Washington: When Shrinivas Thanedar applied for an American student visa in the fall of 1978, after getting admitted to a PhD programme at a university in Ohio, the US consulate in Mumbai rejected his visa.
Not once, not twice, not thrice, but four times.
To convince the consular officer that he intended to return home after studying, Thanedar presented property papers. Rejected. He then got a letter from a company assuring Thanedar of a job when he returned. Rejected. Thanedar then convinced his academic department in US to send an additional letter backing his case. Rejected. And then, one day, the consular officer went on leave. And the substitute officer issued Thanedar a visa.
It was early 1979.
43 years later, Shri Thanedar is all set to become the elected representative from Michigan’s 13th district, covering large parts of Detroit city, in the US House of Representatives.
After his expected win on November 8 – he is contesting from a safe Democratic seat and has already fought his real battle in the primaries – Thanedar will join four other Indian-Americans in the US Congress (Amy Bera, Pramila Jayapal, Ro Khanna, and Raja Krishnamoorthi). All five are Democrats.
But his story is distinct, for his roots in India are much deeper. Thanedar spent the first 24 years of his life in Belgaum, Dharwad and Mumbai. The first Marathi-American to make it to the House, he speaks Marathi, Kannada and Hindi fluently, has written his autobiography in his mother tongue, fully understands Gujarati, and travels to India twice a year.
And after a long career as a scientist and entrepreneur, where he made millions, he is now on the verge of representing Detroit, a city that was once the emblem of American industrialisation and then became a symbol of deindustrialisation, and a constituency that is home to large African-American population segments of low-income white working class voters.
Born to a lower middle class family in 1955 in Chikodi, a village outside Belgaum, Thanedar, during a conversation over Zoom on Tuesday from his base in Detroit, recalled his early days.
“My father worked as a clerk in the court system. The family was doing ok till he was forced to retire at 55. I had six sisters and a younger brother and the costs of marrying his daughters, health costs depleted his savings. I was only 14 then, but I was the elder son and, as is the case in Indian culture, felt this tremendous pressure to take care of the family.”
Thanedar became an active participant in family decisions – helping his father negotiate wedding arrangements for his sister, including dowry and gifts. He took up a job as a janitor and assistant in a dental clinic, but scared that his mother would not approve of him doing “menial jobs” hid it from the family. “Whatever money she gave me to shop for the house, I added my own money to the kitty. She thought I was a great shopper because I would bring a lot more for the value of money she gave,” Thanedar said, with a laugh.
He went on to finish a bachelors in science from a local Belgaum college, majoring in chemistry. “I was not a good student and got only what was called second class in high school. In the first two years of college too, I didn’t do well academically but then I realised that if I had to help my family, I needed to study harder. Our home was just 900 square feet and there was no space to study, so I made myself a little study room in the attic.”
Thanedar then worked briefly as a cashier in the local branch of State Bank of India. When he decided to pursue his masters in a Dharwad college, he lost his job – but this ended up being a blessing, for he got a job as a scientific assistant at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) in Mumbai.
Despite the clear instructions of his superiors that pursuing further education would be violation of official rules, he quietly embarked on a masters programme in Bombay University, doing night shifts at work, attending classes in the morning, and getting exposed to the world of art and theatre in the evenings. He finished his masters with a distinction, getting a gold medal.
But disillusioned by the lack of support from his organisation, recognising the limits of economic opportunities in India, and excited about the US as a land of opportunity, Thanedar applied for PhD programmes in American universities. His BARC supervisor refused to approve his application, and only agreed to do so when Thanedar officially resigned from his position.
The political socialisation
Growing up reading Tarun Bharat, and occasionally contributing to it, Thanedar’s political consciousness had grown in Belgaum itself, the epicentre of a major fault line between Maharashtra and Karnataka. “There were a lot of Marathi-speaking people in Belgaum and they were mistreated by the Karnataka police. The Marathi people wanted it to become a part of Maharashtra. I used to go to political meetings even when I was 10 years old. Politicians came from Bombay and gave explosive speeches, the crowd would get excited and throw stones at Kannada establishments, and then the police would chase us.”
Thanedar said it was here he saw “police mistreatment” and its suppression of “democratic attempts for freedom and justice” – a point that echoes in everyday American politics, especially in his constituency where Black voters have strongly demanded criminal justice reform.
And then, while he was in Mumbai, Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency. “I was very aware of the limitations she brought on the press. Indira Gandhi arrested her opponents, they were put in jail, many of the Jan Sangh people: I was acutely aware of the oppression, grab of power, authoritarianism of Mrs Gandhi.” Thanedar participated in street plays and used theatre as a medium to spread awareness and resist, for it was much harder for the police to catch on. “I read a lot, and got fascinated by the underground movement to oppose this authoritarian attempt by Mrs Gandhi.
Two years after the Emergency ended, Thanedar had managed to secure admission and scholarship at the University of Akron in Ohio. Thanks to the shuffle in personnel at the US consulate, Thanedar got his visa and left to pursue his American dream.
The American dream
For Thanedar, America represented both struggle and freedom.
