His is the storyline that reads straight out of a rags-to-riches screenplay: A young boy from a small town, with big dreams who moves to the big city/country and pursues his dream career. For Thirumalai “Hill” Krishnan, the story of the American dream is a reality and one that he is unapologetic about enjoying. Hill Krishnan’s claim to fame, as it were, is that he is the first Indian-American to be running for New York City council. Krishnan who is a professor in the Global Affairs Department at New York University and an adjunct professor at the political science department of Yeshiva University in New York City dreamed bigger than just getting a job in the United States. From practicing his spoken English by talking to himself for hours on end in Central Park, to delivering extempore speeches on a podium, Krishnan’s drive is evident. Here he shares his story and reveals why America is the land of possibilities, to him.
Where did your story begin?
I was born in Dohnavur, Tamil Nadu in the southern tip of India. As an infant (7 months) I got very sick and was about to die. Because my 21-year- old father’s $4 dollars-per-month salary (Rs. 180) and my 16-year-old uneducated mother’s care was not enough to nourish me back to life, my maternal grandmother took me away. My grandmother looked after me by pawning the pots and pans in her kitchen. There were times when my grandmother and her younger daughter had to ask for free idlis from the neighboring idli store owner to feed me when they didn’t have utensils to pawn, or money to buy milk.
As a teenager I grew up in a cosmopolitan city (Coimbatore) with caring and loving parents who were more mature, and more stable providers. This new city life gave me an opportunity to thrive in performing arts like dancing and acting, and mimicry on stage. When the time to go to college came I wanted to go to the capital of the state (Chennai) to act in movies. My Dad said he would let me go only if I got into a good engineering college. Although my first attempt failed, the next one was a success after studying 10 hours-a-day for 18 months.
Why did you go to America? Did you see no chance or opportunity in India?
I came to America to get my masters in Industrial Engineering. My first masters was in Ergonomics & Biomechanics from New York University. I dreamed about going to America for years because of the possibilities of different opportunities.
"I want to do something for this country."What do you have to say to naysayers who boo those Indians who go abroad and do more for their adopted country than their own homeland? What would you do for India?
Every individual has his or her own unique journey to discover. It is different for everyone. This is mine. There has never been an Indian ever elected to the prestigious New York City council. If I get elected I will be able to bring pride to Indians around the world.
What do you aim to achieve by running for city council in New York?
To improve the 5 Es – Education, Elders, Environment, Economy and Enrichment. As an educator the first one is particularly important for me. Education changed my life and is the single strongest factor for upward mobility for anyone regardless of color, race, or gender and I want to offer that opportunity for every child in New York City.
Is there a larger political dream here?
My focus is to give back to the City that has given me so much. This is America. Anything is possible. As Abraham Lincoln said “I will study and get ready and perhaps my chance will come.”
You've said somewhere that NYC is a city that saved you and your father's life. Is that what drives you to pursue politics?
NYC offered me so many things. Apart from literally saving and sustaining his life after a sudden heart attack during his visit, the city has offered me education, free food and a place to crash while pursuing my education through the good-will of others, loans and scholarships to study, a job, the remarkable honor of US Citizenship, and best of all a kind and compassionate wife. I owe a lot in return. Public service through politics is my best answer to return my gratitude to this country.
For the many millions who leave their homeland, India, what would you say to them?
Follow your life journey as god has planned for you. On the way if possible please strive for a better world through service to the larger humanity of the 7 billion.
Would you consider coming back and living in India, if the opportunity arose?
My wife and I have created a life for ourselves in the United States. India will always have a special place in my heart.
For several Indians around the world, racism is a huge issue that they have to deal with on a daily basis. Did you ever face this, when you moved to the US? How do you tackle it?
Immediately after I moved to Texas, United States my Indian roommate was shot by multiple rubber bullets by a fast driving car full of boisterous young white men. My roommate was in severe pain and agony and we called the police. However, in general the United States is very welcoming and many times Americans were very kind and generous.
When was the last time you came home to India?
Two years ago.