ANNIKA SHARMA is the co-host of the podcast, The Woke Desi, and author of the upcoming book, Love, Chai, and Other Four-Letter Words, about following your heart, life influencing art, pokes and stretches caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and the things we can be doing to fill our cups. Here she is interviewed by MAMATA VENKAT.
Q: We have had so many conversations over the years about being true to ourselves. I learn from you what it means to really live from the heart.
What was the point in your journey where you realized you were living how you thought you should be living, instead of living how you wanted to be living?
AS: The day I got my agent was one. Subsequently, getting a book deal was another. These were pivotal in the journey of recognizing that I have a tendency to build my life according to what society tells me is acceptable, rather than building it according to what strengths God gave me. Until then, I was forcing myself into convenient boxes that no one was pressuring me toward except myself. My parents have always told me I should go into communications of some sort. But I kept seeing people who I thought were successful go into other more traditional paths and it was all I knew. I followed.
But certain common threads always weave themselves through our stories – for me, connection, words, having a voice, creativity, whimsy, and telling stories, were the center of every success I had had. Even on the paths that ended up not being right for me, the common thread was there. For example, I survived nursing school for exactly one semester, during which my greatest success (earning a $10K scholarship) came from writing an essay. I chose to ignore the very large, very colorful, billboard-sized signs that I was meant to connect with people with my voice.
Once I wrote my book the doors began opening, and I found that working hard didn’t feel like work at all. The fact that I was the first in my circles to take this path became empowering rather than fearful. I felt so centered, purposeful, and the inner voice was nothing short of divine-like whispering, “You’re exactly right on this path.” The successes afterward only affirmed that. And after knowing what conviction right to my bones felt like, I couldn’t imagine going back to a life where I didn’t have it.
Certain common threads always weave themselves
through our stories – for me, connection, words,
having a voice, creativity, whimsy,
and telling stories, were the center of every success I had had.
There is a quote about our greatest fear not being that we are inadequate but that we are powerful. I think about it all the time. We have power that is granted only to us, and the paths we live can be a testament to that gift. Otherwise, what are we doing? Are we honoring our God-given gifts? So many of us never lean into them out of fear. Since the book deal, it’s been a chase for the next conquest that I feel pulled to.
This is a more spiritual answer than I think you were shooting for, but it’s the truth! Turning inward and looking to a greater power has allowed me to hear and feel the plan meant for me, and the internal compass has guided me toward it. With each success comes reaffirmation. The more connected I am to the Divinity in me and in the world, the more authentically I live, the more I see my greater purpose, and the more I chase those endeavors. It’s a wonderful cycle of trust, faith, purpose, and authenticity.
The more connected I am
to the Divinity in me and in the world,
the more authentically I live,
the more I see my greater purpose,
and the more I chase those endeavors.
It’s a wonderful cycle of
trust, faith, purpose, and authenticity.
Q: Let’s talk about your passions for a second. What are the things you are currently working on that are filling your cup?
AS: The last year has been a brutal one in terms of loss, grief, exhaustion, and shaky stability. It’s also given me time to reflect and to seek out my purpose, and to lay the groundwork for the life I want to live going forward. Am I surviving or thriving after this? The last year allowed me to lean into the things I love most: connecting with people, discovering my voice, growing my podcast, writing my books, and continuing to ground myself in healthier practices. The gym has finally seen more of me than it ever has before! The points of connection these things provide with the universe, with my loved ones, and with myself, have been eye-opening in terms of where I want to go and what I want to do.
I’ve also slowed down and become more intentional about my time. We were moving at such a fast pace prior to the pandemic that I never took stock of whether certain things felt right. I said yes all the time. Now I feel more comfortable saying, “This isn’t working so maybe it’s time to let go,” rather than feeling obligated to participate in something. My priorities have shifted.
I’ve been consumed by writing manuscripts. My next book, Love, Chai, and Other Four-Letter Words, comes out on October 5. It’s a romcom story set against family drama, bucket lists, and city lights. I’m now deep in the throes of writing the second book in the series and working on a few others to rev up my career!
I like to think that as I grow
more confident, comfortable, and risk-friendly,
my characters grow bolder and less apologetic too.
My stories are told with more conviction
and are fuller because I myself
am experiencing that fullness and certainty.
Q: Do you find that that real life influences the characters you create and the paths they take in your books?
AS: All the time. Whether it’s a life experience I’ve had, like visiting every tourist place in New York, or a feeling as devastating as heartbreak or as magical as a sparkly night with friends under city lights, writing allows me to empathize and to put myself in the shoes of the people I’ve created, who may be nothing like me. And that translates to real life too. As I witness my characters come to life and do things that perhaps I wouldn’t do, I learn to empathize with people who make different decisions from mine, and that creates growth. I like to think that as I grow more confident, comfortable, and risk-friendly, my characters grow bolder and less apologetic too. My stories are told with more conviction and are fuller because I myself am experiencing that fullness and certainty.
Q: Your podcast, The Woke Desi, has seen incredible success over the last year and a half. I think that you and your co-host, Nehal Tenany, have beautifully created a community where both guests and listeners can come to the table as themselves. How has this project aligned with your goals for yourself?
AS: My brother Sridhar is our producer. He told me something that makes me laugh and also drives me when I work on the show: “You have one job as a podcast host: use your voice to tell a story.” The audience can tell if we aren’t ourselves or if we aren’t enthusiastic about a particular advertisement. We have no choice but to be ourselves! The podcast has given us greater confidence in owning our unique stories. It’s also given me a platform to create the connection I mentioned before.
