucks to find the best one in the city, but if asked to spend a couple minutes syncing his dad’s iPad at the expense of missing the movie trailers that play before the new X-Men movie — “I just can’t be your computer guy dad.” Ding.
Dev And His Dad: Not What You Might Expect
In Master of None, Ansari wants you to get outside of your head and accept his story as he tells it to you. Dev can have his moments, but he isn’t a complete jerk. A visit back home for tea with his dad, his friend Dr. Ramaswamy, and Dev’s friend Brian (bribed into attendance so Dev doesn’t have to stay too long) reveals the struggles which Dev’s father, Dr. Shah, endured to immigrate to the United States and create a life of opportunity for his only son. Among these was working for two years in a zipper factory, punching holes in the tiny metal pieces to save up enough money for medical school.
“If it wasn’t for your father’s sacrifice, you would probably be working in the zipper factory today,” says Dr. Ramaswamy to Dev. The realization hits Dev hard, and he decides with Brian to take their respective parents to dinner to thank them for all they’ve done.
Master of None has arrived in a time when we’ve needed it the most. This particular episode plays out in a series of quiet interruptions, disturbances, crashes to the psyche which are so subtle you may barely notice them. The premise that an entire episode of a hit show can spotlight the relationship between an immigrant Indian doctor and his not-yet-successful actor son is a recipe for a trope I wasn’t aware I was conditioned to until Ansari broke it apart in front of my eyes.
I realized while watching that I somehow expected Dr. Shah to be grave and silent, disapproving and disappointed at his son’s choice of career. During their interactions, I think I was also expecting an attitude of resignation from Dev, or perhaps a telltale sigh revealing years of passive acceptance that a relationship between the two would never be.
Instead, I was warmed to find in Dr. Shah a dad who is a lot like my dad: wise, funny, a little embarrassing, and utterly supportive, though perhaps not entirely understanding, of his child’s life choices.
And Be Good To Your Parents
Like Ansari’s real-life parents, I am Muslim, and, having recently rekindled my relationship with God for little reason other than a need for consistency, I convinced myself that this period of complete jadedness towards everything that used to propel me was just a temporary glitch that would be neatly resolved with a sign from the Divine if I prayed hard enough for it.
One day, in a particularly desperate bout of anxiety, I came across a verse from the Qur’an: “So worship Me,” says God. “And be good to your parents.” Ding.
Why, at 32, has Ansari’s Dev found himself open to a deep enough realization of his father’s difficult life journey to want to do something to honor it? We of the millennial era have been told time and time again that we are simply the unfortunate outcomes of a “me me me” generation; of mason jars, hipster beards, liberal arts degrees swan diving us into the ocean of unending student debt, and yet enough disposable income to purchase lattes solely for the glee of an Instagram upload and 32 likes.
So what motivates Dev to turn a moment of reflection about his father’s past into a desire to learn more about his parents and to celebrate their lives? Dev is active and curious throughout the dinner, goading his mother for more details about her first impressions of New York. “Well, when you first got here did you at least explore the city?” “No,” said his mom. “I sat on the couch and cried.”
Looking Back, Moving Forward
Ansari interrupts our learned perceptions of time and advancement as well. “I don’t think my dad’s ever been proud of me,” he says to Brian in the beginning of the episode. By the end, it is Dev’s father himself who consoles his son upon learning that he didn’t get the role he was waiting to hear back on, referring to how good the Go-gurt commercial of years past was. He becomes the catalyst for Dev to overcome rejection and to look forward to getting the next one.
Ansari presents his parents not as stagnant entities stuck in time, but as human beings as fluid as Dev himself is. It is almost as though, in order to move forward, Dev has to revisit his past, revitalize it, and carry it with him into the present.
“I’m sorry that your daughter hasn’t amounted to anything,” I said to my mom once, in particularly dramatic fashion, after complaining about the months-long writer’s block which was preventing me from executing my thesis and therefore destroying my life.
Hugging my parents on stage at MSG. Happiest I’ve ever been. pic.twitter.com/tTXRtckrqH
— Aziz Ansari (@azizansari) October 10, 2014
“Well I’m very happy,” she replied. “I always wanted a daughter who listened to me. Now end this foolish talk and can you make masoor ki daal today, with bhagaar, rice and kachumbar salad? I’ll see you when I’m home.”
“You don’t have to take us to a fancy dinner,” said Dev’s mom after he presented the two with gifts and offered to take them out again. “Just call us once a week.”
Perhaps Dev’s reactionary effort to get closer to his parents is indicative of some kind of first-generation desire for a precolonial reality in which our parents could just be parents. In which they did not exist as foils in contrast to the white parents around us, but were, by default, the markers of everything that was “right” and “good” about life.
To unnecessarily complicate things has become a marker for young people of my generation, and yet the antidote to that seemed to be sitting in front of me this whole time: a simple happiness, a mother who spoke, a daughter who listened, acceptance, the room to move forward.
Telling Our Own Stories
It is so, so important for us to tell our own stories. It hits me now how puzzling it is to have come in to the episode expecting Dev’s parents, who turned out so much like mine, to be stern, unaccepting, and unrelatable to their child simply because they were Indian and being portrayed in an American show. What element of internalized self-unintelligibility does that indicate? How does it affect us on a collective level as communities of color, in our current sociopolitical climate, with discourse about minorities and immigration being as hostile as it is today?
In an interview with Jimmy Fallon, Ansari explained that he decided to cast his actual parents for Dr. and Mrs. Shah after realizing that most of the men auditioning to be Dev’s dad were just assholes putting on fake Indian accents. Ansari was tired of the caricature, and finally just asked his dad to be his dad.
We lazy, spoiled, and indulgent millennials seem to be finding moms and dads everywhere we go these days. Bearded Drake is everyone’s daddy. Kim Kardashian is Lorde’s proclaimed “mom.” In a time in which young people are realizing the facts and realities we grew up with break apart upon questioning, that the institutions we were raised to trust without question have proven to be active and complicit in our own silencing, harm and subjugation, it is only natural for us to return to a place of comfort, stability, and the tools we need to forge ahead. This isn’t laziness, its subversion. And in doing so we create the formula for our own futures.
If moving ahead means looking back and finding answers where we may have overlooked them before, then that choice is ours. If it means appointing moms and dads where we need or want them, then perhaps Daddy Trudeau will feel more personally accountable to his constituency than Stephen Harper ever was.
In his book The Location of Culture theorist Homi Bhabha writes, “In these instances of social and discursive alienation there is no recognition of master and slave, there is only the matter of enslaved master, the unmastered slave.” Makes you wonder if Aziz Ansari has been trolling us all along packing in so much richness and realness while referring to himself as a “Master of None.”
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Hiba Akhtar is a masters student of women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University.