A few months ago on an obscure February weekend in Pebble Beach, Akshay Bhatia made a statement.
The 19-year-old professional golfer from California hit 18-of-18 greens on the hallowed course, a feat that has been accomplished only six other times, including once by Jack Nicklaus.
Bhatia didn’t win the tournament as he finished T30 and is still searching for his first professional victory. But that Thursday in Pebble Beach and the promise of Bhatia is a strange and incredible feeling for me.
Because Bhatia and I share a first name.
I’m an Indian American who works in sports, and there aren’t a lot of us. Virtually none is playing, coaching, working in a front office or media and otherwise.
So it was a shock to the system to see an Indian American who is not only an up-and-coming professional athlete, but who is also named Akshay. To hear the commentators say his — my — name.
It felt like finally getting one of those name keychains at an amusement park.
Before talking about what Bhatia means to me and the Indian community at large, we need to talk about what’s in a name.
My name and I have a complicated relationship. Akshay translates to "eternal, immortal and indestructible." It’s a powerful name with a powerful meaning, but it's not commonplace. There’s Akshay Kumar, one of the most famous actors in Bollywood. There’s Akshay Bhatia. There’s me and a few more who get the privilege of the power this name brings.
But my name has been butchered throughout my life. Throughout childhood, school, socially and professionally, much of my time has been dedicated to correcting people. Some still can’t get it right.
My name is Akshay.
Not Ashkay. Not Aackshay. Not Ashley.
Growing up in suburban Texas, there weren’t many people who looked like me, let alone had a name that looks intimidating and is hard to pronounce.
The first day of school and days with substitute teachers were miserable and played out the same way every time. The instructor would run down the roll sheet, calling names and waiting for a “here.”
Then, they would get to my name. The teacher would hesitate. There would be an awkward pause. The eyes in the classroom would dart toward me. Everyone knew what was about to happen.
“Ummmm … Aak, Ash, —”
“Here,” I would say, cutting them off to save myself some embarrassment for the day. There have even been a few times where a teacher would mispronounce it as “Ashley.”
It was mispronounced when I walked across the stage during my college graduation.
I don’t use my real name when placing an order at a coffee shop or placing my name on the waiting list at a restaurant. My “Starbucks name” is Tony.
It’s just easier.
It’s not that I don’t have pride in my name. But I would be lying if I said there wasn’t any embarrassment in having a name that looks funny and is difficult to pronounce.
My name came from my Indian parents. Like many Asian parents, my mother and father bestowed me with a traditional name and chose to raise me here.
In the wake of the racial justice reckoning in this country, the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 insurrection on the Capitol, we talked about what they had in mind when they and their parents moved to this country. Whether they had regrets.
Part of that conversation centered around my name, and the challenges that I faced for having a name that looks and sounds different. How could my parents know I would be teased growing up for it? Or that it would be mispronounced and butchered in both professional and social settings? I don't blame them for any of that, and I have pride in the name they gave me. It just made things a little trickier.
But sports became a place where I felt like I belonged, even a little bit.
I fell in love with journalism and sports growing up, and I was lucky enough to find a way to fuse my two passions together. I was never good enough to play — the height of my athletic career was scoring eight points in the first quarter of a recreation basketball game (I never scored again). But I found a way to be around the games and stories I loved, even if no one looked like me.
And that is why Akshay Bhatia’s existence and career is something to follow, and not just for people named Akshay, but for all Indian Americans.
There are a few, but not many, Indian American success stories in sports. The Chicago Bears in January named Sean Desai their defensive coordinator, making him the first NFL coordinator of Indian descent. Sanjay Lal has bounced around the NFL as an assistant coach for more than a decade.
The Dallas Mavericks made Satnam Singh the first Indian-born player to be drafted into the NBA when they selected him in the second round of the 2015 draft. He never saw the floor.
The Sacramento Kings signed undrafted free agent Sim Bhullar in 2014. He became the first player of Indian descent to play in an NBA game when he saw the court in 16 seconds of garbage time. He appeared in two more games after that and played less than three minutes total.
We’ve had flashes, but nothing compared to the highs of something like Linsanity in 2012.
Bhatia, meanwhile, is only 19. His career is just beginning. He, too, could end up being just another golfer in the history of the sport. He may never put on a green jacket at Augusta National or ever celebrate a U.S. Open victory at Pebble Beach.
Some of the highest-paid actors in the world work in Bollywood.
The aforementioned coaches and players have hopefully carved a path for more who will come after them. Their accomplishments matter to more people than they know.
But it’s tough for a sports-obsessed Indian American growing up in suburban Texas to see himself in those examples.
In Akshay Bhatia, I finally see me.
Bhatia in no way should carry the burden of every single Akshay in America and the Indian American community at large. Let the guy qualify for a major first.
But every time he appears on my TV from here on out, there will always be a smile of pride and excitement.
Like getting a keychain at the amusement park with my name on it.
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