“There was no running water in our homes. Women had to wait until darkness to use the woods for toilets, because they were not allowed to go outside during daytime.”
These are the words of Hill Krishnan, recalling his experience growing up in India.
Krishnan speaks eagerly over the phone, not from India, but from New York. He currently works in the city as an assistant professor at Yeshiva College, one of his many employers. Krishnan was also a political science professor at Cal Poly during the 2014-15 school year.
Krishnan visited Cal Poly on Friday, Oct. 21 as one of nine speakers at TEDxCalPoly. His story perfectly aligned with the theme of the conference-“Plot Twist.”
Krishnan was born in a village called Dohnavur, in southern India. The caste he belonged to is called Maravars, which translates to “bravery” in English, but is often associated with robbery in Indian society.
Krishnan grew up with a mother, a father and two brothers, one of which is autistic.
“People in my culture let autistic kids die,” Krishnan said. “My mother wasn’t going to let my brother die and she put a lot of time into nurturing him. She pushed me to work harder so I could help provide for them.”
When Krishnan was a teenager, his father started a paper business that collected old newspapers and redistributed them to paper mills. Krishnan worked for his dad and was paid five cents per bundle of newspapers.
With the money made from this new business, Krishnan and his family were able to move from their village to a nearby town named Coimbatore. It was here that Krishnan was first exposed to higher caste members. He saw them studying.
Krishnan wasn’t focused on school; he was more of a class clown. He recalls his higher-caste, lighter-skinned teachers beating him for his failing performance. Krishnan particularly remembers a high school teacher who would punish the students with the worst grades in the class; Krishnan was often included in this group.
“When my paper came around, I would have to get in front of the classroom. He would use all his might and unleash on my palms,” Krishnan said during his speech at TEDxCalPoly. “Standing there, receiving 15-20 lashes, is something you don’t forget. Every time that cane hit my hand, it felt like a thousand watts of electricity passing through my body. It was hard to resist tears.”
Time after time, Krishnan would go home at the end of the day with no signs of achievement and swollen knuckles.
He would try to hide his hands from his mother, but this task became difficult when his bleeding fingers would touch his spicy curry at dinner.
“It would burn my fingers and my heart and my floodgates of eyes would open up and I would cry my heart out,” Krishnan said.
Then things changed.
“I didn’t believe that I could do any better until the day that the speaker came to our school. He told us that we could set goals and reach accomplishments,” Krishnan said.
The speaker talked about the College of Engineering Guindy, one the oldest engineering schools in India and an affiliate of Anna University in India.
“I said, ‘Well, that’s where I’m going,’ and the whole class broke out into laughter,” Krishnan said.
When Krishnan returned home that day, his mother was caught off guard by the vibrant look on his face. Starry-eyed, Krishnan shared his aspirations with her. She encouraged Krishnan to work hard to achieve his goal, one that would hopefully be able to provide for the family.
However, not everybody was as supportive. His schoolteacher told him not to reach too high.
His teacher explained that even the top students in their school would not get into the College of Engineering Guindy. None ever have. He told Krishnan that passing his classes and going to college would be a huge accomplishment in itself and that Krishnan should not reach too high.
“I could not lift my head and look him in the face,” Krishnan said. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was asking me to conform to the labels I had been given.”
Krishnan hung the words “Get Anna” on his wall at home, motivating him to continue pursuing his dream.
Krishnan did well on the state exams required for college entry. He was accepted to several local arts schools, but no engineering schools.
Still set on his dream, Krishnan spent an extra year trying to get into Guindy. Frustrated and helpless, it was Krishnan’s mother who gave him the encouragement to keep going.
Krishnan started studying 18 hours a day, sleeping during the other six. This routine lasted for almost a year leading up to his exam.
Krishnan’s inexhaustible fight paid off. He scored a perfect score in mathematics and got a 98 percent in sciences on his entry exam. Krishnan was accepted to his dream school.
“I laminated that score and carried it in my pocket everyday,” Krishnan said. “That was the greatest lesson of my life. I don’t need to live by the labels that others give me.”
During his time at Guindy, Krishnan discovered his talent in dancing and acting. He played a villain in a well-known Bollywood sitcom called “Love Dice.” Krishnan also performed in several movies, the most popular being “Mouth Magic.”
“People said I couldn’t go into the movie industry. To do so, you have to know the directors,” Krishnan said. “So, I found them and approached them and showed them my performance. Many asked me to be in their films.”
