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'Nothing Like I Imagined': A Window Into Kaling's World Away From Cameras

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

I got to talk to Mindy Kaling the other day on Zoom. You might know Mindy if you watched "The Office" or maybe her own show, "The Mindy Project." Well, she's been doing some writing. I got to read it before we talked, and I started the way I often start book interviews.

Lovely book.

MINDY KALING: Thank you. It's - you know, it's - I always feel like I need to correct people because it's only seven essays. And so it's a collection of essays. But I - when people say book, I'm like, it's not a full book as though that needs to be - like (laughter) I need to correct you, but...

GREENE: Clarified. OK.

KALING: Yes.

GREENE: It's a nice - what should I say - nice collection? Nice essay collection.

KALING: (Laughter) Thank you. You nicely gave me a compliment and I was like, you're mistaken, but thank you.

GREENE: OK. So the essay collection, it is called "Nothing Like I Imagined," and it's a window into Mindy's world away from the cameras. She grew up in Massachusetts in the '80s and '90s. She is Indian American. As she described it, she's kind of Hindu, which is the title of one of her essays.

KALING: When I was growing up, the idea of a faith was really alien to me. That wasn't - kind of the philosophy of my family was to be talking about our relationship with a higher power - powers in our case.

GREENE: Mindy has been pretty secular her whole life, adopting Hindu traditions when they fit the moment, like when she organized a mundan for her baby girl. This is an ancient Hindu ritual that's meant to ward off negativity.

KALING: It is a ritual of shaving your baby's head. And there's very specific instructions about it. You are supposed to do it in the first year of their life. And if you miss that window, you have to then wait to shave your baby's head in the third year of their life.

GREENE: Mindy decided to go for it on the early side. She deliberated a lot. Would she be torturing her daughter? Would she end up looking like a boy? In the end, Mindy looked back at her own life, and she thought maybe much of the good has come from her parents' decision to give her a mundan. She didn't want to deprive her daughter.

KALING: Exactly. And why would I want to risk that? I really did feel so happy I had done it and also a lot of connection with my mother, who had been the one who decided to give me a mundan. My mother passed away about 10 years ago. So I was very happy I did it ultimately.

GREENE: You know, the other thing you write about - and I think this probably surprises a lot of your fans. I mean, you note that, like, so many people, if they meet you for the first time, they just assume that you're their best friend because, I mean, you just have that persona on screen. But that, in fact, I mean, you struggle with a lot of social anxiety.

KALING: Oh, I do. Yeah, definitely. I wouldn't call myself, like, misanthropic exactly. It's not that. I just have always felt very nervous and anxious in, like, a larger group settings where I don't know people and I have to socialize.

GREENE: Does that make you a better actress on TV? Does it make you a better creator of television and entertainment?

KALING: I think it makes me a slightly better evaluator of human personality, you know? Like, I think if you look at someone who doesn't have any social anxiety, like Michael Scott, for instance, from "The Office," he feels he'll fit in in any scenario. He thinks...

GREENE: Yeah, he could use a little social anxiety.

KALING: He could use a little social anxiety. I think it does give you, like, a more critical eye about people who - you know, and jealousy about people who don't have that. And so, yeah, I feel like truly comic characters on TV don't have a ton of social anxiety. So maybe, yeah, I think you're right.

GREENE: I totally connected to - I'm the guy, too, who is at the party and can't get out of a conversation for the life of me. I mean, I don't know how you do it. Like, you just - you wait for the other person.

KALING: Well, every party that I've gone to in the past 10 years - and I say this in my essays - it's like I'll start a conversation with someone and I end up interviewing them. I don't think they're interesting. I don't want to keep this going. And then I can tell they want to get out of the conversation, but I feel so much pressure. Like, I don't want them - the worst thing in the world for me is for them to think that I think they're boring or want to extricate myself in some way from this conversation, which is insane. And, you know, you can simply just say, well, it was great to meet you. I'm going to go mingle. And I find it so hard to do that. So then this person leaves the party telling their spouse, like, Mindy Kaling is obsessed with me. She talked to me for two hours. And it was simply because I felt so much pressure to not, you know, leave them as though that would mortally wound them. So, in fact, it comes from ego, right? For me, in my case, it comes from this ego thing of they would be so - they would - somehow it would crush them if I wanted to leave the conversation after the, you know, 20 minutes of what is, like, normally accepted as, like, you know, like, an acceptable time to talk to someone at a party.

GREENE: Yeah. Wow. The ego thing is actually real. I need to think about that. I think you're totally right.

KALING: (Laughter) No, no. I don't think that's what you're doing.

GREENE: I don't want you to - I don't want you to be right, but I think you're really right.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: I wondered, you know, in reading these essays, it would be really easy to come away from them and give you certain labels, like Mindy Kaling is Indian, Mindy Kaling is a single mom. She's a woman in comedy. Like, how do you feel about labels?

KALING: Oh, OK, so those are safe. OK. How do I feel about those labels?

GREENE: What labels were you expecting me to say (laughter)?

KALING: I don't know. Like, hack, loser, shallow. I'm so happy that you didn't zing me here. OK, sorry. So I guess the labels are I'm Indian. I interrupted you - sorry - that I'm Indian. I'm a single mom.

GREENE: Indian, single mom, woman in comedy, stuff like that. I mean, do you embrace those? Do you wish people would just see beyond labels and see, you know, the full you? What - how do you feel about all that?

KALING: I think I am so used to labels. The labels have been the center stone (ph) of my entire career. And sometimes they're useful because it separates me from other people. But I don't think I would get far in this business if I had a thin skin about labels because for me - and it's not just those. It's, like, not traditionally thin, like, dark-skinned, like, not your Bollywood - so I've had these since - pretty much since I had my own show, I was sort of inundated with how other I was and really quickly. I think I'm pretty comfortable with them. And actually as I've gotten older, I've learned to embrace them a little bit. And that's why I was able to write more about it in this collection of essays.

GREENE: Mindy Kaling, this has been wonderful. Best of luck with the book - best of luck with the collection of essays. Sorry.

KALING: (Laughter) How dare you. I just didn't want people to read it and be like, this wasn't a full book. Why did I pay for this? I got ripped off. It's a collection of...

GREENE: Yes. Always set expectations.

KALING: (Laughter) Thank you, David. Great talking to you.

GREENE: Thanks so much, Mindy. Great talking to you, too. Take care.

(SOUNDBITE OF LULLATONE'S "FOR ALL THE FORGOTTEN RESOLUTIONS")

GREENE: Mindy Kaling's digital and audio essay collection is out today. It is called "Nothing Like I Imagined." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.