It was in a Fuddrucker’s, of all places, that my 17-year-old son decided he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a journalist. The catalyst was not a Smokehouse Cheeseburger or a Brownie Blast Sundae but Stella Unni, a tiny, frail Indian woman who told us her story, extraordinary and tragic, one Sunday over lunch.
She was born Stella Lobo in Mumbai in 1962, she said, her voice barely audible over the din produced by a band of sugar-amped Little Leaguers at the next table. The eldest of five children, Unni had worked cleaning houses with her mother from the time she was 5, a consequence of her alcoholic father’s inability to provide for his family. She became a nanny when she was 12, and at 17 was hired by a woman named Pooja Shah* to be the nanny of the woman’s two young daughters, Tara and Sunita. The job meant living in Dubai and London and a standard of living Unni had never known. The Shah family also paid her handsomely—during her six-year stint, Unni was able to bankroll two of her sisters’ weddings and buy her parents a house—and gave her generous vacation time.
It was in Dubai that she met a fellow Indian, Prakash Unni, and the two were married in 1993 over the wishes of her mother, who objected to her Catholic daughter marrying a Hindu.
“My mother cut off contact,” Stella Unni told me. “She no longer wanted to see me or talk to me.” One day, in hopes that the sight of her newborn grandson, Kamesh, might bring about a rapprochement, Unni showed up unannounced at her mother’s house, babe in arms. The woman took one look at the pair and slammed the door so hard it hit Kamesh in the head.
Though the incident had taken place decades earlier, in recounting it for my son and me, Unni frequently lost her composure and at one point wept. Each time she was comforted by Kamesh, now 20 years old and more than a foot taller than his mother, even as my son and I fidgeted and looked at the floor. It was some minutes before Unni composed herself, just in time to tell us a more troubling story from her recent past, and the one I planned to tell.
Not long after the confrontation with her mother, Unni said, things went rapidly downhill. She lost her job with the Shahs, and then the Unni family slipped into poverty after her husband quit his job to care for his ailing father. She worked for a time as an orderly in a clinic in Mumbai, but was let go in 2000, and an already desperate situation became even more so.
Just when all seemed lost, Unni continued, the woman who ran the clinic told her that her daughter, a doctor in America named Aparna Kamat, was expecting her first child, and that she and her husband Ashish Kamat, also a doctor, would soon need a nanny.
“[My boss] came and she talked to my husband,” remembered Unni. Her salary, $400 a month, would be paid to her husband back home—a common Indian practice—and handsome by Indian standards. Furthermore, she would only need to be away from her family for six months. “At first [Prakash] told me not to go, but I said to him, ‘You are work-free and I am also not working. We both can’t sit at home, you know.’ And I made him understand. It took a long time to make him understand, you know?”
In 2001, Aparna Kamat gave birth to a son, and Unni traveled halfway around the world to become the family’s live-in nanny, first in Morgantown, West Virginia, and then in their large home in West University Place when the Kamats moved into it in 2003. Unni would stay with the Kamats not six months but seven years, during which time she lived, as she put it, like a prisoner in the Kamat home, against her will. Ashish Kamat confiscated her passport, she said, and demanded that she work upwards of 16 hours a day, seven days a week.
My son and I listened with horror as Unni described years of daily cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, and heavy yard work. She cleaned the gutters, she watched other people’s children when the Kamats wanted to go out with friends, and at night she slept not in a bed but in a sleeping bag on the floor. As if that weren’t bad enough, she said, the Kamats frequently abused her verbally or worse—on one occasion, angry over a stained shirt, Ashish Kamat snatched her reading glasses from her face, snapped them in half, and tossed them in the trash, berating her all the while. The Kamats were frequently terrifying, she said, as well as terrifyingly deceptive whenever she expressed a desire to see her own family again. Sometimes they promised her plane tickets home; sometimes they promised to help bring her family to Houston; again and again, the Kamats delayed, said the timing was wrong, the flights were all booked, that she would first have to train a replacement.
Had Unni decided to walk away, she said, there would have been, first, the problem of money, as all her payments went straight to her husband in India. And there was another barrier as well: over the course of those seven long years, the family told her that the application to extend her tourist visa was pending, and that she should therefore keep a low profile. Police might arrest her on immigration charges if they saw her walking around West U alone, or even if she sat on the front porch. And if that happened, they warned, Unni would never be able to free her husband and son Kamesh from poverty in India and bring them to America, her greatest desire in life. Thus was Stella Unni trapped in the Kamats’ home until 2008.
