IN DECEMBER 2006, Anil Kumar, a senior partner at the global consultancy firm McKinsey & Company, sent a two-word email to Raj Rajaratnam, the CEO of the Galleon Group, a multi-billion-dollar hedge fund based in New York. The email said, simply, “Manju Das.”
The words were a reminder to Rajaratnam of where to send a payment of one million dollars to Kumar. He had given the Galleon CEO valuable insider information on an upcoming corporate deal: the acquisition of the Canadian semiconductor company ATI Technologies by the American firm Advanced Micro Devices. Tipped off by Kumar as negotiations proceeded, Galleon built up a strong position in ATI, then sold all its shares after the sale was publicly announced. It made a profit of more than $20 million on the deal.
From around 2003 to 2009, Rajaratnam paid Kumar for insider information on a number of McKinsey clients, for whom Kumar served as consultant—among them Advanced Micro Devices, Spansion, eBay and Business Objects. The Galleon CEO sent quarterly payments of $125,000 to an offshore company called Pecos Trading, in Switzerland. This money was rerouted and sent back to Galleon in the name of Kumar’s domestic employee, Manju Das, and reinvested in Galleon’s funds.
According to The Billionaire’s Apprentice, a book by the journalist Anita Raghavan, the name “Manju Das” came to the notice of officials at the US Securities and Exchange Commission in 2007. The SEC, which regulates US stock exchanges, had been poring over stacks of Galleon’s financial documents, trying to find evidence of insider trading against Rajaratnam. A key challenge was to identify possible sources of privileged information within companies whose stocks Rajaratnam had traded with spectacular success. Manju Das was listed as an investor in Galleon, with an “Anil Kumar” listed as her contact person. Das’s name did not immediately attract the interest of the SEC investigators.
That changed in 2009. Rajaratnam was arrested on 16 October that year, along with Kumar and other conspirators, after extensive court-sanctioned wiretaps of his phone yielded a wealth of evidence against him, including recordings of Kumar giving him information on McKinsey clients. Following these damaging revelations, McKinsey cooperated fully with authorities, turning over Kumar’s internal documents to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Investigators found that Kumar had been consulting outside of his role at McKinsey, in violation of company policy. They also threw up more damaging revelations: Kumar had perpetrated elaborate fraud to receive illegal payments from Rajaratnam, and then hide them from his employers and the government. To do this, he had hijacked Manju Das’s identity while she lived with the Kumar family in California.
There were multiple Galleon subscriptions in Manju Das’s name, including in the “Galleon Buccaneer Offshore Fund” in Bermuda. Prosecutors found that payments into these came from Pecos Trading, and that this money originated from Galleon itself. They argued that Kumar set up this convoluted payment system to avoid paying taxes on the income, while at the same time retaining control over it—since Manju Das lived in his home, and was entirely under his influence. Beginning in 2003, Rajaratnam paid Kumar around $125,000 every four months; after a few years, they shifted to a more flexible arrangement, based on the value of Kumar’s information.
Uncovering the link between Das and Kumar proved pivotal in building a case against Rajaratnam. Kumar, with the full extent of his malfeasance exposed, decided to cooperate with the FBI and the US attorney’s office in exchange for leniency for his own misdeeds. Prosecutors already had the wiretap recordings as evidence, but Kumar provided detailed information on tips he’d been giving Rajaratnam.
In 2011, two years after his arrest, following a two-month trial in which Kumar was a key witness, a 12-member jury found Rajaratnam guilty on all the 14 counts of securities fraud and conspiracy on which he had been charged. The court found that Rajaratnam had repeatedly conspired to obtain privileged information from a variety of highly placed insiders in banks, corporations and technology firms, and had traded using that information to maximise profits and prevent losses.
