My first memory of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon was completely against type — or better put, completely against stereotype. If anything, it was shockingly different from anything else my tween eyes had ever seen before. It was from the Season Seven Simpsons episode “22 Short Stories About Springfield,” which took a break from the escapades of the Simpson family to focus on the quirks of the rest of the people in their orbit. In one segment, “The Jolly Bengali,” Apu leaves his beloved Kwik-E-Mart for a grand total of five minutes to attend a pool party, where he drinks, dances and has sex, emerging afterward with shagged hair, his shirt on backward and a cigarette in his mouth.
Until that moment, the few depictions of intimacy I’d seen featured conventionally attractive white people for whom sex and romance was a foregone conclusion. Indeed, even in the raunchiest Indian TV shows and Bollywood movies — with chiselled, perpetually shirtless leads like Salman Khan and Hrithik Roshan — would never implicitly suggest anything directly sexual. So it’s safe to say that “The Jolly Bengali” represented the first time I’d seen someone with a skin tone vaguely similar to my own be depicted in a way that suggested that they’d even thought about sex, let alone been able to have it carelessly.
All of this has been particularly top of mind over the last week — or pretty much since “No Good Read Goes Unpunished,” the latest episode of The Simpsons, aired. In it, Marge and Lisa attempt to address The Apu Problem, which was first publicly diagnosed in Hari Kondabolu’s 2017 documentary The Problem with Apu.
The film’s main thesis argues that Apu (and The Simpsons) has led to a simplistic, reductive and pathetic image of South Asians in pop culture. Kondabolu also argues that the tropes used for Apu have become a blueprint for the casting of South Asian characters, including Raj in The Big Bang Theory and Dinesh in Silicon Valley, both of whom are presented as meek and lacking in social and sexual charisma on account of their foreignness.
On Sunday, though, The Simpsons more or less shrugged off this criticism. More curious still, the writers used Lisa, a character known for her sense of social justice, to do so. “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect,” she tells Marge, alluding to Apu, a framed picture of whom sits on her nightstand. “What can you do?”
“Some things will be dealt with at a later date,” Marge replies.
“If at all,” Lisa adds, with a fourth-wall shattering look to the audience.
Truth be told, aside from that brief five-minute “Jolly Bengali” interlude, Apu has haunted me pretty much my entire life. Not just because I’m of Indian descent, and like everyone else with any tether to the Indian subcontinent, I was taunted by chants of “thank you, come again” when walking down the corridors of my high school. But because like Apu, my father ran a Mini Market, a convenience store based in South London, for more than two decades when he arrived in the U.K. as a refugee in the 1970s after Idi Amin, the British-backed president of Uganda, expelled him and thousands of other Asians for “stealing jobs from Ugandans.”
I spent a great deal of my teen years working on the shop floor with him, filling shelves, counting stock and working behind the cash register. Like most South Asian shop owners, he embodied the same traits as Apu — namely, the tolerance for 14-hour work days that started at 5 a.m. so as to accommodate the dog-walking schedules of his customers, who hoped to pick up a newspaper and/or baked bread from him along the eway.
In Britain, the convenience store (or “corner shop”) fits into an odd cultural space. When my family first migrated here, it was used by the media to represent cultural takeover, a case that was strengthened by Conservative politician Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech, in which he predicted civil war if dark-skinned immigrants were to settle in the U.K. The convenience stores had been built with whatever savings immigrants had — usually supplemented with multiple night jobs in clothing factories and meat-packing plants — and were often attacked by racist groups like the National Front, who, in some cases, even firebombed them.
I’ve never been told what happened to my own family’s store. In fact, my father is still reluctant to tell me. A few years ago, when I asked, he simply said, “It was in the past,” before adding that things have “gotten better.” It reminded me of clips from The Simpsons where Apu is getting threatened with knives and guns as he watches his store get robbed, only to accept this as part of his life and come back to work the next day, acting as if it never happened in the first place.
Strangely, though, nearly 40 years later — in the run-up to Britain’s Brexit campaign — the corner shop was utilized in the complete opposite way. On anti-EU brochures and pamphlets, corner shops were lionized as a symbol of British patriotism, providing aesthetic “proof” that some immigrants were hard-working “contributors,” loyal to the British economy. South Asian shop owners in particular were deified as “good immigrants” — the ones who work endless hours, wear war memorial poppies and fly the Union Jack at every Olympics. This, of course, was in direct contrast to the mythical “bad immigrants” who lived off welfare and supported Pakistan in cricket matches.
Basically, the stores and the brown men who run them operated as sideshows in larger political and cultural battles. They were either places to affirm that you still had a “local community” in the age of rapid globalization, much in the way that the Kwik-E-Mart remains a constant of life in Springfield, or they were places where battles around identity — specifically white identity — were fought.
In “Much Apu About Nothing” — a rare episode from 1996 where Apu is at the center of the story — the store owner desperately fights to stop his imminent deportation as Mayor Quimby blames a tax hike on “illegal immigrants.” Homer’s response to Apu, upon realizing that this would mean Apu’s forced return to his home country, is one of temporary regret and humanity, before ultimately turning to apathy: “Oh my god, I got so swept up in the scapegoating in front of Proposition 24, I never stopped to think it might affect someone I cared about… y’know what Apu? I’m really, really going to miss you.”
The episode ends with inevitable forgiveness, but also forced gratitude. Apu gets his visa at the last minute and gets to stay, and in the final scene of the episode, he decorates the Kwik-E-Mart with American flags and banners. However, neither Homer nor the townspeople were held accountable for the scapegoating, or the effects it had on Apu and his family — the latter isn’t even alluded to throughout.
It reminded me of when our customers made unfounded complaints about “illegal immigrants” after reading sensational cover stories in the Daily Mail about immigrants “stealing jobs” and “scrounging off welfare.” In fact, in the run-up to elections, some of our customers openly distributed leaflets of the far-right British National Party, with these covers used as campaigning material. Not to mention, the phrase “I’d support immigration if there were more immigrants like you” from customers was more commonplace than I would’ve liked, especially when all I was trying to do was put their groceries into shopping bags.
Some people might reduce such behavior and comments to naiveté or ignorance. But it also showed how easily these statements could be made without consequences. Like Apu, we were caricatures who didn’t have any real stakes in the society we were in: We were simply there to sell milk, newspapers and cigarettes.
This is The Simpsons’ real issue with Apu. The conversation — sparked by second- and third-generation South Asians joining a chorus of minority groups demanding better representation — isn’t about removing Apu. It isn’t about removing Azaria either. It’s about the way we see the struggles of our parents and grandparents in the character in a way no one else can. Where Apu’s role is purposed to advance the plots of the Simpson family, we see a man who can’t stop working for fear that someone might doubt his loyalty to America. A man who, like every generation of “good immigrant” arriving in the West, is expected to tolerate the torrents of abuse and violence he receives daily.
It’s not just that Apu is an impression of a “white guy impersonating a white guy making fun of my father,” as Kondabolu opens his documentary saying. It’s that even in 2018, Apu is still treated as a vessel for the white majority of Springfield to project its anxieties onto. He remains a diminished character — denied any real form of humanity, and his traumas largely ignored or trivialized.
But maybe that’s where the problem lies. If The Simpsons’ writers were to give true significance to Apu as a man, they might have to confront some darker, more unsettling truths about the world they’ve created.