blaze your own trail
Anjali Rajgopal states that determination and enthusiasm have always been the two pillars that define her life. Born in Lucknow, she was educated between Chennai, the UK and the USA. An agile and steadfast student, she spent her school days taking part in academics, sports, theater and several other extracurricular activities. In 2002, as she was preparing to depart to the USA to pursue her undergraduate degree, her life went down a path that she could not ever have imagined.
“They say life happens to you while you’re busy making other plans, right?” Anjali says, referring to the car accident that would change her life forever.
Hit in a head-on collision, she sustained hundreds of skull fractures. Having lost her vision and sense of smell, she experienced severe physical and mental trauma. When Anjali landed in hospital, she was in critical condition, forcing doctors to operate on her immediately. With her face smashed by the accident, the doctors were asked to reconstruct it. With time of essence for the surgery, the doctors did not have any idea what she looked like before the accident. From physically being rendered as looking like somebody else completely, to head trauma, the loss of vision, not being able to smell – Anjali defines the years between nineteen and twenty-four as the most grueling ordeal of her life, and the accident a key moment in developing her identity.
“I think I came to terms with my identity in the face of incredible adversity. The loss of my face was not just physical. While I had to grapple with the world like a normal person would, I was also battling some of the biggest demons that anyone would have to see. I grew up fighting. I grew up struggling. I grew up for the most part falling down. However, over and above that, I rose up and conquered many of the dreams I had even before the accident took place,” she says.
Today, Anjali is an identity advocate, and the story of her struggle has ended up being a light for other people to look up to and follow. We sat down with her to discuss her ideas on the concept of identity, her vision regarding the development and nurturing of hers and others’ identities through her new venture, Anjali Rajgopal Official. We also asked her what she looks forward to most, both personally and professionally in 2020 and beyond, especially in line with one of her biggest dreams to pursue her MBA in an Ivy League institution.
Anjali, you advocate for identity and you are all about expressing it and helping others express it. I would like to start by asking you – what are the factors that make up someone’s identity?
I think basic identity, at least when we are young and growing up, is simple – we look like our parents. We are either the tomboy, or the girly girl, or any of those boxes that they find for you in school. I think after that, we become a montage of our dreams, our quests, our goals, and what inspires us. I don’t believe that remains static at any point of time. I think it keeps changing, because as human beings, we continue to face challenges.
I think identity is a mosaic of what we want to be, how we envision ourselves, not just in our dreams, but also in terms of what we love, who we love, how we choose to love ourselves—that is a very big part of identity, aside from the physical aspect we grow up with in our formative years. If I were to sum up, I think physicality is only one part, but the larger part is character.
I think all of these are elements of your identity; there are no good or bad aspects. All of it is colorful, and the more colors that you have the better. The colors can keep changing. With your identity, you can live many lives in multiple facets. I have lived multiple lives, and I still have many, many years to go, let’s hope (crosses fingers).
In terms of your personal identity, what challenges have you faced in constructing it?
I have faced challenges every step of the way. I was going to go abroad, I was going to study, and I was going to take over my father’s business. Post the accident, I could not put a sentence together, because I had to look at every word in a chain and put them together in my mind to read it. Initially, there was the physical challenge, and then there was the faculty challenge, and the aspect of everything being more difficult to do than for someone with all their faculties intact.
To me, it was clear that I wanted to compete in the Olympics rather than the Paralympics. I was never a fan of labels like disability. I knew that the vision I had was not enough, I felt I was not fast enough, and my entire ability to put things together was not felicitous enough. These were all challenges I went through. The truth about the world is that people will empathize with the event when it occurs, but not really absorb that it leaves you debilitated for the rest of your life. The fact remains that my life changed with the accident, but the world often does not accommodate for differentiated abilities, especially in India.
I think it was making peace with that, but still choosing to live in the world that I had always planned for myself—it was my biggest challenge, but also my biggest fillip into the next phase of my life. I wanted to have the opportunity where I could not only compete in that race, but come out as a champion as well.
Some of my biggest challenges have been my biggest triumphs. I do not feel envy when I see other people. I am happy to be me and I don’t compare myself to others.
I read online that you started an initiative where you helped bring traumatized people out of helplessness. Could you tell me a bit about that initiative of yours?
In about 2014 or 2015, I had returned to India from New York. I had come back to Chennai, and started a PR firm called Touché PR. I met many people through that kind of work; I had many clients, and worked with several youngsters. I found myself not just wanting to tell my story, but to be responsible for change. I started feeling that instead of just speaking or giving an interview, I wanted to start interacting with people who needed me. To execute that vision, I put a small team together, met a few people, and wanted to take it on from there.
I was also offered an opportunity at Indian Terrain, where I was to run E-Commerce and Digital. I was traveling several days in a month, so I parked my initiative at that point in favor of the job. My initiative got a bit of a start, but it did not really come to the critical mass it needed to. However, it was actually the starting point for what I am doing today.
My new initiative embraces people with trauma, who intrinsically have to deal with identity issues based on what has happened to them, physically or emotionally. It is also for regular people who live in the world today, where even something like a common comparison at the workplace, or #FOMO (fear of missing out) causes an identity crisis, thus limiting their belief in themselves and what they can accomplish.