Prosecutors also trained their guns on a far more illustrious target: Rajat Gupta, the former global head of McKinsey, who was then probably the best known and most respected American white-collar professional of Indian origin. Gupta had had a stellar corporate career at McKinsey, and also served as a board member for a number of major corporations, including American Airlines, Procter & Gamble and Goldman Sachs. He had also—along with Anil Kumar—helped set up the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, and worked closely with a number of philanthropic ventures, including the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. In 2012, a jury found Gupta guilty of passing confidential information from Goldman Sachs board meetings to Rajaratnam, who traded on and profited from it. As with Rajaratnam, Kumar’s testimony was crucial in convicting Gupta, too.
Rajaratnam was sentenced to 11 years for his crimes, while Gupta was sentenced to two. Both men are currently serving their sentences at the same facility, a minimum-security prison in Ayer, Massachusetts.
Kumar got off with a probation period of two years and a fine of $25,000, apart from forfeiting the $2.26 million that was calculated to be his illicit gain. Prosecutors had pitched in heavily in his support, describing his cooperation as “absolutely essential in two of the most important securities fraud trials in history.” Other conspirators also cooperated or settled with the authorities and were spared jail terms.
The Rajaratnam case was a prominent, early win in a streak of more than 80 successful prosecutions against insider trading led by Preet Bharara, the US attorney for the southern district of New York. Bharara’s aggressive pursuit of these cases bolstered his reputation as a no-nonsense defender of the public good. He was catapulted into the national limelight, and onto the cover of Time magazine.
But as careers were made and shattered in the courtrooms, Manju Das, Kumar’s housekeeper, was forgotten. In November 2009, a few weeks after Kumar’s arrest, his family terminated her employment and sent her back to India. After more than a decade of earning a relatively stable income in the United States, she was cast back into a life of crushing poverty in rural West Bengal.
RAJARATNAM AND I WERE CLOSE FRIENDS through the 1980s and the 1990s. I met him in the fall of 1981, when we were both studying at the University of Pennsylvania. I was a graduate student at the Annenberg School for Communication, while he, Anil Kumar and another future informant, Rajiv Goel, were enrolled in the MBA programme at the Wharton School. We stayed in touch afterwards, but eventually lost contact. The news of his arrest in 2009 came as a jolt.
In 2011, I began attending Rajaratnam’s trial, driven by curiosity about his fate. When Manju Das’s name came up in court, however, I was transformed from a curious bystander to someone deeply invested in a secondary tale. The documents unearthed after Kumar’s arrest in 2009 offered an extraordinary glimpse into how a millionaire brazenly stole the identity of his incalculably less privileged housekeeper, and exploited it to his own ends.
In a wiretap recording of a call between Rajaratnam and Rajat Gupta in 2008, the Galleon CEO boasted that he had been giving Kumar “a million dollars a year for doing literally nothing,” and that the payments had been going out “for the last three or four, I mean, four or five years … after taxes, offshore cash.” Gupta responded, “I know. I think you’re being very generous.” Apart from suggesting that Gupta—who was a “senior partner emeritus” at McKinsey at the time—knew Kumar was on Rajaratnam’s payroll, this conversation also offers a glimpse into what Manju Das might once have been worth.
For a few days of the trial, Das’s name ricocheted between the prosecution and defence, each seeking to use it to their own ends. Kumar claimed that it had been Rajaratnam’s idea to make payments in her name, while Rajaratnam’s defence maintained that he knew nothing about Kumar’s use of his housekeeper’s identity. The defence also attempted to discredit Kumar by claiming that he had used proxies to receive payments in the past. It produced a consultancy agreement from Mindspirit, a company Kumar and Gupta started together while they were both employees of McKinsey. Rajaratnam’s lawyers claimed that as part of this agreement, Kumar had received compensation in the name of his wife, Malvika, while Gupta had received payment in the name of a family trust.
At one point, the question arose of whether Manju Das herself should have been part of the investigation. During a cross-examination, John Dowd, Rajaratnam’s lead defence lawyer, asked Kumar if he had sent Das back to India after he was arrested and charged. Kumar replied that she had long wanted to go, but that her return was hastened after his arrest because his “life was in such trauma.” “Did you make her available to be interviewed by the FBI?” Dowd asked. “I was not asked, sir,” Kumar replied. Dowd persevered: “Well in light of what we’ve reviewed over the past day or so, she is an important witness in this case, isn’t she?” At this, a prosecution lawyer raised an objection, which was sustained by the judge.
