Anjali is a dear friend of mine. She is an elite wheelchair racer, Paralympic ambassador, public speaker and PhD graduate from the University of Illinois. She is the the 2011 World Champion in the 200m and holds two bronze medals from the Paralympic Games in Beijing, China. The following is a story that she shared about her background and the tatoo she got to celebrate her incredible life. — Tatyana
I knew ever since visiting India in 2006 that I wanted a tattoo that reaffirmed my identity with India, specifically from Calcutta and Bengali culture. Being in India, I was attracted to the richness of the colors and certain patterns that are specific to Bengali culture. In the initial design phase, I was driven to have something written in Bengali. Over time, this whole idea evolved into creating a design that also incorporated other elements of Indian culture and my values. Looking at the entire design, I am drawn to it because just seeing it reminds me of Calcutta, it brings back a full range of emotions.
Until visiting Calcutta, I did not truly identify with being Indian. I think this is one of the challenges adoptees who grow up with white parents face—it is hard to gain a full appreciation of the culture you come from when you don’t experience it until later in life. It was a bit of a paradox growing up in a predominantly white community and not fitting in there to then travel to India where everybody looked the same, but still not fitting in there either. Designing this tattoo is something that I have been in the process of doing for the past five years as a way of reaffirming my Indian-ness. This tattoo is something that takes certain elements of Indian Bengali culture in combination with who I am today having grown up in Western culture and merges the two. I have spent time speaking with other Indian adoptees who have also planned and got tattoos. These conversations have been interesting to have because I realized that being Indian means different things to different people, but that this is one avenue where adoptees feel they can bring a part of their home country into their daily lives with meaning. You would not see an Indian woman over there with a tattoo.
Breaking down the design, the main piece is the turtle, done with a batik type feel. The turtle is extremely symbolic to me on multiple levels. When mother turtles lay their eggs, she finds a safe place on a beach away from danger, lays and buries the eggs, and then the mother leaves them to hatch and go out into the world alone. Baby turtles never meet their mothers. They just go forth and conquer the big open sea their own. On my trips to India, I learned that my story was different than how I had created it in my head. I wasn’t just an orphan from a broken poorest of the poor family; I was born in a nursing home (in American terms, like a hospital) which means my birth mother had some money and was likely from a middle-class caste. I’ve come to realize that for my birthmother to give me up was an act very similar to a mother turtle, where you want to protect and keep your babies safe but you know you can’t be the one to guide your child along every step of the way. It was more of an act of selflessness and wanting me to have a better life than her. I firmly believe that I would have contracted my illness regardless of whether I was adopted and in the U.S. or not. The harsh reality is, had I gotten sick in Calcutta, I would have died. And if, by some miracle and grace of God I had survived in India, I would have been shunned and kept hidden and separate from society without being allowed any formal education, participation in society or anything. I met the kids who were left from my orphanage, they were the kids with disabilities kept locked away from society on the 4th floor of an old building with no windows, no elevator, no access to anything, and ironically, behind the wall was a private school. I digress…
The other dual meaning is the similar mentality of my mom, my adoptive mother. She raised me to be independent and to chase my own dreams, but it was and is very much understood that you were and are expected to make it on your own. There are countless stories of this—being left under an overpass on the side of the highway because I had arranged a crazy carpool arrangement so I could go skiing. But there is also the same element of wanting me to have a better life than her. She provided for us, cared for us, and allowed us to spread our own wings and fly, something she, to this day, has never done for herself. I know she is proud, and she loves me, even if she doesn’t always know how to show that. And the truth is, I am grateful that through her selflessness and trust in me, that I have become who I am today. I’m also grateful for my birthmother who also contributed to making me into the independent fighter I am. My birthmother loved me before I was born and both wanted what was best for me. The stories are intertwined, contributing to my selection of the turtle.
The word on the bottom written in Bengali is jibon which is the word for “life”. The meaning of that comes from the stories shared above, I have created my life now and the word is a reminder of who I am and where I’ve come from. The sun that is the backdrop is not a complete circle, but is also related to the concept of the circle of life. It’s not a complete circle because I believe that there will always be mistakes made and challenges along the way which means making it perfectly round would be fake, and life is ongoing. What looks like the paisley-leaves are actually a mango pattern that is very common in Calcutta. The mango signifies a guard against evil and misfortune. This again relates to the acts of selflessness that have contributed to my life being what it is today.
The colors were also picked with specific purpose. Red is a color that signifies charitable, brave and protective. Burnt orange symbolizes purity, quest for light and is also worn by those in the warrior caste. Yellow is the color of knowledge and learning and relates to mental development and inner peace. Green symbolizes peace and happiness and is meant to stabilize the mind. Blue, the most prominent color in the design, is the color of nature and is worn by the deity who has qualities of bravery, determination, the ability to deal with difficult situations and who protects humanity. All of these characteristics described here are reminiscent of my core values and beliefs. Three of my core values are: fairness, challenge, and integrity. To me, they are interrelated with bravery, determination and the ability to deal with difficult situations and every other element of the design. As an infant I was placed in a potentially unfair situation being abandoned, and throughout my life there have been many other occasions where this also happened, but knowing that I have the strength and courage to face adversity and to live life means a lot to me. This tattoo is very me – in the colors, in the meaning and in the emotions it evokes.