Chapter One: Meet the Fam
I owe a lot of who I am to my parents—my sense of self and purpose, and my stubborn streak… yeah, I get it all from them. My fierce loyalty to the people I love? They’re responsible for that, too. My cheesy, romantic view that one day you find your bae and live happily ever after? You guessed it. They instilled all of the above in me, through their words and actions. In fact, if you think about it, it’s pretty funny that a social media influencer was so influenced by her mom and dad, but I gotta give them both creds. I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for them.
My mom, Anisha, was a nurse for twenty-four years and my dad, Lewis, was a firefighter for thirteen years, so they both dedicated themselves to helping others. Neither of them has a selfish bone in their body; they are givers with all their heart and soul, freely and regardless of their own personal sacrifice. They come from very different backgrounds—my mom is Asian Indian, while my dad is part Mongolian and part African American. But they found each other and stuck it out for twenty-eight years now (first as friends, then as a couple) because they knew, just knew, that they were meant to be together. I know that sounds like a Netflix rom-com or something, but it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. My parents didn’t have an easy time of it. They knew that if they got married, it wouldn’t be a stress-free, charmed life. My mom’s parents had plans for her to have an arranged marriage, so my mom and dad knew that entering into a life together without a lot of family support, financially and otherwise, was going to be hard. They would struggle, not just to provide for our family, but also to make time for each other and figure out how to make things work. Still, they didn’t hesitate, not for a second. They believed in love above all else—and you can roll your eyes, but I am a sucker for that kind of romance.
Their journey to finding each other was, well, let’s just say complicated. My dad’s dad (Lewis Sr., known as “Pop-Pop”) was an MP (military policeman) in the army, and he was serving in the war over in Korea. From what I hear, he was a badass, and his job was to keep the peace with law enforcement and military authorities abroad. The way the story goes, he was at the end of his shift one night, hanging out with a friend, when he met a local girl in a village that was close to the army base. They hit it off, and soon after, he called his father back in the U.S. to ask for his blessing for marriage. My great-grandpa John told Pop-Pop to come back home and think about it. Translation: you are way too young to be talking marriage; come back to the States and you’ll forget all about this girl. After all, Pop-Pop was only twenty at the time. Well, I guess stubborn really does run in the genes, because he reenlisted, extended his time over there, and married her anyway. Eventually, Pop-Pop came back and brought her with him, introducing her to the other military wives and families on his army base in Fort Hood, Texas. But she wasn’t very happy. Between his job and several different sports teams, Pop-Pop was gone all the time. My dad was just a baby, but Pop-Pop took him to all his practices and games, leaving his wife at home by herself. She quickly figured out this wasn’t the life she signed up for, so she packed up and left and they later divorced. My dad stayed with Pop-Pop, but it didn’t take long for everyone to realize that raising a toddler as a single parent in the military would be very hard to do. Pop-Pop’s sister Justina, or “Mom-Mom,” lived in Edgewood, Maryland, and agreed to take my dad in when he was two, to help raise him and provide a more stable environment.
My dad grew up thinking that Mom-Mom was his mom and his two older cousins, Tara and Melodye, were his sisters. It was really weird, this big secret they kept from him. He was about eight when they finally filled him in. He was a straight-A student and bookworm, and the news sent him spiraling. He says it “broke” him. Suddenly, nothing seemed to matter. He became rebellious and reckless, running with the wrong crowd and shoplifting. He was good at it, so he didn’t get caught, which only made him want to get into more mischief. He was young, so he didn’t know what was causing all these feelings or making him do these things, but looking back, he says it was all about anger and hurt. He felt betrayed and lied to, and I can only imagine how all that messed with his head. What would it feel like to have the rug pulled out from under you like that? It made him flip a switch: If they weren’t his parents, why should he answer to them? Why should he listen to anyone?
In the meantime, Pop-Pop married his new wife, Janice, who had four kids from a prior marriage: Jimmy, Lori, Chrissy, and Johnny. When my dad was twelve, Pop-Pop came down to get him and bring him back to live in Indiana with his stepfamily. I guess he wanted to make things right between them, maybe fix my dad’s bad ’tude. It wasn’t exactly the happy homecoming my dad had imagined: the whole family stayed in a small four-bedroom town house. After that summer, my dad decided it wasn’t for him; it was close quarters with people he barely knew. So he got on a Greyhound bus and went back to Maryland, where he had his own room and a family who took good care of him—even if Mom-Mom and Uncle Jimmy weren’t his birth family. Three months later, my dad realized that he needed to be with Pop-Pop and moved back to Indiana once again. He says for the majority of his teen years, he was a pain in the butt, a “bad boy” who got kicked out of high school and then alternative school but eventually graduated after attending night school. It wasn’t until he was about my age, eighteen, that he started to “straighten up.” His family didn’t have a lot of money back then, but they had a lot of love for each other, and that’s all that really mattered. They made him feel included and a part of their lives.