IN THE SUMMER OF 2011, after Rajaratnam’s trial ended, I went searching for Manju Das during a visit to India. I had made a film in the mid 1990s about the life of a domestic worker who lived and worked in Europe, taking care of other people’s children while her own son and daughter grew up in an orphanage in her home country of Sri Lanka. I was now determined to find the domestic worker whose name was linked to the largest insider trading trial in the history of the United States. Kumar had implied, under oath, that Das was complicit in all the arrangements made in her name. I found this hard to believe, knowing how little power Indian domestic workers have in their relationships with their employers.
There wasn’t much information to go on. I had a copy of a visa application for Das that had emerged in court, which listed an address in West Bengal. The name of the village was unclear, but those of the district and post office were legible. I began by marking out a cluster of villages in the vicinity for an initial search.
I found a listing of the only women’s NGO in the area, which I thought might give me some leads. When I arrived at the address, accompanied by a translator, it turned out to be the home of a sarpanch, who was terrified by my questions and said she knew nothing about an NGO.
After another unsuccessful enquiry at the post office, we drove on, stopping frequently at the entrances to villages along the highway to ask passersby if they knew of a Manju Das who had spent several years abroad and lived nearby. We were greeted with blank stares, shakes of the head, and a few futile leads.
But no more than two hours after we began, we had a breakthrough. A woman I stopped told us there was a Manju Das in an adjoining village, who had once lived in America. She named the woman’s son, and asked if it was the same Manju Das. I replied that I didn’t know Das’s family. Well if it’s the same woman, she said, pointing the way, the son has a hotel in the adjoining village.
Approaching the village, we were stopped by a road block: a group of enterprising schoolboys were collecting donations for the upcoming Saraswati puja. One seemed to know the hotel, and in return for a cheekily negotiated donation, let our car through their makeshift barricade of two ropes strung between plastic chairs.
We drove through the village marketplace. A line of chicken sellers had stuffed their scrawny broilers a dozen to a cage. Beyond them were fish mongers with their baskets. Then, the lane narrowed further and became crowded with vegetable sellers. Ahead, a bilious green structure loomed four floors high, towering above everything else in the semi-urban sprawl. I assumed this was the hotel I’d been directed to. Not bad, I thought. Das isn’t doing half as badly as her neighbours.
As it turned out, the building wasn’t Das’s son’s hotel, but a “marriage hall.” The caretaker who opened the door pointed us instead to the structure next door. The “hotel,” I realised, was just a dhaba, open onto the road on three sides, with a fireplace and a handful of tables. There was a signboard in Bengali nailed overhead, bearing Das’s son’s name. Above the roof of the dhaba were naked beams, supporting a half-finished roof.
A plump, fair young man, who appeared to be in his twenties, greeted us. Cautiously, I asked for Manju Das. He replied that his mother had taken his pregnant wife to the hospital, and would be returning soon. He offered us tea and asked how I knew his mother. I had never met her, I replied. A crowd had gathered by this time, drawn by the unusual spectacle of a car stopping here.
After some time, the young man relaxed enough to tell me a little about his hotel. His family had run out of money a year ago, he said, pointing towards the exposed beams. They could not finish the first floor of the building. If he could turn back the clock, he would not have wasted money constructing the beams. Since his mother no longer worked abroad, there was no hope of ever finishing the building. “She doesn’t want to go back?” I asked. “No,” he said emphatically.
About an hour later, Manju Das arrived, accompanied by her daughter-in-law. A tall woman by Indian standards, she had a confident, straight-backed manner. As I got up to greet her and introduce myself, her first question was if I was a relative of Anil Kumar’s wife, Malvika. I shook my head. “You could be her sister,” she said. “You look like her.”
I had come prepared with a Bengali translator, but Das spoke fluent Hindi. I told her about the film I had made, and said that I was interested in stories such as hers. “But how did you hear of me?” Das asked. “How did you find me here?” Then the only probable answer suggested itself to her: “Has Anil Kumar sent you?”
