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Huma Abedin and Mindy Kaling on motherhood, identity and the lure of distant homeland

Right place at the right time

Huma Abedin has been a power player all her life. She began her career as an intern at the White House, and rose up the ranks, all the way to vice-chair for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Now, as female representation in American politics hits an all-time high, the woman, who helped Secretary Clinton to the door of the world’s most notorious boys’ club, sits down for a conversation with another fire-starter who has been at the front lines of equal representation in her own field — the actor, writer, comedian, and our May cover star, Mindy Kaling. On a perfect midsummer June afternoon in New York, ELLE India brought together Huma Abedin and Mindy Kaling at Balthazar to discuss the question of identity, and the lure of a homeland she never fully knew.

Mindy Kaling: First, I just want you to know that I’ve been claiming you as Indian. We had a joke on a recent episode of my new show, Champions, where my on-screen son asks Hasan Minhaj, who plays my glamorous, rich brother, if “you’re my real dad, my mum is my aunt, and Huma Abedin is my real mum?” And Hasan goes on to say that it didn’t work out between you two, but that you did date once. So, I just feel like I decided that you were Indian on my show — and that you dated Hasan Minhaj unsuccessfully for a while because you were too busy. Is any of that true?

Huma Abedin: [Laughs] Well, I was born in Michigan, to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. We moved to Saudi Arabia when I was two, and that’s where I grew up. I came back to the US for college, but I have recently been thinking about the whole question of identity, and I am curious about your views on it too. In the past, people have asked me what I am, and I’ve always said, “I am American.”

MK: So you’ve always identified as American?

HA: I have and I do, but I also grew up very comfortably in Middle-Eastern culture. My upbringing was culturally very mixed: Europeans, Americans, South Africans, Africans, Arabs. We were American, we were Muslim; those formed the very core of our identities.

MK: The lines can be quite distinct, can’t they? Hindu-Muslim, India-Pakistan. For me, all South Asians going through the Hollywood machine are brothers and sisters. And I am always surprised when people seek out the divide.

HA: I feel that too. When I went to George Washington University in 1993, I actively sought out other South Asians. There are both challenges and opportunities that arise as you settle into a new place.

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Silk dress, price on request, Johanna Ortiz. Leather heels, price on request, Samuele Failli. Ruby, diamond, rock crystal and enamel earrings, price on request, Hanut Singh

MK: I think role models are so important. If you look at American comedy from the ’80s and ’90s, there’s nobody who looks anything like me. Sometimes, I feel I was just born with what I think is a minor personality defect, where I am unable to see my ethnicity as a shortcoming. I didn’t always have so much confidence, but I never thought that it was impossible to achieve, just because I didn’t look like Adam Sandler or Conan O’Brien. I guess it’s because I come from a family that really believes in working hard.

HA: For South Asians, I feel like when we were growing up, to be successful, culturally there was a sense that we had to be doctors, lawyers or engineers.

MK: Nothing would’ve made my parents — mum was a doctor and dad was an architect — happier than if I had said, “All I want to do is be a mechanical engineer and get married at 24 to a Hindu-American man and have all my children by 30.” But, yeah, here I am, a 38-year-old single mum, who is an actor. I’m not sure that fits in with what their number one hope for me had been, but I’d say that growing up, I had the fortune and ingenuity to be good at what I did. So, they were okay.

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HA: What a culture shock it [moving here] must have been for my parents. But you know what? I think my parents were successful, and in that, they immersed themselves into all aspects of American life, but they also kept their own traditions.

MK: That right there is why I resonate with Jhumpa Lahiri. She is Bengali and her parents emigrated to Boston. That kind of cultural, academic professional background…and moving to the east coast…and the parka over the sari, the combination does something to my heart.

HA: You took the words right out of my mouth. I mean that is exactly why she speaks to me. Because I didn’t — and you certainly didn’t — grow up that way. The notion that if I have to spell my name to people one more time…everyone else is like, “What?” It’s like Uma Thurman, but with an ‘H’.