One of my greatest missions in life is to create interactions where no one leaves feeling unhappy or alone. As we explore different stigmatized issues, the podcast allows us to foster growth in those who haven’t experienced certain difficulties, and to allow those who have experienced them to feel seen and loved.
Q: Are there stories you’ve heard from your guests that have made you pause, think, and reframe?
AS: All the time! One episode was about Indo-Caribbean identity. Over 1.4 million Indians were taken, sometimes against their will, and shipped to other parts of the world like Fiji, Africa and the Caribbean, as indentured servants and slaves. The descendants of those people carry traumas, in addition to the pressure of preserving cultures to which their ancestors clung. Now, South Asians tend to see them as outsiders. We have abandoned our own, and much of that is entwined in casteism, socioeconomic status, colonization, and more.
I learn through networking,
observing, studying on my own,
and navigating my own instincts amongst it all.
I have to rely on myself constantly
to answer my own questions.
That takes a lot of self-awareness,
prayer, and growth.
Many of our women’s health issues also stick with me. It’s a sad reality that our South Asian culture, while beautiful and ripe with tradition, often doesn’t see people outside of our own families as equal, and women are included in that. Discussing issues like sexuality, marriage pressure, miscarriage, infertility and mental health, allows us to explore how much we inadvertently put others in pain or silence them. I think those are the most powerful episodes – the ones that make us feel like we can create a great change within our own families and societies and encourage people rather than demoralizing them and isolating them.
Q: Have there been professional, emotional, and literal bumps that you have had to overcome on this journey of turning your passion into a reality?
AS: The road to success is often a lonely one, particularly if there aren’t many people in your circles who have pursued similar paths. It can foster a lot of doubt when you don’t have many people to turn to for guidance. It can be isolating. I often struggle with the question, “What’s next?” because not many people close to me are positioned to give me advice. I learn through networking, observing, studying on my own, and navigating my own instincts amongst it all. I have to rely on myself constantly to answer my own questions. That takes a lot of self-awareness, prayer, and growth.
Another difficulty with being heart-led and passion-driven is that you throw your soul into everything you do. So the things that don’t align – friends who aren’t the same way, jobs that don’t fill your cup, day-to-day tasks that seem boring – are frustrating to cope with. I would love to write full-time but it typically takes five or more books to generate a steady income stream. I am on book three. That means for the sake of my student loans and financial stability, I have to also hold a full-time job. When your purpose calls loudly that can feel limiting. It’s a very practical roadblock and practicality can often be at odds with passion.
Q: What are the tools that you lean on — both internal and external — that keep you anchored during those bumpy times?
AS: Externally, the biggest tools I have are ones that fill me with joy and I’ve been keeping those a high priority through the last year of instability. I try to exercise four to five times a week. I have a therapist and I am a huge proponent of therapy to handle the stress of my day-to-day in juggling multiple endeavors. I try to take one night a week (at least!) to relax and watch a show or do something fun with my husband. My family should count as a tool – my parents are amazing sounding boards and my brother is a huge source of joy for me.
I firmly believe that my prayer time is mine alone,
where my mind can have a breather and loosen its knots.
I meditate afterward to clear out any heaviness.
My faith has been an evolution.
Internally, my biggest grounding element is prayer. I’m the daughter of a Vedic scholar and priest, and my dad instilled knowledge that has been passed down for thousands of years, and rightfully so as it works! I firmly believe that my prayer time is mine alone, where my mind can have a breather and loosen its knots. I meditate afterward to clear out any heaviness. My faith has been an evolution. Like anyone in their twenties, I doubted certain practices, but it has been the greatest guiding force in my adult life and as I navigate starting my own family. When I’m miserable, prayer gives me hope. When I’m happy, it gives me gratitude. I can’t lose knowing that my future is divinely planned and that I am chasing exactly what I am meant to.
Q: How would you define “living authentically”?
AS: Contentment and faith that you’re living as you’re meant to.
Q: What is the best advice or support you’ve received?
AS: The best advice I’ve received is to stop viewing life as black and white. Nothing is a success. Nothing is a failure. They are simply steps on your path that direct you to your next stop. While I haven’t learned many of life’s lessons yet, I’m so thankful I learned this relatively young. Recognizing that every step you take is meant to be and not viewing them as a terminal move has led to less fear, more confidence, more risk, and more happiness. It’s led to more trust and more faith that I am always in good hands, because nothing will lead me where I’m not meant to go. And by not viewing things as extremes on two ends of the spectrum, I’ve found a lot of clarity, resilience, and stability in the middle of chaos. There is a lot less swinging between “This is awful!” and “This is amazing!” and a lot more, “This is where I’m meant to be. I’m content. Let’s keep moving.”
Recognizing that every step you take
is meant to be and not viewing them
as a terminal move has led to less fear,
more confidence, more risk,
and more happiness.
It’s led to more trust and more faith
that I am always in good hands,
because nothing will lead me
where I’m not meant to go.
Q: Any advice for people who might be feeling a little stuck on their path?
AS: Movement starts with one step. Make the doctor’s appointment. Call the friend. Send the cold email. Set aside ten minutes for yourself. Write a few words of your book. Start your podcast. Growth comes from pushing your own boundaries, and it doesn’t have to be as momentous as becoming a star in a movie or going cliff-diving. It can be much quieter and equally powerful.
Interviewed by MAMATA VENKAT
Illustrations by ANANYA PATEL
Annika is the co-host of the podcast, The Woke Desi, and author of the The Rearranged Life and the upcoming book, Love, Chai, and Other Four-Letter Words. With a background in biobehavioral health, neuro-psychology, and early childhood special education, she is passionate about breaking boundaries and having dialogues on both fun and taboo topics to... Read more