In the episode “Homer the Heretic,” Springfield’s multifaith volunteer fire department mobilizes to save the Simpsons’ home--and Homer’s life. Reverend Lovejoy explains to Homer that God was working through his friends and neighbors, including a Christian like Ned Flanders and a Jew like Krusty.
But the minister comes up short when he points toward the other firefighter, Apu Nahaasapeemapetilon. After a nonplussed pause, the minister characterizes the convenience store operator’s religion as “miscellaneous.” This level of ignorance is too much for the normally mild-mannered Asian immigrant. Apu explodes: “Hindu! There are 700 million of us!” Corrected, Lovejoy replies with condescension, “Aw, that’s super.”
Despite a surge of immigration from the Indian subcontinent and a growing interest in beliefs outside the Judeo-Christian traditions, most Americans are as in the dark about Hinduism as Reverend Lovejoy. For residents of [Springfield], Apu Nahaasapeemapetilon is an introduction to Hinduism. "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening initially suggested that the operator of Kwik-E-Mart be Indian. “With Apu, that kind of character has not been seen on U.S. TV,” Groening told a British magazine. At first, writer-producer Al Jean told TV Guide, “we were worried he might be considered an offensive stereotype.” The character of Apu in the series was named for a trilogy of 1950s Indian films made by famed director Satjayit Ray. In one episode, a photo on the wall purported to be "The Simpsons" character’s father is similar to that of the actor who played Apu’s father in the Ray movie.
In many ways, the character is stereotypical of Asian immigrants to North America, and a model minority member. Born in Pakistan, Apu and his family migrated to Ramatpur in India, and later studied at the Calcutta Institute of Technology (“CalTech”), where he graduated at the top of his class of seven million. In the 1970s, he came to the United States on a student visa to do graduate study in computer programming at the Springfield Heights Institute of Technology (try the initials). During his nine years at the school, he took a job at the convenience store to pay off his student loans, a choice that evolved into a career. Apu often works 18 hours a day, seven days a week, and, on at least one occasion, worked 96 hours straight. He is frequently the victim of shoplifters and armed robbers.
However, not all of the stereotypes Apu embodies are positive. For example, he is apparently a Hindu nationalist: on the shelf in his apartment is a record album entitled “The Concert Against Bangladesh,” with a mushroom cloud on the cover, obliterating India’s poverty-stricken Muslim neighbor. He refers to Springfield residents with a different area code as “foreign devils.” An obsequious shopkeeper, he is known for outrageous overcharging ($1.85 for a 29-cent postage stamp and $4.20 for $2.00 worth of gas) and for selling foods well beyond their expiration dates. “I think he really loves his job and the power that it gives him to frustrate other people,” Groening said. As Apu has prospered--offering everything from flavored iced treats called “Squishees,” to beef jerky, to “Playdude” magazine, to violent video games--he has been able to follow another immigrant pattern, bringing to this country other members of his family.
Yet next to Marge, Apu is probably the most good-hearted and saintly character on "The Simpsons," qualities presented on the show as an outgrowth of his Hindu faith and of his Indian culture. At his dinner table, with Homer and Marge as guests, he recites a grace that is clearly a parody of one familiar to the Simpsons: “Good rice, good curry, good Gandhi, let’s hurry.”
Over time, in small ways and large, and in more than a dozen episodes, Apu articulates essential elements of Hinduism, Indian culture and the plight of immigrants, including:
1. Vegetarianism. Apu wears a tee-shirt with a red circle and slash superimposed on a cow, with Bart’s slogan, “Don’t Have a Cow, Man!” and he secretly substitutes tofu for beef in his hot dogs.
2. Reincarnation. Sideshow Mel, one of Krusty the Clown’s television sidekicks, says “You only live once.” Apu pipes up, “Hey, speak for yourself.”
3. Meditation. Apu has a secret stairway in the Kwik-E-Mart that leads to a rooftop garden, where, he tells Lisa, “I go when I need some refuge from the modern world.”
4. Pluralism. “I learned long ago, Lisa, to tolerate others, rather than forcing my beliefs on them,” Apu tells the girl. “You know, you can influence people without badgering them always.”