Read an exclusive excerpt from Saket Soni’s The Great Escape - Hindustan Times
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Read an exclusive excerpt from Saket Soni’s The Great Escape

BySaket Soni
Dec 08, 2023 06:41 PM IST

It’s an incredible tale of exploitation, escape, a march on Washington, and a trial that ends in a payout of millions. But it all began with immigrant dreams.

The night flight out of Chennai was raucous with men’s voices and laughter. They were America-bound. The visas stamped into their passports bore the name of their employer-to-be, Signal International. As the plane taxied for takeoff, they cheered. When the seat-belt light turned off, men jumped out of their seats and walked the length of the plane, greeting each other like old friends. In fact, they were strangers, but their common hopes bound them. Some rang a constant peal of bells for drinks, as if they were on their way to their daughters’ weddings. Flight attendants ferried shots up and down the aisles. It was a transatlantic flight fueled by elation.

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The night flight out of Chennai was raucous with men’s voices and laughter. They were America-bound. The visas stamped into their passports bore the name of their employer-to-be, Signal International. As the plane taxied for takeoff, they cheered. When the seat-belt light turned off, men jumped out of their seats and walked the length of the plane, greeting each other like old friends. In fact, they were strangers, but their common hopes bound them. Some rang a constant peal of bells for drinks, as if they were on their way to their daughters’ weddings. Flight attendants ferried shots up and down the aisles. It was a transatlantic flight fueled by elation.

Only one man seemed disconnected from the general exuberance. Aby Raju pressed his forehead to the window. His heart was still on the ground, with Bincy.

Their wedding had been transcendent. Even without gold on her, Bincy was a vision. As she walked down the aisle wrapped in six yards of cream silk, a thought needled Aby: She doesn’t know I’m going to America. When he stepped behind her to tie the wedding pendant around her neck, he wanted to whisper to her right there the reason he had to go. It was for them. All his life he’d had to choose between being with family and providing for them. That’s what it is to be a migrant worker: you leave the ones you love to help them live. In America, he wouldn’t have to choose. Bincy could join him. It was the one place in the world where an Indian worker could give his family what they needed and what they wanted. He hoped she would understand. His welder’s fingers fumbled with the golden chain and tied the knot.

Then came the weeks of post-wedding bliss. After that, Bincy’s bouts of nausea, and the astonishing news that she was pregnant. He couldn’t bring himself to tell her he had to leave. Finally his hand was forced. Sachin Dewan’s agent called. The visa was ready. Aby had to fly the next day.

In those twenty-four hours he learned who his wife was. Another woman might have cried, raged, stormed off to her parents’ house. Bincy sprang into action. She organized cash, bought a suitcase (bright red so he’d spot it at the airport), stuffed it with a new warm jacket, even packed him a Bible. The bookmark was a pocket-size notecard with his family’s phone numbers on it so he’d have them handy once he got to a phone. In the morning, when the whole family clambered into a three-car caravan, Bincy took a seat in a different car so Aby could ride with his favorite uncle. It was the uncle who stopped the car and insisted that the couple sit together. Bincy fell asleep on Aby’s shoulder. The scramble at the airport kept him from saying a real goodbye. Past the glass gates, he turned to catch sight of her one more time, but she was hidden behind his taller relatives.

The thrum of the plane’s engines bore into Aby’s chest. He would miss the birth of their child! But next year, the day would come when he’d stand waiting in an American airport, see the top of Bincy’s head rise into view on the escalator. And then, in her arms, their baby’s smiling face.

“Have a drink, brother?”

It was the man next to Aby. He didn’t wait for a response. “Someone get this man a drink!”

Laughter greeted the arrival of another tray of plastic glasses, golden and glowing. Aby peeled himself from the windowpane and joined the party in the sky.

Later, as they crossed over the North Atlantic, a hush fell and their joy turned to wonder. A border was being dissolved. A new world, usually out of reach for all but the wealthiest and most educated of Indians, was opening to them. They praised God, and Jesus, and Rama, and Ganesh, and Allah. They prayed for the wives and children they’d torn themselves away from, for the parents and grandparents and cousins and uncles who’d taken on terrifying debts to launch them on their American adventure. And they prayed for another man: the mysterious American lawyer who’d somehow made all this possible. No one knew where he’d come from or how he’d pulled the deal together, but he’d been there from the beginning, from the recruitment seminars to the coaching sessions for the interviews at the American consulates and embassy. Somehow, he’d engineered their great escape from the stations of their birth, built a golden bridge to an American employer who would change all of their lives.

High above the clouds, drunk on promise, the men’s hearts welled over for a man they barely knew. Aby’s voice joined a hundred others:

“God bless Malvern Burnett!”

(Excerpted with permission from The Great Escape: A True Story of Forced Labor and Immigrant Dreams in America by Saket Soni, published by Algonquin Books; 2023)

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