He spent his adolescent years in a hut in Chennai. Today, he is deputy speaker of the New Jersey State Assembly. Upendra J Chivukula is, in his own words, “an example of the adage — education is the greatest equaliser.” The first Indian to be elected to this body, his rise has been powered by hard work and positive thinking.
Born in Nellore, Chivukula came to Chennai in 1952 as a two-year-old, when his father moved in search of work. Chivukula’s mother Sathyanarayanamma and his sister D Jyothi, still remember the hardships. “We sold our Nellore house to buy land in Chromepet,” says Jyothi. “But we lived in a hut since there was no money to build a house.”
There were six children and never enough money. “There were nine of us, including our grandmother,” says Jyothi. “He had to share a tiny room but would study late into the night by the light of a small lamp.”
His schooling was in Telugu but in college he made the difficult switch to English. If that was hard, getting into engineering college was harder. “My father was unemployed and didn’t have money,” says Chivukula. “But I had many dreams even though they were quite out of my reach.”
He got a merit-cum-means scholarship to attend Guindy Engineering College.
The money pressures hadn’t eased but Chivukula coped. Jyothi says their father wanted him to start earning so that he could marry off his sisters, but he managed to complete his education. It was the pressure to earn that made Chivukula go to the US. After getting a master’s in electrical engineering from City University of New York in 1976, he joined CBS as an engineering aide.
His political career took off in the mid-1980s when Indian Americans were the target of hate crimes perpetrated by Dotbusters, a street gang in Jersey City. “I wanted to educate the Indian American community about the importance of political involvement,” says Chivukula. “It was difficult to organise them to fight back in a court of law.” He joined the Indian American Political Forum for Political Education and plunged into politics, rising slowly from the grassroots to the top.
He believes that if you are determined, success will follow. “Don’t look for short cuts. Hard work and focus will yield great results.”