A slow-brewing controversy over the longest-running TV show in history came to a head a few weeks ago. In his documentary “The Problem With Apu,” Indian American comedian Hari Kondabolu called “The Simpsons” character Apu, voiced by Hank Azaria, a racist stereotype — “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.”
The show responded. At the end of the April 8 episode, Marge is reading to Lisa when she realizes that the book, “The Princess in the Garden,” is full of stereotypes. She censors herself and asks, “What am I supposed to do?” Lisa looks into the camera and replies: “It’s hard to say. Something that started decades ago, and was applauded and inoffensive, is now politically incorrect.” The camera pulls away to an inscribed photo of Apu on her nightstand that’s signed “Don’t have a cow.” Social media exploded in reaction, as some denounced the retort as weak and others defended the show as an equal-opportunity offender. Azaria later said he was willing to step down from his role as Apu and would like to see more South Asian voices in the writers’ room.
I didn’t feel anger or defensiveness as I saw the conversation unfold. Instead, I felt a rush of memories of my family’s second home, a Phillips 66 Gas ’N’ Shop in central Florida. Apu and my father are both Indian immigrants and convenience-store owners with questionable mustaches. Both have an affinity for one-letter abbreviations in their store names and a devotion to Hindu gods. Both are fickle Mets fans with arranged marriages and accents. Both are kind, hard-working and entrepreneurial. While most viewers are debating a fictional character, they’re also talking about my father and the life he built for us.
Everyone seems to have an opinion about Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the beloved and controversial Indian business owner who has been operating the Kwik-E-Mart since his debut in 1990. For me, the question of Apu is much more complicated. For me, the child of Indian immigrants, raised in stores much like Apu’s, it’s personal.
In fifth grade, I became obsessed with “The Simpsons,” particularly Bart, who was my age. When Apu appeared, I wasn’t cognizant of the stereotypical accent or how he was used for cheap laughs. I just couldn’t believe someone like my dad was on TV. The only other character of South Asian origin I had seen was Jawaharlal Choudhury, the foreign-exchange student from India on “Head of the Class.” In video games, we had the Great Tiger, the boxer in “Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out” who teleported around the ring wearing his trademark white turban with a red ruby, and Dhalsim from Street Fighter 2, a yogic contortionist with the power of fire. Apu was comparatively real, someone I could understand firsthand.
In 1968, my father left Nadiad, a small town in the Indian state of Gujarat, for the United States at age 17. He was so nervous on the 30-hour flight from Mumbai to New York that he didn’t get up from his seat once, not even to go to the bathroom.
He graduated from the University of New Haven with a degree in engineering during the sluggish economy of the early 1970s, and he took the only gig he could get: pumping gas on the late shift at a Gulf station on Queens Boulevard and the Long Island Expressway. When his father, my dada, visited from India and saw my dad sweeping the parking lot, he wasn’t happy. My dada had raised his family in a big house, with a car, a chauffeur and one of the first telephones in town, and now he wondered why his son was doing menial work. But my dad didn’t intend to pump gas for other people forever. He had Gatsbyish dreams.
By 1975, my father was working as an engineer and ready to get married. He returned to India to meet my mom, an arranged match. He was smitten and so was she. Three weeks later, they married in Nadiad.
In the early 1980s, he made the down payment for his first store, Taj’s Grocery in Scotch Plains, N.J. He later expanded the place and added a pizzeria, renaming it Famous Pizza and Deli. He learned to make pizza from scratch, and my mom mastered the pick-it lotto and memorized all the customers’ favorite numbers. They learned to make 42 types of subs. My Hindu parents threw a Christmas party every year for their employees at our house, where they served wine and Indian snacks like samosas and puris. And I was there for all of it, a toddler sleeping on my mother’s lap late at night.
When I was 6 years old, my parents had had enough of the snow, and we moved to DeLand, Fla., where my dad bought the Phillips 66 Gas ‘N’ Shop. At first, many people in the community were reluctant to visit our store. They had never met people like us. During the first month, sales dropped 25 percent.