He used to teach undergraduates, earn $300 a month of which he sent $75 back home, and in the summer, for three months, when there no labs to teach and he wouldn’t earn, Thanedar used to sleep in the car or the seminar room of the chemistry building where he did his research. He finished his doctoral degree in 1982, managed to get a post-doc position at the University of Michigan, and finally found a job as a chemist in St Louis, Missouri that would become his home for the next two-and-a-half decades.
But despite the hardship, Thanedar also immersed himself in American life. In his book, he writes candidly of his dating experiences in university and how that made him more Americans but what he cherished the most was liberty. “I really liked the freedom, for people to live the life they want to live, love who they want, without pressure from parents or family or society.” But like many immigrants of the time, he returned home to get married in 1985.
It was in Missouri, in 1990, after finishing an MBA, that Thanedar would buy a company offering chemical testing lab services for $75,000. His lifestyle changed, and now he lived in a home that was 18,000 square feet, a far cry from his Belgaum days. But then tragedy struck, as his wife died by suicide and Thanedar had to deal with grief, the hostility of friends who blamed him, managing two young children, while expanding his business. Eventually, he remarried, once again returning to Mumbai to find his wife.
By 2008, the company that Thanedar had bought for $75,000 with two employees had expanded into a conglomerate worth $200 million, with 500 or so employees, among them 65 PhDs. “I had facilities all across America, I went and acquired businesses that were failing and turned them around. But I had borrowed $24 million from banks to build the organisation. But then the recession happened. My work was in early drug development and that dried up. Revenues started falling precipitously, my profits disappeared and the bank got nervous. I asked for more time, but the bank could see that if they disposed off my current business, they could make more money. They took my business, my home, and in 2010, all I had left were my personal belongings.”
When Thanedar was leaving his office for the last time, he saw two awards – entrepreneur of the year awards by Ernst and Young on his desk – and told himself that he would win another of those. His family packed their belongings, hired a budget rental truck, and moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan where Thanedar found a little lab that was out of business. “I restarted my business here, and by 2016, I had once again the world E&Y award. I built a business model that was more diversified and could survive in future recessions.”
For Thanedar, the American dream is all about giving your children a better life than one had. “I had achieved it, but when I go around, I see there is a lot of poverty. In Detroit and in urban areas in Michigan, 30% of the people are below poverty levels. The American dream is elusive and inaccessible to many people. And I felt that while I have achieved wealth, there are people living for generations in poverty, without opportunities, who have suffered decades of racial discrimination. And I didn’t feel good. It was time to give back.”
The path to politics
Thanedar says that even in the 1980s, when he had come, he found the Democrats to be the “party of acceptance”, in terms of the religion you practice, the God you pray to, the person you want to love, and the freedom an individual must have. While there have been controversies about his donations to a few Republican candidates, the bulk of Thanedar’s financial contributions to party candidates was for Democrats. Over the decades, he remained curious about the American political process and would travel to Iowa, where presidential aspirants fight their first primary race.
And in 2018, the Marathi-American took a direct plunge, throwing his hat in the ring in the Democratic primary for the governor of Michigan. Thanedar lost, but won the majority of the votes in Detroit city; he eventually became a member of the Michigan state House in 2020. And then this year, he beat eight African-American candidates in the Democratic primary to emerge as the party’s candidate in what is among the safest seats in the region.
For Thanedar, the issues that matter include the extraordinary wealth gap in the country, the struggle for low-income families, the absence of universal access to health care, the low wages, poor public transportation, the quality of public education and school infrastructure. While saying he doesn’t believe in labels – his party is often seen as divided between the progressives and centrists – Thanedar has three top priorities in the US Congress. “Health care, education and demanding and fighting for racial equality. I consider it my responsibility pity to help people of colour and fight discrimination”.
When asked how it has been to represent a constituency with a substantial segment of African-Americans, Thanedar said that it is an issue that is widely discussed in the media but when he has asked his voters about it, they tell him that what concerns them is to help fix their lives. “They tell me you understand our situation because you slept in a car when you couldn’t afford an apartment, you worked as a janitor, we trust you..and it doesn’t really matter what your race is, what your national origin is, what matters is you are sincere about solving our problems. My story has resonated well with both African-American and working class white voters…I have lived the life of poverty and seen the fruits of success and believe we need to lift people from the bottom-up.”
The India relationship
Through his lifetime, Thanedar has seen the evolution of the India-US relationship and is a votary of stronger ties. “We are the two biggest democracies in the world and must work together.” When asked if he saw China as a common threat, Thanedar said, “Absolutely, yes. I think China is something to worry about, something to watch carefully.”
Reluctant to speak on India’s domestic political polarisation and debates about its democracy, Thanedar said he had been away from India for 43 years and was fully involved with US now. “When I go to India, I largely talk to younger people about entrepreneurship. All I will say is that governments, both in India and the US, have a responsibility to cater to the rich and the poor, lift people at the bottom of the economic scale, create opportunities.”
But along with this, Thanedar added that human rights was very important. “We need to have a fair system, a democratic system, respect people’s right to live the life they want to live, and their ability to choose the God they want to pray to. In general, I am very pro freedom. That’s what I would like to see.”
In 1978, the US consulate officer who rejected Thanedar his visa was right. He would not return home. But little did either of them know Shri Thanedar’s new address, four decades later, will be the US House of Representatives in Washington DC, marking yet another chapter in the growing success of the Indian-American community in American politics.