I didn’t know him, I said, but had heard about her during the Rajaratnam trial and had tracked her down. It was immediately clear that she had no idea what I was talking about. Disconcerted by the gathered crowd, Das got up and guided me through a doorway at the back of the dhaba, which led to her bedroom. It was a large, dank room, where she kept the curtains closed. We sat down on her bed.
“Now tell me,” she said. “What trial?”
She had never heard of Raj Rajaratnam, and refused to believe her name had appeared in a New York court or in the American press. “Show me,” she said, finally. “Show me my name and I’ll believe you.”
There were a few PDFs of stories related to the case on my laptop. The electricity supply in the village was erratic, and had already come and gone a few times, but I had enough backup power to turn on the machine. I showed Das a report I had saved, headlined: “Raj made me use my sick child’s housekeeper to hide the money he made me take.”
Das was riveted by the photograph that accompanied the story. “That’s Anil Kumar,” she said, pointing. “What does it say?” Then, she added, “Main aapke jaise padhi-likhi nahin hun”—I am not literate like you.
Didn’t she know her employer was in trouble, I asked. Das said she knew there was some “lafda”—trouble—at his workplace. “The police came to the house and he had to go with them. But they didn’t tell me anything. And a few weeks later they sent me back.”
She asked me what Kumar had done. “Your employer made money in ways he shouldn’t have,” I said.
“Did he steal?”
“He gave information about companies he worked for to his friend Rajaratnam,” I said. “And his friend made money from that information in ways that are illegal.”
Das looked lost. “What does that have to do with me?” she said.
“Kumar didn’t want McKinsey to know that he’d made that money,” I said. “He didn’t want to pay taxes on it, so he put it in your name.”
Das stiffened. She denied this hotly. “Every single rupee I have, I worked for,” she said. “And what I have is gone, finished. I put my last rupee into building this. When he sent me back, he said, ‘Go home and build your house, Manju. Start a business. I will send you two years’ salary as severance’”—kaam chhodne ke liye. “So I came back and started building. I thought we’ll sell food downstairs and run a hotel upstairs, that’s how we will live and eat. But he never sent me the money.”
Das didn’t complain to me of her working conditions under the Kumars. She said they were good to her, and mentioned particularly that they let her eat as much as she wanted. Her sole point of resentment was the unpaid severance—Rs 8.5 lakh by her calculations. “I called him again and again,” she said. “They never picked up the phone. Each time it went to their machine, it cost me 50 rupees. Finally, I stopped calling.”
She did reach Kumar on the phone, she said, when he visited Delhi. Once, “his mother was very sick,” Das said. “I managed to reach him there. I asked for the money he had promised me. He said, ‘I have given you everything I owe you. I have no more money to give you.’”
Das told me she threatened to complain to the US embassy. Some time after she spoke to Kumar, a man arrived in the village to talk to her. He took pictures of the unfinished building and offered her Rs 2 lakh. “Why will I take two lakhs?’” Das had replied. “He promised me two years’ salary. I am not a beggar. He must pay me all that he owes or nothing at all. I did not take the money.”
LIKE THE LIVES OF MILLIONS OF DOMESTIC WORKERS in India, Manju Das’s life was largely defined by a search for employment.
From her home in rural West Bengal, she migrated to Kolkata in the early 1990s, and worked in several houses each day, sweeping, mopping and washing clothes and dishes. By the mid 1990s, she was a full-time, live-in domestic worker, earning Rs 700 a month. For most of the year she was away from her son, whom she sent to live and study in a Ramakrishna Mission centre in Barrackpore, to the north of the city. When the family she worked for moved to Mumbai, and then to Delhi, Das moved with them, and her salary rose to Rs 1,500 a month. She travelled home once a year, in the summer, to visit her son. Once, she said, when she overstayed her visit because of an illness, she returned to Delhi to find that the family had replaced her. Her search for work resumed, and led her to the Kumars in 1998. She recounted that an acquaintance told her of a wealthy family that was moving to the United States and was looking for a “good woman” to go with them.