But slowly, we became part of the community. Our customers were truck drivers, bikers, immigrants. A sweet old man named Earl lived on the property in his RV; he would sit outside in a chair to look after my mom when she worked the register while my dad was away. My dad sponsored my T-ball team. I can’t describe the pride I felt wearing that Phillips 66 Gas ’N’ Shop shirt and cap; I’m sure he felt it, too.
The store was like home. It smelled of oil, cigarette smoke and Bubble Yum. I’d walk in after school, say hi to my dad and dash to my favorite place to do my homework — the walk-in cooler. It was 42 degrees in there, but that’s where I worked on my cursive, sitting on a 12-pack of beer in my Catholic school uniform — a white polo shirt and blue slacks — and sipping a fountain drink.
Eventually, my parents owned and operated businesses all over central Florida. Gas station life was rich. I met people I never would have otherwise. There was Mary, the first lesbian I ever knew, whose partner passed away in a car accident; Don, the wise manager of our Zellwood store, who always had advice for my dad and succumbed to cancer; John the DJ; Joe the pimp; and Herb, my dad’s best friend, a 6-foot-7 former cop who rode a Harley, looked like Samuel L. Jackson and once shot a robber to death in self-defense.
And there was the food. The jars of delicious pickled eggs and pigs’ feet soaked in red vinegar. My dad was Vaishnav vegetarian, but his vice was convenience-store hot dogs with relish and sauerkraut, a dollop of onions, and a squeeze of ketchup and mustard. My brother and I were sworn to secrecy about his habit. My mom was never to know.
I loved the fountain drink dispensers. I would mix all the flavors into a sugary concoction that had me buzzing for hours while I covertly opened packs of Topps baseball cards from a wax box, hoping for a Dwight Gooden card. I browsed the cooler and wondered what malt liquor or Bartles & Jaymes tasted like while I swigged orange Slice.
I didn’t love it all, particularly my shifts — hours spent doing inventory with the label gun or restocking shelves with Pepsi on weekends and summer breaks in middle school. Drunk or stoned customers asked for cigarettes or more liquor. Occasionally, I’d hear an idiotic Homer Simpson-type comment or, worse, an “A-RAB” or “camel jockey” epithet tossed my dad’s way. He always turned the other check, not because he was scared or indifferent, but because he was aspiring to something bigger. He was happy to enlighten those who didn’t know about who he was and where he was from. His tolerance continues to amaze me.
Kids at school cracked the inevitable Apu jokes. The character, with his accent and exaggerated characteristics, irritated me. But that didn’t mean as much to me as the far uglier things I was called. And I knew I had it better than some of those kids.
As I grew up, some part of me started to embrace Apu. My dad, like Apu, owned the business. He ran the show. I knew that operating a store was hard and that my parents’ work ethic was impressive. They cleaned the store as if it were a temple. The linoleum was ugly, but it was spotless and smelled of bleach and ammonia.
They eventually gave up running the day-to-day business after one of my dad’s closest friends and former co-owners was shot in the head by a drugged-up, disgruntled customer. My dad had to go to the morgue to identify the body. After that, he decided buying, flipping and selling gas stations was safer and more profitable than running them. My mom started working as a bank teller.
I could have followed in their footsteps and operated gas stations. They set up everything for my brother and me, but I knew I wouldn’t do it. I wasn’t made of the same grit they were. My dad, now 67 years old, is no longer in the convenience-store business, but he’s still out of the house every morning at 7, overseeing new projects from hotels to restaurants.
Apu is more than an offensive accent or a stereotype. I can’t hate him, because Apu in so many ways is my dad. Amid the controversy, I asked my father what he thought about Apu. “Who?” he said. “I don’t know who that is. I have an inspection to worry about.”
Is Apu politically incorrect? Maybe. Is he incomplete? Yes. Does he offend me? No, because some part of him is real. As a writer and producer myself, the onus is now on me to tell our stories, create the characters and build the platforms that defy expectations of Indian Americans. That’s already happening with Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, Priyanka Chopra and others like Hannah Simone, Utkarsh Ambudkar and Tiya Sircar . We’re stars, writers, directors and showrunners. Just like my dad, we’ve moved past Apu and the Kwik-E-Mart.