EXCLUSIVE | 'Starved, Slept in Car': US Congressman-Elect Shri Thanedar
Thanedar is the newest Indian-origin member of the US Congress, after winning the midterm election from Michigan.
Video Editor: Pawan Kumar
"I saw the stigma and the sting of poverty, which is very, very painful," Shri Thanedar, the newest Indian-origin member of the US Congress, told The Quint in an exclusive interview.
Thanedar, who has donned many hats, worked as a janitor in Karnataka's Belagavi – his hometown – at the age of 14 to support his family financially, struggled his way through school to go and study in the United States (US), worked as an entrepreneur and minted millions through his businesses, and brought his children up as a single father after his wife died an untimely death.
Now, he is the Congressman-elect from the 13th Congressional district of Michigan, after winning from the seat on his maiden midterm election attempt with over 70 percent of the vote share.
Speaking to The Quint, Thanedar sheds light on all the hardships he faced – the scourge of poverty, discrimination on account of his skin colour, and being homeless for a period of time before he became a successful entrepreneur, and now a politician.
You grew up in Karnataka’s Belgaum (Belagavi) and saw poverty up-close. Could you tell us more about your childhood?
My father worked for the government, and he lost his job when he was 55 years old. As per Indian culture, I felt I have to take charge of the household, even though I was only 14 years old.
I had six sisters – three of them younger than me – and a brother. So, the family fell into financial hardship. And I, at the age of 14, started cleaning doctors’ offices, working as a janitor, to supplement my family’s income.
So, I saw the stigma and the sting of poverty, which is very, very painful. When I saw a bill collector coming from a distance, it would create stress in the family because we couldn’t pay our bills.
When you decided to pursue higher education in the US, did you get a visa easily?
Not at all (laughs). We had to stand in a long line outside the American consulate at 5 am. The very first time I was interviewed by an American lady for a visa, her name was Virginia, she was a counsellor. I couldn’t understand half of what she said because I studied in Marathi medium. And then she denied my visa. So, I was heartbroken, and I actually fainted. That’s the first and only time in my life that I fainted.
I gave several documents to support my case in subsequent attempts. On my fourth attempt, I got a letter from a professor at the university I wanted to study at, saying that this student is very important for the research we will be doing in the US.
They finally gave me a visa on the fifth attempt. And I was shocked, and I asked, ‘Did Ms Virgina change her mind?’ And the consulate said that she had actually gone to the US for a vacation, and her assistant looked at my papers and thought they were good.
When you were working as a scholar at the university, you said you purchased a car in which you sometimes used to sleep.
That was the time I was working on my PhD in chemistry. To pay for my education, the university would allow me to teach undergraduate students. They would pay me $300 a month, out of which I would send $75 back to my family in India, so that my mother could put food on the table.
But the university didn’t pay us for three months in the summer because there were no students to teach at that time. So I couldn’t afford to keep my apartment.
I had, back then, a car that I had bought for $200. And I would either sleep in the chemistry department – I had a little room, and I had a sleeping bag and I would spread that at night and sleep in the public building – or sometimes, I would go sleep in the car.
Tell us about a few instances when you experienced racial discrimination in the US because of the colour of your skin.
When I first came to the US, I wanted to open a bank account. I went to a local bank, and a middle-aged lady, the bank officer, came to me. She looked at me and she said, ‘People that look like you, we prefer you not opening bank accounts in our bank.’ So I was very hurt and disappointed.
Later, after completing my PhD, I wanted to start a business – for which I only wanted a small amount of money, so that I could buy some equipment. Six different banks rejected my loan application, no reason given. And at that time, I felt a certain level of discrimination.
After you left the university, you spent the next several years working as an entrepreneur. Your businesses did very well, earning millions of dollars. Everything was going well for you. So why did you decide to join politics?
I came to the US because I wanted to do well economically. And at that early stage, it felt like, 'I am living in poverty, if I can only be rich, make a lot of money, I will be happy.' And I was happy – I succeeded in business and my family was doing well financially.
But I looked back at my experiences and thought, ‘I came to this country with nothing, and it has given me so much. So I felt that it is my duty to give back to this country. And with that in mind, I said, ‘Life is not about accumulating wealth.'
So I sold my business to a private equity firm. A portion of the money I got from the sale, I distributed it among all my employees – not just the top leadership. And I used another portion of it to run for political office.
In the US midterms, you beat eight African American candidates to win the Democratic primary for the 13th Congressional district of Michigan. This comes even as your constituency has such a large African American population. What do you think gave you an edge over your opponents?
People knew that I had gone through experiences not different from their own. So there was a bond between them and me. Even though I looked and spoke differently, I always felt I was welcome in the community, and I never really felt like an outsider.
I would spend hours talking to people, in a public park, or in a shopping mall, or right in front of a grocery store. I would stand all day outside a grocery store.
As people came in and out, they spoke to me and asked me questions. I have given my cell phone number to voters. I told them, ‘Call me.’ I am doing this to serve you. And if you choose to hire me, and I get elected, then you need to reach out to me and tell me how I am doing. And if I’m not doing a good job, do tell me.
How often do you come to India and how do you like to spend your time here?
I come to India a couple of times a year. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I didn’t come. But otherwise, I love the food, and I also like to meet with young people.
I wrote my autobiography in Marathi called Hi Shri’chi ichha, and the book became very popular. Many people write to me (from India), saying that the book changed their lives or they got inspired by it, even though I just told my story the way it was. So when I come to India, often I go to colleges and talk to young people about setting high goals and never giving up.
India and the US are two great democracies. What would you say about the relationship between the two countries, and how can we develop ties further?
India, the largest democracy, and the US, the strongest democracy, should always have a strong relationship. I will always promote strong relations between the US and various countries across the world that provide freedoms, and respect human rights.
What are your top priorities as a Congressman?
I want to make sure that no child goes hungry. I went hungry many a night, and I feel that no child should be going hungry. I wanted to enter into politics, into public service, to help families.
In a country as rich as the US, every child must also get a good quality of education. It is the American dream to want our children to have better lives than we did, and that dream should be accessible to every person, regardless of financial strength, the colour of their skin, their lifestyle, or who they love or pray to.
What is your message for youngsters in India?
Life is never a bed of roses. There’s always hardship. Often, a person in his life has more failures than successes. It really matters how you deal with failures, how you deal with humiliation, how you deal with loss.
I lost my first wife, the mother of my children, when my children were four and eight years old. And I raised my children as a single father. So life will always challenge you, but it’s important to fight against negative energy.
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