An unusual self-portrait

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Truly, this is a story of courage under fire.

A Life Less Ordinary; Baby Halder, Translated by Urvashi Butalia, Zubaan/Penguin, Rs. 195.

THIS is a tale of the lives of millions of Indian women. No matter how many success stories of women's emancipation we may parade, the truth remains that more numbers remain tied to a patriarchal set-up with no voice or rights. Baby Halder is a domestic worker but she has written her autobiography, which has been translated as A Life Less Ordinary by Urvashi Butalia. From her childhood, Baby has known poverty, hardship and violence and the vicious cycle continues into her adolescence and adult life. As a child she has to face the reality of her mother's disappearance and her father's remarriage. Then comes marriage at the age of 12, her schooling cut short, and Baby finds her self a mother at 14. She has three children before she decides to leave her abusive husband and escape to the city to find work. Landing in New Delhi where her brother lives, she finds herself a job working as a domestic servant. But all this comes with a price. Baby loses touch with her elder son. She worries about her children, to whom she cannot give any time or attention. Finally unable to bear the plight of her children who were "locked up on the roof of the house and would die to see me just the same way as all the time I was dying to see them ... ", Baby quits her job and goes looking for another.She lands a job at the house of "Sahib" — the foreword tells you that this is Prabodh Kumar, professor of anthropology and grandson of Premchand. Dusting the library, Baby finds herself "dipping" into books in Bengali. Noticing her interest, her employer encourages her to read. When her home is demolished, he shelters her and her children. And most important of all, he encourages her to write. The first book she picks is Taslima Nasrin's Amar Meyebala. By now Sahib has become Tatush, a guide and mentor to Baby in her life as well as her literary efforts.So what, many would ask. This is what happens to many women, except that the majority don't find the proverbial fairy tale end. True enough, but the book forces us to ask: why does this happen? Baby Halder's narration is simple and direct, she does not gloss over harsh realities; nor does she wallow in self-pity. Her account of her early childhood, when her father would disappear and then reappear are searing as are her mother's attempts to run the house and bring up her children without either resorting to work or charity. Even sadder is her father's reappearance at the end when he turns up at Prabodh Kumar's house. Baby finds out that her mother is dead — has been dead for sometime and no one had bothered to tell her. A Life Less Ordinary ends with Baby's story being published in a magazine and her joy at showing it to her children. This is not a book that can be read and tossed aside. It raises questions about the fate of the millions of domestic workers in our country and their ill treatment. Nowhere in her book does Baby Halder rail at her fate or descend into morbidity. She reacts to all that happens to her by facing the worst and dealing with them with courage. Truly this is a story of courage under fire.



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