In 2001, Krishnan received his B.S. in mechanical engineering from Guindy.
After graduating from Guindy, Krishnan turned his attention to applying for graduate school in America. Before taking the GRE, he studied English for about four years, something that he especially struggled with.
It was barrier after barrier for Krishnan, as he failed the foreign language exam twice and got his visa rejected by the United States Consulate on the grounds that he lacked financial stability and language capacity.
“I told my family I was not coming home until I got the visa,” Krishnan said. “So I went to the U.S. Consulate and showed them a magazine I had been interviewed in for my entertainment fame. The Consulate looked at it and gave me a visa instantly.”
With a passing score on the foreign language exam and a visa in hand, Krishnan embarked on a journey to a country that his family couldn’t place on a map, with nothing but $1,200 that his father lent him and a single bag.
Upon starting graduate school at New York University (NYU), Krishnan was barely scraping by in America.
“I had $35 in my pocket. I lived in the library and showered in the gym. I moved to a friend’s place and was able to eat at a pizzeria for free for a year because I knew the owner,” Krishnan said.
In 2003, Krishnan received his masters in ergonomics and biomechanics.
In 2005, Krishnan met his wife, Deborah Krishnan, in the NYU computer laboratory.
“I attended an audition with her,” Krishnan said. “I was in love and performed well and was in a commercial for ‘Show Us Your Character.’ I was dancing hip-hop and mixing Indian folk dance.”
“Show Us Your Character” is a national commercial Krishnan was featured in.
In 2006, Krishnan married his wife. That same year, Krishnan was waiting to receive his green card.
Krishnan’s lawyer sent the green card information to the wrong government immigration office, delaying the process.
But the delay turned into a blessing. During the wait, Krishnan visited the NYC public library and found a book called “Lincoln’s Melancholy.”
“It changed my life on politics and social sciences,” Krishnan said. “I started studying all the presidents’ biographies. I was able to relate to the inspiration and enthusiasm they had.”
Krishnan said that his readings laid the foundation of many of his careers. He added that reading helps his health, peace and finances.
“I’ve read about 1,000 books by now and my goal is to read 6,000 books in my life,” Krishnan said.
In 2009, Krishnan became a U.S. citizen. That same year, he went back to NYU to earn his second masters in global affairs.
In 2014, Krishnan earned his PhD in political science from Boston University. During the process, he reached boundless new heights.
Krishnan taught at three colleges, including Brown University. He spoke with Bill Clinton on the ethics of aerial bombing and with former British Prime Minister David Cameron about nuclear weapons.
After receiving his doctorate, Krishnan moved to California to take a teaching job at Cal Poly. He taught 11 courses during the 2014-15 school year in both political science and sociology. He built such a network of support that students protested when Krishnan did not receive the tenure track position.
During his time at Cal Poly, Krishnan wrote a memoir called “Caste Away.” It is in the top 100 best selling books on Indian history and biographies on Amazon.
Krishnan left Cal Poly in 2015 to move back to New York, where he continues to teach. He also continues his passion for acting and improv by taking classes.
“I was told I am not an intellectual, so I ripped that label and re-wrote, ‘I am an intellectual,’” Krishnan said during his TEDx talk.
Krishnan is a strong advocate in the idea that each individual holds the power to dictate his or her own life.
“This is the same kid who stood in front of the class and received those beatings passively, [now] actively standing in front of my university class and encouraging my students to identify and fight labels others have given them,” Krishnan said in his TEDx talk. “Who writes your life story?”
- A previous version of this story said Krishnan received a bachelors in medical engineering. It has been corrected to say mechanical engineering.
- A previous version of this story said Krishnan received a masters in ergonomics and bioeconomics. It has been corrected to say ergonomics and biomechanics.
- A previous version of this story said Krishnan was featured in “Show Us Your Character,” a talent contest campaign put on by USA Network. It has been corrected to say “Show Us Your Character” is actually a national commercial.
- A previous version of this story said Krishnan’s lawyer sent the green card to the wrong location, which made Krishnan visit him and find the book Lincoln’s Melancholy. It has been corrected to say Krishnan’s lawyer sent the green card information to the wrong government immigration office, delaying the process. It was during this wait that Krishnan visited the NYC public library, where he found the book Lincoln’s Melancholy.
- A previous version of this story said Krishnan received his masters before coming to California. It has been corrected to say he received his doctorate.