“They tried me for six months in Delhi and were very happy,” Das told me. “They liked my work. Then they got me a visa and took me with them to stay.” Das’s salary went from Rs 2,000 a month in Delhi to Rs 8,000 in the United States—then around $185—a veritable windfall in her eyes.
For ten years, Das lived with the Kumars in the city of Saratoga, California, in their mansion situated atop a hill. “I worked all the time,” Das told me. “I cleaned the house, I cooked Indian food. I washed their clothes. I washed their clothes by hand, otherwise their fine fabrics would have run. I washed their three cars as well.” She was also a caregiver to Kumar’s son, who had a disability.
The work was hard, Das said, but she was not unhappy. She was initially terrified of leaving India, having heard stories of women who went abroad and were never heard from again. But she felt the Kumars were good people, who took care of her. They even brought her home every summer so she could meet her son.
Some years into her employment, thanks to a friend of the Kumar family, Das realised that she was being overworked and underpaid. She remembered this friend as “a very nice lady who often chatted with me,” and who told her, “Manju, you have been working for them for so many years, they should get you a green card so you can bring your son across.”
After this, Das confronted her employers about her salary. “When you were in India you had a separate cook, a separate cleaner and a driver who washed your cars,” she recounted telling them. “I was just the aya, taking care of your son. Here, I do it all. I should get four-five salaries.” She asked them to help her get a green card. She told me that she said: “That will make my son’s future. If he can come here, do something, then my work will have a purpose.” Though the Kumars didn’t help her get a green card, Das said, they agreed to raise her wages by Rs 25,000 annually.
Das was brought into the country on an immigration provision extended to US citizens residing abroad, who were returning home temporarily and wanted to bring in a domestic employee. As per the law, Kumar was required to draw up an employment contract that specified her wages, the frequency of her pay, her hours of work and provisions of termination, and that also allowed her sick leave. Her salary would have had to at least match the federal minimum wage. In addition, Kumar was legally obliged to provide Das with room and board, without deducting any money for these from her salary.
Das told me she never signed such a contract, and, further, that she had no idea about the labour laws governing her employment.
By Das’s account, she worked upwards of 80 hours per week. The federal minimum wage between 1997 and 2007 was $5.15 per hour. Calculated at this rate for 80 hours of work, Das should have been paid at least $412 per week—$1,648 per month. But what she said she was paid each month in June 1999—Rs 8,000—was only around $185 at the prevailing exchange rate.
In 2009, when she was sent back to India, the federal minimum wage was $7.25 per hour. By this rate, for similar hours, Das should have been receiving at least $2,320 each month. She told me that she was earning Rs 4.25 lakh a year when she left the country—around $700 a month at the prevailing exchange rate.
In December 2013, Preet Bharara was feted as a champion of the rights of domestic workers when he pressed charges of visa fraud and exploitation against Devyani Khobragade, a deputy consul general of India in New York. Khobragade was charged with falsifying documents and transgressing the labour laws of her host country by over-working her Indian nanny, Sangeeta Richard, and paying her less than the legal minimum wage.
The Khobragade affair led to a colossal diplomatic standoff between India and the United States, and showed how far Bharara was willing to go in the pursuit of justice. His office’s only motivation, he said on that occasion, “is to uphold the rule of law, protect victims, and to hold accountable anyone who breaks the law … no matter how powerful, rich or connected they are.”
But Kumar’s transgressions appear far more serious than Khobragade’s, since they involve not only violations of US labour laws, as described by Das’s conditions of work, but blatant identity theft, money laundering and tax evasion. In his case, however, Bharara’s office not only looked the other way, it rewarded Kumar with a plea deal.
Last month, I tried to contact Preet Bharara’s office to ask why his prosecutorial conduct had been so different in the cases of Khobragade and Kumar. Why did his office not move to protect Manju Das as it did Sangeeta Richard in 2013? Why was the evidence it had accumulated against Kumar simply used to induce him to cooperate? After an initial phone call, a press official asked me to email my questions to the office. I had received no response by the time this story went to press.