“It just amazes me,” my son said later as we were getting in the car. “So many millions of people out there with stories that nobody ever tells.” He was outraged that people could treat others so monstrously. I could only agree. Alone in my study typing up my notes of the day’s interview, I found myself reduced to tears. Hard labor from the age of five? A mother slamming the door in the face of her own daughter and grandson? It was all too much.
The couple that brought Unni to the US—Ashish Kamat, a renowned urologic oncologist at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, and Aparna Kamat, the director of gynecologic oncology at Houston Methodist—moved to the Houston area in 2002 and the next year bought a stately, 4,000-square-foot, pink brick Georgian home on Tangley St. in West University, valued at $1.1 million. The couple lived there with their two children, having had a girl in 2003, through 2011. To me, it seemed unthinkable that such a family could inflict such horrors.
Maria Trujillo is not familiar with the Kamat case, but it doesn’t surprise her. The executive director of Houston Rescue and Restore, an organization dedicated to fighting human trafficking, Trujillo told me that worldwide, labor trafficking is far more prevalent than the more widely publicized sex trafficking. More to the point, her office has been involved in more than a few domestic servitude cases, she said, in places like River Oaks, The Woodlands, and Sugar Land.
“These were all multimillion-dollar homes,” she told me. “It’s not about money for these people, and that’s what’s so horrible about these cases. It’s more about power and control.” Trujillo recalled a case in which trafficked Mexican migrants were forced to go door-to-door selling pirated DVDs, and one in Louisiana in which Indian construction workers were brought to America in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, promised good wages and green cards, and then tricked into lives in prison-like conditions with meager pay and no green cards. (Their plight eventually became what was, as of 2011, the largest class-action human-trafficking suit in American history.)
Such arrangements are all too common in India, I discovered, both for citizens on the subcontinent and their compatriots working in places like Dubai and Kuwait. Shady recruiters send impoverished Indians and workers from Southeast Asia to wealthy Indians and Arabs, and they are forced to work long years for next to nothing. And as in the Katrina example, sometimes these practices are imported into America. Such appears to be the case with Devyani Khobragade, a US-based Indian diplomat whose arrest in December for encouraging her nanny to falsify visa documents has provoked a crisis in relations between the two countries. (By the way, if the allegations are true, Khobragade paid her nanny $573 a month, significantly more than the Kamats paid Unni.)
Stories like Unni’s, including the Mondragon cantina case in 2005, in which more than 120 Central American women were rescued from sex slavery at the hands of a northwest Houston bar owner, have long resonated with Hank and Jeannie Tate. And once the west Houston couple’s children were grown and out of the house, they began devoting themselves to helping trafficking victims.
In 2008, the Tates founded Samaritan’s Touch, a Christian ministry offering support and practical advice to such victims. “Rescue is not the end of the pain,” reads the organization’s website. “Wounded physically and emotionally, separated from family and culture, alone, lost, filled with shame, unloved, feeling unlovable. The pain goes on.” So moved were they by Stella Unni’s eventual dramatic escape from the Kamats’ home, the Tates invited her to move in with them. Unni did so, living under the Tates’ roof for 14 months.
In late december of 2007, Stella Unni found herself in the unlikely position of accompanying a Kamat family relative to a festival, whereupon, in an extraordinary coincidence, she ran into the sister-in-law of Pooja Shah, the woman for whom she had nannied in Dubai and London a lifetime ago. It took much wrangling with the Kamats, Unni told me, but eventually the family allowed her to visit the Shah home. There, Pooja Shah and her now-grown daughters Tara and Sunita heard Unni’s story—the seven years of overwork, abusive conditions, minimal contact with her husband and son, and abysmally low pay. Tara Shah contacted the FBI, and on January 31, 2008, agents from the Bureau, as well as Immigration and Customs Enforcement, raided the Kamat home and freed Unni.
In 2010, Unni sued the Kamats in civil court for violations of the Fair Labor Standards act, false imprisonment, and infliction of emotional distress. The three-week trial, in the 215th district court downtown, began in November. The Kamats’ lead attorney—their friend and neighbor, the legendary Rusty Hardin, vindicator of Victoria Osteen, the heirs of J. Howard Marshall, and Roger Clemens—portrayed Unni as a serial fabricator and vengeful traitor. Knowing her passport was about to expire, and desperate to grant her son a new life here in Houston, Hardin claimed, Unni had been hell-bent on forcing the Kamats, “two incredibly decent good human beings who have been put through hell,” in Hardin’s words, to get her a green card and bring her loved ones to America.