Right after graduation, my dad moved out on his own, enrolled in college, joined the volunteer fire department for two years, and then pushed on to become a professional firefighter. “Nobody handed me nothing, Voni,” he likes to remind me. “Everything I got, everything I am, I worked for.”
You can see where I get my work ethic from—my dad taught me that nothing feels as good as something you’ve earned all by yourself. This is what Pop-Pop and Mom-Mom instilled in him, and he passed it on to me. Growing up, my sisters and I got an allowance after completing our chores, and if I wanted something, I had to pay for it. I worked on weekends and during the summers and wore Shanti’s hand-me-downs from our older cousins. When they were too small for me, they went to Priya. So when people comment on my videos, calling me “rich” and “spoiled,” I fire back. That couldn’t be further from the truth. My dad is a proud, self-made man and living proof that you don’t ever have to accept the cards you’re dealt. You would never picture him as a rebellious kid, because he’s so chill and laid-back now. He rarely cusses and he has the biggest, kindest, most generous heart. He never says no to any of us. He likes to go for long walks in nature and is always after me to get out more. I’m not really the “outdoorsy” type, but he reminds me how important it is to appreciate what’s right under your nose. I don’t know if he would have ever felt this way if his life had been easier or more “normal.” He owns his past in a way that inspires me to do so too, because he is so open and honest about it. Sometimes I wonder where that courage comes from, but then I remember he used to fight fires for a living—he’s not afraid of being burned.
My mom’s backstory is very different. She was born in India and came to America when she was four. Her parents, Harkant and Kusum Patel, were immigrants who settled in Indiana. My mom has one older sister, Hemali, and one younger brother, Amar, who was born here. In Indian families, five is a small household—the usual is closer to half a dozen or more relatives under one roof. My mom’s side of the family is huge, and she has tons of cousins, aunts, and uncles who are all very into their Indian faith and traditions. She and her siblings struggled at times with their new life in America—they wanted to celebrate all of the American holidays and just fit in and feel like they belonged here. When you’re a kid, the last thing you want to be is different, but they couldn’t help it. My mom’s parents were Hindus and insisted the family be Indian to the core. They were really strict, and their main priority was for their kids to have a good education. My mom says her parents expected so much of her: she needed to go to college, get a degree, and of course, follow Indian traditions or else. When it came time for my mom to get married, her parents were determined to arrange it because, hello, that’s what traditional Indian parents did back then. My mom’s sister, Hemali, had an arranged marriage, and that’s what my grandparents had in store for my mom as well. But she stood her ground: “Nope, not gonna happen.”
My mom wanted to find a husband on her own time and terms. How could anyone else make that choice for her? She refused to even think about it and focused on her college courses until, one day, she met my dad. At the time, they were both dating other people, but they all would hang out together. When things didn’t work out with their current relationships, my dad took his shot and pursued my mom. They hit it off and dated all through college. My mom kept putting off getting super serious with my dad because she had her mind set on completing nursing school. In the back of her mind, I think she knew that marrying my father meant that her parents would cut her off and even possibly disown her, so she had to be ready to pay her own way. She wasn’t wrong: they were furious! My grandparents didn’t want her to be with my dad, so my parents got married in a courthouse instead of having a big wedding. Yup, no reception, no one hundred–plus guests showering them with best wishes and gifts. It was… sad.
After they exchanged vows, my parents really didn’t have any close communication with her parents for about a year. They settled into their home in Broad Ripple and then, about a year later, my mom got pregnant with my older sister, Shanti. That’s when everyone decided to just forgive and forget—a grandchild was reason enough and, to this day, we’re all really close to my grandparents. Even crazier? They love, love, love my dad! They saw what an amazing father he was and all their doubts and fears just flew out the window. When I ask my mom if all this drama was upsetting, she shrugs. “Voni,” she tells me, “we’re just not the norm. We don’t follow what everyone else does.” By “we” she means herself and my dad, but also me. She always tells me to blaze my own trail, ignore trends, and shake things up if need be. She believes strongly that you should do what makes you happy, even if it’s not what everybody else is doing. In her case, that meant bending the rules when it came to her culture. Yes, she loves Indian food, clothes, and traditional holidays. But she didn’t agree so much with the whole male-dominant culture and beliefs. What did you expect? She has three girls and she raised us to be strong, to be independent, and to know our worth.
Lucky for us, my dad is a great guy. He even resigned from the fire department and stayed home with us full-time while my mom went to work because her job had better pay and benefits. I think that’s pretty amazing. You won’t find a lot of guys eager to change diapers and go to Mommy and Me classes, but Dad never complained. He didn’t care what anyone would think or say about it. To him, there was no greater job than caring for his girls and he didn’t trust anyone else to do it.