THOUGH A NUMBER of Anil Kumar’s financial transgressions came to light over the course of Raj Rajaratnam’s trial, many details remain hazy. The information we have was primarily presented to the court by defence lawyers attempting to discredit Kumar as a witness. Though he was questioned about much of it, the jury heard two versions of many things: one from Kumar himself and one from Rajaratnam’s lawyers. Since Kumar was not on trial, the jury did not have to decide on his guilt or innocence.
But even from what did emerge, it’s clear that prosecutors passed over unambiguous evidence of fraud, forgery, money laundering and tax evasion as part of the plea bargain they entered into with Kumar. One particularly revealing email trail dates back to 2008, when Kumar sought to shift Galleon holdings under Das to another entity, Ambit, registered in the Marshall Islands, a global offshore tax haven. His reasons for doing this remained disputed throughout the trial. He maintained that it was Rajaratnam’s idea, designed to dodge SEC scrutiny; the defence claimed the move was entirely planned by Kumar, to help him avoid taxes.
Whatever the case, when Kumar attempted to carry out this transfer, he ran into an unexpected problem. Morgan Stanley Fund Services, the company handling the transaction for Galleon, demanded two proofs of address for Manju Das before they could effect it. These needed to show that Das had been at a particular address for a period of ten years. They would accept as proofs a notarised copy of her passport, utility bills in her name, or her bank statements. (When he was cross-examined, Kumar described Morgan Stanley’s requirements as unreasonable, saying that Manju Das would not have the necessary papers even if she lived in India, “because poorer people in India don’t have those documents.”)
At the time of the attempted transfer, Das was residing with Kumar and his family in California. But Kumar wanted to conceal this fact, and manufactured evidence that she was living in Delhi instead. Rajaratnam’s lawyers claimed that he did this in order to avoid paying taxes on his Galleon investments.
To create fake proof that Das lived in Delhi, Kumar shot an email to an assistant of his in the city. “Dear Mr. Mahindroo,” he wrote, “do you know of a notary who will easily and conveniently sign letters/copies/affidavits?” Kumar presumably reasoned that Morgan Stanley would be satisfied with a simple letter, signed by a public notary, in which Manju Das stated that she was a resident of Delhi. Kumar’s assistant responded by describing notaries as “businessmen and just shopkeepers. They have to charge and sign.” A false affidavit was thus manufactured in Das’s name, affirming that she lived at Kumar’s in-laws’ address in Delhi, and had done so for ten years.
For another fake proof of address, Kumar obtained a certificate from his in-laws’ doctor, Alok Mathur, attesting that Das resided at their address and had been under his care for the last ten years.
These documents did not satisfy Morgan Stanley, which continued to insist that Kumar meet their specific requirements before carrying out a transfer for Manju Das from Galleon to Ambit.
Eventually, Kumar managed to conjure up a bank account in Das’s name with HSBC in Bengaluru, which showed her home address as being in Delhi. But an inconvenient detail had crept into the letter: Kumar needed proof of an account that had existed for ten years, but the letter stated that Das’s account had been opened on 20 October 2008, the actual date it was set up. Kumar shot an email to a bank employee. “I spoke with Jayshree about a small change,” he wrote. “Please resend a new letter with the words ‘from 20 October’ deleted. Need this asap, please. Thanks.” The bank obliged, and the revised letter allowed the Galleon transfer to go through.
Documents produced by the defence also showed that Kumar lied about Manju Das’s place of residence to the Internal Revenue Service, the US government’s tax agency. Instead of revealing that she was employed by him in the United States, he submitted on her behalf a form intended for “non-resident aliens who do not work and/or make an income in the US.” On this, too, Kumar showed her mailing address to be in Delhi.
During his cross-examination, the defence challenged Kumar about the notarised affidavit. “It was a false affidavit, wasn’t it, sir?” Kumar was asked. He responded, “Yes, she falsely stated that was her address in India.”