My initiative started there, but has now turned into a full-fledged mission of identity advocacy. We have launched Anjali Rajgopal Official on Instagram and Facebook; we are building a website, and spearheading this at the ground level. What we believe is we can turn this into a movement. I would like to take the identity discussion from the fringes of society and bring it to the mainstream. There is an old quote that I keep coming back to – “A graveyard is full of broken dreams”. I do not want people’s cherished dreams to be left in the graveyard, I would like those dreams to bear fruit while they are still alive. I want everyone to find their identity – own it, attempt it, fail at it, conquer it, live it. Through identity advocacy, helping people understand and embrace their identity, I want people to become ten times what they originally dreamed or imagined themselves to be.
You mentioned that your current focus is on identity advocacy. Which part of people’s identity have you chosen to focus on?
I wish I could choose one! (laughs) This is like choosing one among ten of your children. I think, even before we start walking or running, even as babies, we are a thought and an intention. If I were to extrapolate on that idea of intention, it would be people’s dreams and aspirations that I would use as a pivot. I was asking my team the other day “Where do we position ourselves as advocates?” It is in that notion – dream crazy! It is only crazy and reckless until you do it. I think that we are often so limited by how we think we look, or how fast we run, or who loves us, and who doesn’t. I know it takes some time to get to that level of not caring what people think at all – just living for yourself and yourself alone. I am not saying it’s simple. The good news is there are about a billion roads to get there. In my journey moving forward, hopefully, my efforts will pay off. I plan to touch people’s lives in a way that it minimizes their regrets, expands their opportunity, and helps them create their lives rather than be condemned by it.
Self-harm is an issue that is becoming louder in recent years, and is screaming at us, to be very honest. Now that we’re entering a new century, I’m wondering if people have addressed this subject as they should. A lot of people have asked me if I have ever thought of giving up and ending my life. They have also asked me how I’ve come this far, and I tell them that while my life has been dark, gloomy and difficult at times, there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and I am going to find it.
Yes, something is always missing in all of our lives – but can that be turned into something you are seeking instead? If it is missing, seek it – there are many ways. Continue to be a seeker and you will continue to be fulfilled. None of us has gotten to the end of the rainbow yet, most of our lives evaporate before we do. The process of seeking itself can form a vivid tapestry.
You are a collector of experiences, and have encountered many different things of varying natures throughout your life. What is something that you count in your personal life as memorable – something you can look back at and say, “Wow, I actually did this!”
A very good question (laughs). I had actually moved to California at one point during my education, and I was taking electives at the University of San Diego. I was heading towards the summer. It was a time in my life when I was seeking more adventure. I still had credits that I needed to complete. I asked myself what I could do, where I could find adventure, seek a new experience, and complete my credits at the same time. I had always wanted to learn the salsa. I have always been a fan of Latin music, the dancing and the culture. Southern California has a lot of Mexican influence, and I lived a few miles from the Mexican border, so I said “Why not?” I went to the south of Mexico, to Guadalajara.
I lived with a host family who only spoke Spanish, so I had the perfect opportunity to learn. I took the two classes that I had planned to, at ITESO. I learned the salsa, merengue, and bachata. Every day, I would leave early in the morning, because it was a one and half hour bus journey to the university. I would be done with classes, and I would take a dance lesson there, then I would go to all of these clubs, which were on my way home. They all had people dancing – it’s a dance culture! I used to dance my way home every night. It was a fantastic few months I spent there, learning the culture, and I got my classes done as well! I loved it, and I would be thrilled to go back.
You are a free spirit who advocates for adventures and opportunities, dreaming, believing and achieving. Many people are looking to pick up more adventure in their lives, such as me. How do I get my identity to morph into something that is more accepting of adventure?
I think all of us want to be something more than what we are today. Once you figure out what your passions are, whether it is academia, dancing, traveling, sport, or whatever else you love – it’s important to focus on two things.
One of them is focusing on who have always wanted to be, but never mustered the guts to try. Prepare to meet the rest of your personality that hasn’t had its time to shine yet – you know what buttons to push. I am an advocate of pursuing dreams as you see them, dynamic as they may be. Do something you have never done, but always wanted to do, because some deceptive voice made you think you could not. Jump, duck, and roll if you have to. It’s the chase that makes it all worth it.
Suppose you have thought that you could only do this in a different life – that is not true at all. You can absolutely take off and be the person in your dreams. Put time aside for them. In order to thrive in this world, and not just survive, you have to think differently. Don’t keep thinking in the same patterns. Why not surprise yourself? You will end up finding dimensions of yourself that you never knew existed.
The second thing you have to prioritize is planning, as dreams can usually be achieved much more realistically this way. While I am all for spontaneous adventure and exploring aspects of oneself, I am also a meticulous planner. I allocate time for myself. This spirit of mine that is so-called burning bright today can perhaps get dull if it is not constantly in pursuit of a better self. We all need reminding of how fabulous we actually are, by adding more fuel to our to-do lists!
There is a motivational speaker whose words I hold very dear, who talks about the concept of echo chambers. We all live in echo chambers, where we hear the same voices echoing back to us repeatedly – and that becomes our truth. So fight those voices, and go for your dreams. Liberally plan how you’re going to achieve them, and commit the time and effort for your spirit. What is the worst that can happen – misadventure? Time wasted? Some inconsequential person’s possibly poor opinion? It won’t matter at all.
I am going to go live that life I just described to you (laughs). I am going to get that MBA! That is what’s waiting for me in 2021. I hope you are ready to grab what is waiting for you, too!