I’ve had a great upbringing. I’m not “this” or “that” but a mix of many cultures, and my family embraces all of them. My mom and dad have always been so forthcoming about who they are and where they come from, and it gives me a unique perspective on the world. I know they told us a lot of this stuff when we were growing up, but none of it really resonated until now. I see the struggles they went through as the foundation for how they raised us. Their backstories color mine. I have a good life, a comfortable life, so I can’t totally relate to the hardships they went through, but I do appreciate how they built themselves up and found each other along the way. I also realize how much they have done and continue to do for me. Beyond all the gymnastics meets, homework help, and plain ol’ putting a roof over my head, they are my safety net. My mom has worked in the pharma industry for the past seventeen years, but she recently quit her job to help me with my career full-time. Some eighteen-year-olds would resent a parent being so involved, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. She’s got my back more than anyone. And my dad, well, he would move mountains for me. After all, he gave up his career in the fire department to take care of me and my sisters when we were little. But it’s also the day-to-day stuff he does that means so much—silly things that he knows will put a smile on my face. I will never forget the time I went to Target at Halloween in search of this cute little light-up ghost decoration and they were out of them. I came home so upset and disappointed (yeah, I can be a bit of a drama queen). The next day, my dad snuck out and went to another Target further away to find one to surprise me. If that doesn’t sum it up, I don’t know what does: How many fathers would go “ghost hunting” just to make their kid happy?
I know I can be a handful sometimes, and my career doesn’t make things particularly easy on my family. Our lives look very different than they did just a few years ago. My life has exploded, and I’ve gotten to travel the world and meet some really cool people. But on the other hand, Priya had to leave her friends in Indiana to move to LA, and Shanti has experienced the dark side of social media (people hating) because of me. My mom and dad hold it all together for us, no matter how much chaos is going down. But I do worry that I put my family through a lot because of the path I’ve chosen—and is that really fair? If you ask them, they’ll say, “We’re all in this together.” And they’re not just quoting the High School Musical anthem, they actually mean it. We are all feeling, and dealing with, the impact of me getting “famous.” When I started blowing up, friends and strangers would try to use my sisters to get to me. When I would come to pick Priya up at school, they would surround the car. Or they’d follow Shanti on social media to try and get closer to me. But the one thing I really couldn’t stand was when my sisters started getting hate on their own social media accounts. It was like my haters took it out on them—guilty by association. I don’t care if they come after me, but my family did nothing to be on the receiving end of this… It makes me furious and I’m gonna clap back.
My mom is annoyingly practical about it all: “Do you enjoy what you’re doing? Then stop reading the comments!” She’s kinda right. She was also very insistent that if I was going to go into social media as a career, I had to do it the right way. “Is this what you want to pursue? Because if it is, you’re not just going to move out to LA and go do your thing. We will all move, we will set you up with the right team, and you will still finish school.” She does have a way of spelling things out—no ifs, ands, or buts about it! At the same time, she and Dad always let me chase my dreams. My dad is a dreamer like me, so he will tell me I can do anything I set my mind to. Did I mention he sees the word “impossible” as “I’m possible”? My mom will say, “Go for it,” but then she will make sure I have a plan in place to see it through. She’s the more realistic, detail-oriented person. I need both of them behind me because I have seen way too much crazy go down in this business. I know how easy it is to get taken advantage of, to feel intimidated by people who are older, more experienced, and convinced they know what’s best for you. Spoiler alert: they don’t. That’s where my parents come in—my eyes, my ears, and my mouthpiece. If I am not happy, if I feel uncomfortable or disrespected, they will do whatever they need to do to make it right.
Are they a little overprotective sometimes? Um, yes. But then again, worrying is part of their job description. I know that above all else, they want me to be happy and trust my instincts. They know that they have to let me try, succeed, fail, and figure it out for myself. But even though they raised me to be independent, they want me to know I’m not flying solo. Especially during the pandemic, I had to constantly think about not just what I wanted, but also what was safe for the people I live with. It wasn’t all about me; I had to consider how my actions would affect my family, and that helped me make smarter decisions for us all. You can call it a pod, a group, a tribe, whatever; for me, family is a reminder that I’m a part of something bigger than myself. That comes with responsibility, but it also comes with an incredible sense of belonging and security. I am not—and will never be—alone.
People ask who I’m more like, my mom or my dad. Hmmm, that’s a tough one. The way I see it, I inherited qualities from each of them that blend well with my unique Avani-ness. It’s like my secret sauce: I have Mom’s strength, laser-beam focus, and drive, and I have Dad’s soft-spoken way and crazy, stupid love for people. When you mix it all together, you get me! They’re also pretty cool and not too bossy, which we all know is a common parental trait. They try not to tell me what to do and let me handle my biz. Even if they’re anxious over something—like one of the songs on my TikTok being too “raunchy”—they will offer words of wisdom, step aside, and hope that something they’ve said eventually sinks in. I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do, but if they nag me enough, some of it is bound to stick. Plus, they often have a very good point that’s worth remembering or even writing down.
Let’s just keep that between us. I don’t need it goin’ to their heads.