I always hated roll call in kindergarten. The other kids with blonde hair and bright blue eyes and names like Brian and Cindy would look at me and snicker when they knew my name was next. “ANNE!” my kindergarten teacher would call out when reading our daily attendance sheet. At the beginning of the school year, she started off calling me “AHN-CALL,” because she felt Anchal was too hard to pronounce. I always dropped my head and acted as if I did not hear her: That was not my name, so I was not going to respond. Even after weeks of telling her my name was Anchal (AHN-CHALL), she felt an easier way to keep track of me in her classroom was by giving me the whitest name possible: Anne. Eventually, I gave in and allowed her to call me Anne because she would never attempt to pronounce my name. It was the first time I let an adult walk over me, but I did not realize it would change the way I was recognized throughout my childhood. Anne became my new name when at church on Sundays, during recess with my friends at school and even at home to my mother, who heard it once during a parent-teacher conference.
The nickname grew on me, and my mother’s friends began to call me Anne too. Although I never understood the significance behind my name, I came to despise being called Anchal. I felt blood rush to my cheeks and ears whenever people asked how to spell or say my name, embarrassed by something completely out of my control. The disgust I felt transformed into a dislike of the facial characteristics that made me Indian: I began to loathe my brown skin, the hair that covered my arms, my caterpillar-like eyebrows and the way my mother oiled and plaited my hair every morning before school. “I hate my name,” were the words I said, half-jokingly, to the people around me. It started off small but grew into a monster that engulfed me and began to pick me apart. By allowing people to call me “Anne,” I allowed them to tear me away from my Indian and Caribbean heritage. Over time, my mother noticed the hostility I felt against my racial identity and decided to send me to a new school, where I finally met people that looked like me.
On my first day at the new school, I felt shocked upon seeing my new peers. We had brown skin that shined like gold, long and luscious black hair and brown eyes that looked like honey in the sun. Their names were Vishal or Savita, Radha or Suresh. A sense of comfort washed over me as I finally saw people that looked like me. They all smiled and laughed when I told them my name, telling me it was nothing they ever heard of, but beautiful. I had never heard my name described as something beautiful –– only confusing, unreadable and foreign to everyone I had known. I confided in my new friends, telling them that I did not feel comfortable in my own skin. Their solidarity and confidence showed me that our culture and the way I look is something I should never be ashamed of because it was a gift from my ancestors. Being at a new school where my friends were unapologetically Indian and never made me feel different was a transformative experience.
Every morning, I began the habit of looking in the mirror and repeating words of affirmation to myself. “Your eyes are a gift from your grandmothers,” I would tell myself as I got ready for school. Looking back at my past of self-hatred, I reflect on the meaning of my name and wish I could tell my younger self that her mind and body were shaped the same way as the women who came before her, that disrespecting herself was also disrespecting them. I no longer feel ashamed or embarrassed for the name I was given, attached to a culture so rich and striking. When people ask my name, I tell them it is Anchal — literally meaning the decorative end of a sari. The bright jewels sitting on top of polished material, carefully hemmed onto a longer shawl –– the most delicate part of the Indian traditional dress is who I am.
My name holds a part of my heritage that is bigger than myself. I am a mirror, an extension of the women of my family and those who came before me. They also had the same caterpillar-like eyebrows, warm, brown skin and thick, voluminous hair that I once despised. They had Indian names that would have been ridiculed by the same classmates that judged mine, and through not loving myself, I was disrespecting them and dishonoring their memory. The community I was introduced to inspired me to use my booming personality and loud voice to shout my name and never let anyone brush over its significance. Growing up, I was reduced to a little girl named Anne, but now I make sure people know that my name is Anchal.
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