When I met Das in the summer of 2011, I asked her if Kumar ever made her sign any forms. “When they took me to America, they taught me how to write my name,” she said. “They said everyone must know how to sign, it’s important. I signed many forms. When they told me to sign, I signed.”
I showed her the affidavit where a public notary “verified” that her residence was in Vasant Vihar, a rich south-Delhi neighbourhood. “Did you sign this?” I asked. She shrugged; she didn’t know what it was.
I also showed Das a copy of a typed letter to Galleon in which she authorises the company to accept instructions from Anil Kumar for her account. “Memsahib, I told you I cannot read or write,” she said. “I don’t know what this is.”
“When they asked you to sign something, didn’t you ask what you were signing?”
“I asked,” she replied. “He said I was signing that I had received my salary. Twice a year they sent my salary to Kolkata, to my account there. He said he was making me sign that I had received it.”
VISITING DAS OVER THE LAST FOUR YEARS, I’ve witnessed how unstable her life is. When I first met her, in 2011, she was working at the dhaba with her son. The restaurant served a few tables each day. “Sometimes four or five people come to eat,” Das told me back then. “Sometimes 12 or 20. From what they pay we buy provisions for the next day and cook again.”
By early 2012, Das’s life was in tumult. Her grandchild turned out to be a baby girl with bow legs, and ten days after she was born the family was already anxious about finding her a husband. Das’s daughter-in-law hadn’t been able to breastfeed, so the newborn had to be bottle-fed. The cost of formula ate into the money the family had reserved to hire help at the dhaba, and they were forced to let their worker go. Das’s daughter-in-law had to take care of the baby, leaving her unable to help out either. So, the dhaba stopped serving lunch, and only opened for dinner. The family reduced the menu to a single item, chowmein, since it was easy to cook in bulk. Their regulars stopped coming.
Then, Das’s granddaughter contracted a life-threatening bout of dysentery. She was taken to the district hospital, where she was kept on a drip. The family’s savings went into the “life-saving bottles” that Das said were injected into her veins. “My fate is bad,” Das said. “Had my daughter-in-law produced her own milk, none of this would have happened.” She explained that they had to mix the baby’s formula with water drawn from their tube well, and that she believed the infant had picked up the infection from that water.
The dhaba was shuttered in 2012. Das is reluctant to rent out the space because she is afraid they may be saddled with a tenant who refuses to leave.
When I visited Das in January last year, her son had found a temporary job verifying the addresses of subscribers for a mobile carrier. It was arduous work, requiring him to travel between ten and 12 hours across the district each day. His monthly salary was Rs 5,000, but he had to cover his own travel expenses. Each address he managed to verify brought him a four-rupee commission, though sometimes it required him to visit a far-flung home three times. During my visit, Das received news that her son had been arrested for ticketless travel on a train. He spent a night in a lock-up until his cousin could bail him out. Das was beside herself with worry and embarrassment. She took pains to assure me that her son wasn’t a habitual criminal. “He is a good boy,” she said. “He never breaks the law. He did this because he had no choice. A monthly pass would have cost him Rs 250.”
By this time, Das herself was working at her nephew’s dhaba in the village, in return for food for her family. She chopped vegetables and helped cook, then delivered lunches to customers who lived nearby. She mentioned that she found it hard to squat or stand for extended periods of time because of a longstanding hip injury. When I asked about it, Das recounted the story of this injury matter-of-factly.
One day in 2003, she said, Kumar was preparing to drop his son off to school, as he did every morning. Before they left, Das usually heated up a muffin for the boy in a microwave oven. On that day, she recalled, he complained that the muffin was too cold, and Das offered to re-heat it. “As I turned to climb the stairs, I fell,” she said. She pointed to her hip. “I was in terrible pain. For six days, they gave me pain medicine, Tylenol. After six days, I said this medicine is not working. So they took me to a doctor friend they had. They paid for an X-ray. There was a two-inch gap in my joint.”
“After one week,” Das continued, “they sent me to India. From California, I went to London. It was a very long flight. I was in a wheelchair. I was on painkillers, but I was in so much pain, I couldn’t sit. From London to Kolkata, it was better, a shorter flight.”
