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Anya Thakur: Redefining being Indian

Teen celebrity journalist, artist, and activist Anya Thakur on creating her identity, connecting with her culture, and finding her voice as a first generation, Indian American girl.

Connecting with my familial roots and a heritage stretching back generations led my parents and I on a journey to India this summer. We packed our bags, and boarded our flight, as my heart thrummed against its cage and I was filled with excitement, but trepidation. I’d be meeting family members who I had never seen face to face before, seeing the places my parents and grandparents grew up, and seeing my culture laid out before me on crowded, congested streets and food stalls packed with fruits and freshly-baked breads and in glass multiplexes soaring to the skies.

I peeled back the foil cover of a package of hot garbanzo beans or chickpeas, called chola in Hindi, and rice, and stared out the window of the packed flight. The clouds were floating past us in puffs of spun sugar and golden sunlight streamed through the plexiglass of the window as I doodled idly in my sketchbook before drifting into sleep.

The airport was filled with a sea of people who, like us, had just touched down in New Delhi.

When we arrived, greeted by my grandmother and my uncle, we took in the bustling scene before us, and all the restaurants, many of which served fresh dishes in contrast to Western fast food joints like McDonald’s or Starbucks. We sat down to enjoy fresh idli, a type of rice cake, with coconut and tomato chutney, or dipping sauces, and fried vadas. The scale of the airport was both impressive and overwhelming, and the air was thick with humidity.

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As a first generation, American-born Desi and the daughter of immigrants, I was raised in the United States, and grew up in Orange County, California and Dallas, Texas. Through my words, I hope to advocate for diversity and representation in Hollywood, and share my story and countless other women and girls’ voices.

At fourteen years old, I visited India for the first time. This is my story, which is one of initial shock, but also beauty, family, and appreciation for where I came from. It can be jarring and hectic at times, but it has doubtlessly been worth experiencing and taking in. The biggest regrets are of the things we did not do and missed opportunities, and the opportunity to visit not just another country, but an entirely new continent and culture, was unforgettable. 

My family has learnt to appreciate and love India for all that it is, to take pride in their roots, and embrace all it has to offer. And their passion for it all and eagerness to share it with me truly colored my experience, so that hours travelling along bumpy roads while jet lag sunk in, bathing in pure sunlight and becoming drenched in sweat, and navigating unrelenting crowds and unmarked streets was something tangible and memorable rather than strife to endure. These moments were so colorful and unique to India, and part of the realities of everyday life. And they are just as vital to the culture and distinctiveness as the breathtaking, startlingly clear skies stretching for miles that I viewed from my aunt and uncle’s terrace, the gasp and glitter of fashion jewelry brought from all corners of the country, and the sweet, buttery halwas and pomegranate chaat papdi we enjoyed in the cafes of Coimbatore.

From the streets and metropolis of Gurgaon in New Delhi, to the Taj Mahal in Agra, the lush terrain and impossibly clear sunsets of Coimbatore, and the history of Dwaraka, India was golden and transcendent in so many non-physical ways, its architectural wonders, ornate jewelry, and gold-leafed sweets being breathtaking, but not what makes it unique.

Innately knowing something and experiencing it are not the same. And India’s cultural diversity and vibrancy, great wealth and extreme poverty side by side in a radically stratified social structure, rich history, and unique identity were something that needed to be experienced first hand to comprehend.

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