Hardin maintained that while Unni might have been underpaid by American standards, the money her husband received made for quite a comfortable existence in India. Meanwhile, in the Kamats’ home, Unni was always treated like a member of the family. When and if she slept on the floor, for instance, as Unni told the court she had, it was her decision, and any claims of abuse were utter fabrications.
“She wanted to stay past the time our laws would allow her,” Hardin argued. “And she decided at some time ... instead of climbing a fence, instead of doing all kinds of things that are dangerous to her life to try to stay, she would do it at the expense of the love and the reputation of two people who had treated her like nothing but family for seven years.”
Sunita Shah would testify on Unni’s behalf at the trial. “I know Stella,” she told the court. “I mean, she helped raise me. I know who she is.” After three long weeks of occasionally angry testimony, the jury rejected Unni’s claim that the Kamats had intentionally inflicted emotional distress on her. But they agreed, by a 10-2 vote, that they had grossly underpaid their nanny, awarding Unni more than $225,000 in back wages and damages (the Kamats subsequently appealed the case and lost). By then, Unni had acquired a T visa as well, which granted US residency to both her and her immediate family members. (T visas are often awarded to survivors of human trafficking, although the Kamats were never charged, much less convicted, of trafficking.) And so, in February of 2012, Prakash and Kamesh landed at Intercontinental Airport and the Unni family was together again at last.
Stella Unni had won both her back pay and her family. Justice had been done, or so it seemed.
Among the evidence submitted by the Kamats at trial was a family photo album. Stella Unni appeared in dozens of the pictures, her smile beaming in many of them. There she was in New Orleans in front of St. Louis Cathedral (with the Kamat kids and other children at her side), here she was grinning beneath a silly birthday hat, there she was in front of what looked like the Galleria’s giant Christmas tree.
Photographs can be deceiving, of course: if your boss tells you to say cheese, you do it. And yet it seemed odd to me that the Kamat family had gone to the trouble of taking their nanny’s picture so often. She looked like a doting aunt, or perhaps even the mother of those children. I thought back to the lunch my son and I had had with Unni. Why would Unni’s husband have allowed her to live in such desperate circumstances for years? And if life with the Kamats had been so consistently awful, so utterly at odds with the pictures I had seen, why did Unni wait for years to go to the authorities? It seemed odd, too, that whenever I wanted to talk to Unni, I had to go through the family that took her in, the Tates, who refused to tell me where she lived or give me a direct phone number.
I wondered if the Shahs had a theory about this, and in April I reached out to Tara Shah, discovering to my surprise that she was unaware that the Kamats had lost their appeal. And then came an even bigger surprise.
“When you told me Unni had won [the] appeal, I felt like I had been punched in the gut,” Shah told me by phone. At first I thought I’d misheard her. Wasn’t she the woman who had come to Unni’s rescue six years ago? Shah acknowledged that she had, and now said she felt “terrible” about testifying against the Kamat family.
I immediately arranged a meeting with Sunita and Tara Shah, learning that Stella Unni had lived in the Shah family home for two years following the trial, before she had moved in with the Tates. During that time, the sisters said, little by little, they became convinced that Unni had hatched not a heroic escape but a deceitful plot. Tara Shah overheard, she told me, a phone conversation between Unni and her husband in which the former nanny boasted of all the money coming their way. “‘I did a really good job on the stand,’” Unni gloated, according to Shah. “It’s been really good that we put the time on me getting my story straight.” Tara Shah’s reading of this remark was that Unni’s husband had coached his wife on her testimony, and that she was congratulating herself for having resisted the attempts of the Kamats’ attorney, Rusty Hardin, to get the truth out of her. According to Tara Shah, Unni told her husband that her one slip-up had come not during the trial but more recently, when Pooja Shah had given her a pair of reading glasses. Unni revealed that upon receiving the glasses, Unni had exclaimed, “‘thank you so much, I’ve never had a pair of glasses before,’” forgetting that her recounting of Ashish Kamat smashing her reading glasses had been one of the trial’s high points.
Toward the end of Unni’s stay with them, Pooja Shah’s elderly father moved from India to spend his last days with his daughter in her home. At that point, according to the Shah sisters, Unni was offered a full-time job caring for the ailing man, one she immediately accepted, only to cruelly abuse him when his relatives’ backs were turned. She would frequently tell him to “‘shut up and wait,’” they said, making him sit in soiled and urine-soaked diapers for hours. According to the elder Shah, during a subsequent confrontation between Unni and her grandfather, Unni warned him not to cross her, as no one in the family would ever take his side in a dispute between the two.