When she landed, she said, “Someone came to pick me up in Kolkata airport and took me straight to Bellevue Hospital. They paid Rs 1.5 lakh for the operation and my food and stay. A metal piece was fitted inside.” She stayed in her village for some time, “and when I was fine I went back to them.”
Das was grateful that the Kumars paid for her surgery. “Why didn’t they take care of you in California?” I asked. “I had no health insurance,” she said, simply. “And who would have taken care of me in California? Here I had my sister.”
In Kolkata, the surgery was likely performed for a fraction of what it would have cost in the United States. I wondered how much the delay in Das’s initial treatment was responsible for her pain and disability today. If Das lived in the United States, any malpractice lawyer’s eyes would light up on hearing her story.
Last year, I discussed Das’s case with Dana Sussman, a New York attorney who, in 2013, represented the domestic worker Sangeeta Richard in her legal suit against Devyani Khobragade. She told me that Das could press civil charges against her ex-employer, even without being physically present in the United States, under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Were she to do so, Sussman said, her reparations could be considerable, given that US courts are known to be extremely generous in awarding back pay and damages. What Das might get if she pressed charges regarding the theft of her identity, Sussman could not say, since that was not her area of expertise.
On one of my early visits, witnessing Das’s mounting poverty, I offered to try and find her a lawyer who would work pro bono on her behalf. Das refused. “My father taught me an important lesson,” she said. “If someone wants to give you something, take it gladly. But if someone does not want to give you something, don’t run after it. It will only bring trouble.”
Today, Das says she doesn’t have her passport. When Kumar sent her back to India, she told me, he arranged for her to be met at the Delhi airport by an assistant, who took away her passport and all the other documentation she was carrying. I told her it was a criminal offence for anyone to hold on to her passport. She replied that she had no further need for it. “Where in my old age will I go looking for a job in America?” she said.
Kumar’s lawyers, in drawing up a “sentencing memorandum”—a document arguing for leniency for their client—painted a sorry picture of his supposedly deprived childhood, though he attended the elite Doon School in Dehradun. They pointed to his otherwise “exemplary life,” and said he had been busy performing “life transforming charitable work for countless people in need.” The 71-page document cautioned that incarceration would not only harm Kumar, but “hundreds, possibly thousands of innocent people” who were benefiting from unpaid work that he was doing on their behalf.
Today, Kumar is free to travel and conduct business internationally. His LinkedIn profile describes him as a “Thinker. Teacher. Doer.” It also boasts of his past as a senior partner with McKinsey, and of his role in founding the Indian School of Business. It states that he is currently the managing partner of “Mindspan LLC, a personal investment and advisory firm.” He is also on the research faculty at the University of Houston.
I made several attempts to reach Kumar. I called him on his Mindspan telephone number, and sent email queries to his personal, business and faculty email addresses, asking for an interview. He had not responded by the time this story went to press.
I called Das to tell her that the story I’d been writing about her was going to be published. “What good will it do to me?” she wanted to know. “Maybe your employer will read it and he’ll be ashamed and he’ll want to do the right thing by you,” I said.
“When he hasn’t been ashamed all these years,” she said, “why will he do the right thing now?” “Shame is a public thing,” I said. “People get away with what they can get away with. They’re only ashamed when others find out.”
In my many conversations with Das, I had failed to explain to her what insider trading was, how she ended up a millionaire on paper, and what her employer did in her name. Her sole source of aggrievement was the sum of Rs 8.5 lakh she believed Kumar owed her. Now, I heard her voice on the crackling line fill with hope. “Will he give me the two years’ pay he promised?” she asked. “If he does, that will be very good.” But, after a pause, she added, “If he does not, my life will continue.”
An earlier version of this story may have erred in its calculation of the precise minimum wage for which Manju Das was eligible under the terms of her employment in the United States. Her employer may also not have been obliged to provide her with medical insurance. The story has been amended. The Caravan regrets any potential error.
Nilita Vachani is a documentary film-maker, writer and educator who lives in New York.