MK: Your name is easy to pronounce! But yes, Jhumpa holds such a special place in my life. The character in my show [The Mindy Project] is named after her, and right now, my daughter is in this hyperactive phase where all she wants to do is jump around. So, my father calls her Jumpy Lahiri.

MK: Tell me, are you a part of like, a cool, South Asian glitterati-Illuminati group that I’m not? I feel like you’re secretly related to everyone, like Hasan and his wife.

HA: I actually met Hasan at the Met Gala last year.

MK: Oh! I took a photo with him and Riz [Ahmed] at that party.

HA: Yes, I remember that famous photo. You know why? Because he was sitting at my table, and when he came back, I said to him, “I’m a little offended, because you guys clearly took a South-Asian Met photo, and I was not invited.” But Riz did invite me to a group he started. I went once and met people I’d never met before. You know, I think we need to organise an India trip.

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MK: Oh my God, that would be amazing. I haven’t been since I was 15.

HA: And I feel like we’ve got to figure out how to get invited to an Indian wedding, so we can wear beautiful clothes for five days in a row and eat amazing food!

MK: And we could have a great itinerary, where we could do some glamorous feel-good things, but also have a nice cultural and philosophical aspect to our trip.  

HA: I love that idea. You know, I often wonder what our life would have been like if our parents hadn’t come here. I read an article in The New York Times, about this South Asian man who went back to capture images of what his life would have been like if his parents never emigrated. It really stayed with me; that whole concept of “home”.

MK: I do too. My life here is only because my parents decided to emigrate. They met in Africa. My dad speaks Tamil and English, and my mum used to speak Bengali, Hindi and English. When they met in Lagos, the only language they had in common was English.

HA: And did they ever try to teach you any of those languages growing up?

MK: No, but I wish I knew Tamil or Bengali. It would be great.

HA: Are you going to teach your daughter any, in turn? My big regret is that I don’t talk to my son in anything but English. I am rusty not practicing my Urdu. But, I’ve decided that I’m going to let him find his own way. It’s an exciting time to raise a child — exciting and scary at the same time, actually — but doesn’t it feel as though in the end, it’s the most important thing you’ve done?

MK: It’s definitely the most emotionally gratifying. While there are accomplishments to be had, spending time with my daughter and seeing her smile can evoke immediate joy. I’m not naturally a cheerful person, I’m pretty anxious all the time, but I’ve realised lately that happiness to me, as an adult with a child, is relief. Relief is my only form of happiness.

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Silk dress, price on request, Atsu. PVC and leather heels, price on request, Gianvito Rossi. White topaz, 18K gold, red and black enamel earrings, price on request, Hanut Singh 

HA: I’m grateful to be healthy and to have a child who’s healthy. And to be able to now understand what emotional empathy actually means. Ten years ago, if someone did something, I would react. But now, I feel like I’m in this “okay, let me try and understand why” place. So now, I think about what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes. It is now a conscious part of how I live.

MK: Last but not least, who did you go to the Met Gala with and what did you wear?

HA: Anna Wintour invited me and I wore Giambattista Valli.

MK: Oh my God, so chic!

HA: It was actually complete happenstance. I was in India in March, on work, and we were flying back from Jodhpur, and as it happened, there was this impeccably dressed man in the seat in front. He was so kind and chivalrous. He saw me struggling with my seat and offered to help. Twenty minutes later, he turns to me and says, “Huma, I just want to introduce myself, I am Giambattista Valli.” So there I am, no-make up on, and I am wearing a smock, and I just met Giambattista Valli who I am such a big fan of. So, shortly before the Gala, when I still didn’t know what I would wear, we texted him, and he sent that dress. As it happened, I was rewarded for my belief that sometimes we really are at the right place at the right time. 

Photographs: Takahiro Ogawa

Styling: Malini Banerji

Hair: Jeanie Syfu/ Atelier Management

Make-Up: Kabuki Using M.A.C Cosmetics

Production: Isabel Scharenberg

Location Courtesy: Hotel 50 Bowery Nyc

Assisted by: Divya Gursahani And Tanvi Gala (Styling)

Special Thanks to: Iva Dixit