“We could see then that she put up a good front around us,” Tara Shah told me. At that point, in 2010, Unni was dismissed from the house, which is when the Tate family took her in. A month or so after that, the Shah sisters believe, Unni broke into their home and stole tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of their mother’s heirloom jewelry. A police report was filed, although Unni was neither arrested nor charged with the theft. “That was my deceased grandmother’s, and it was supposed to have been my wedding jewelry,” Sunita Shah said.
I reminded Sunita Shah of the certainty she’d previously expressed in court (“I know Stella”). She said that she was just as certain now that she knew Stella Unni, even if her knowledge these days is diametrically opposed to what she knew before. A request before the Texas Supreme Court to hear the case is pending, and if the court agrees to hear the Kamats’ case, Tara Shah said she planned to recant her testimony.
I put the Shah family’s account to the Tates, wondering about the 14-month period in which she’d lived with them. Hank Tate promised to relay to me Stella Unni’s own take on her life with the Shahs, although curiously both the Tates and the Unnis refused my request to question Stella Unni alone, one on one. Later, Tate reported that Unni had told him that the Shah household was not unlike the Kamats’. The Shahs had paid her less than minimum wage and, despite that, still expected Unni to carry Pooja Shah’s father around the house. What about her mistreatment of the old man? He had been abusive to her, Unni told Tate. What about the jewelry theft? One of the grandfather’s other caretakers might have done it, Unni told Tate. Furthermore, Tate chimed in, if Unni stole thousands of dollars’ worth of jewelry, why didn’t her financial situation improve dramatically? “She doesn’t even know what a pawn shop is,” he said.
The Shah sisters believe that the Tates are willfully naïve, with a savior complex, and that Unni is a woman whose character assassination of her former employers amounts to adding insult to injury. And I came to believe that the actions of every party in this story beggared belief. Why would the Shah sisters assume that the Kamats would win on appeal? Why weren’t the Tates skeptical of Unni’s claims that she had endured harsh treatment in the Shah household, especially since Unni was free to come and go? And most puzzling of all, why had Unni, according to Hank Tate, loaned Pooja Shah $8,000? The claim had seemed so outrageous I felt silly taking it back to the Shah sisters. To my astonishment, they confirmed it was true. How did Unni have $8,000 lying around? And why would Pooja Shah need a loan from her?
Somehow, a story about a very real and serious issue—labor trafficking—had morphed into a house of mirrors. All anyone wanted to talk about was Unni’s motive for taking action against the Kamats, and even there the theories were all over the map. According to a statement sent to me by the Kamat family, Unni’s actions were a ploy “to enable her to stay in the United States.” For Tara Shah, “it is all about her son, and a mother takes care of her son.”
And as for Unni herself, well, she told the court in no uncertain terms what her motivations were.
“Now, there have been some allegations made about your reasons for being here today,” attorney Lawrence Rushton had asked his client during the trial. “Why are you here today?”
“I am here because I want to do justice,” Unni replied. “So that’s why I am being here.”
“And in your opinion, what does that mean? What is justice?”
“Whatever they did to me is not right. So I just wanted my justice.”
The Kamats granted that the cash sums they gave Unni’s husband fell far below basic American minimum standards, and also that they never apprised Unni of the existence of the American Fair Labor Standards Act. They continue to maintain, however, that the total package—room and board and a work schedule that they describe as light—amounted to minimum wage and more.
Others might maintain that the Kamats outsourced their nanny, paying next to nothing to a third party halfway around the world for services performed inside a million-dollar home in West University Place. If the courts ultimately side with families like the Kamats, what’s to stop, say, a Silicon Valley tech company from hiring a brigade of Indian software engineers, housing them in dorms, feeding them in a cafeteria, and sending minuscule salaries to the workers’ families in India?
But that’s just speculation, which is what I’m reduced to with regard to much of this story. Whether Stella Unni is a victim or a perpetrator, a hero or a villain, or some combination of both, is no clearer now than it was when I first met Unni, months ago.
As for my son, he has learned that being a journalist doesn’t just mean shining bright lights into the darkness, it doesn’t just mean afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted. Being a journalist also means spending long hours and days in dogged, tireless pursuit of the truth, only to find, sometimes, that it never comes, and when it does, it may not be what you wanted to find.
So does he still want to follow in my footsteps?
“Yeah,” he told me. “But this shows me there are two sides to every story.”
And sometimes more.