A life less ordinary

REACHING OUT TO THE WORLD Baby Halder is a domestic help in a Gurgaon household and perhaps the first such woman to have a book against her name Photo: R.V. Moorthy

REACHING OUT TO THE WORLD Baby Halder is a domestic help in a Gurgaon household and perhaps the first such woman to have a book against her name Photo: R.V. Moorthy  

This is no literary work of genius but Baby Halder's book, originally penned in Bengali and now translated into English by Urvashi Butalia, is both a societal and literary fence-breaker, says SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY

I am really surprised the way people have reacted to my story. For me, it is so ordinary Baby Halder Her smile is certainly eye-catching. And those eyes! At the risk of being called a bit parochial, one would say they are typical Bengali eyes. Glowing and expressive. But that striking smile, those iridescent eyes can't be trusted fully. Because they are half way to her truth. They tell you that she is indeed at ease with life now. But what they hold back is her past. They don't tell you the full truth.Baby Halder, as she begins talking about her life as she has penned in her debut book, "Aalo Aandhari", a memoir now translated into English, words gradually begin to ice-over, almost to the extent of numbing your senses. All you could manage to think is, how violence, when it becomes an everyday situation can make people stop reacting the way many others do. Baby, a domestic help in a Gurgaon household, begins narrating shards of her life led in various parts of West Bengal, mainly Murshidabad, in almost the same flat tone as she is found throughout her book: "Where should I start? Should I begin with how when I was seven-years-old my mother suddenly left us by thrusting a coin each in our hands, or tell you about how my nephew told my Baba that he saw his father strangling his mother, my Didi, to death, or how my Baba used to suddenly vanish from our life and then resurface. Or should I tell you about my husband to whom I was married off when I was 12 and why I left him and came to Delhi with my three children?" Seeing her being so methodical about relating her sufferings to a stranger, and so gently, takes you more than an instant to absorb. "Many girls back home go through a similar life and yet nobody looks at it as anything different," she suddenly says, her raw honesty all-bursting.

The birth

Instead of choosing from the options that Baby has offered to talk, one begins by asking her about how the book was born."My employer Prabodh ji has lots of books, including many Bengali books. While dusting them, I always used to think if one day I could read them. Even as a child, I always wanted to go to school. Despite our poverty, my mother never stopped us from going to school and even after she left us, I continued going. I studied till class 7th. So when Prabodh ji once saw me a little lost while dusting the books he asked me whether I would like to read a Bengali book, to which I said yes. He gave me Taslima Nasreen's autobiography and soon I realised her life is so similar to me," she narrates. Not stopping at Nasreen, Baby soon picked books by Mahasweta Devi, Shanko Ghosh, Charat Chandra Bangopadhay, Rabindranath Tagore, Ashapurna Devi, Nasrul Islam and more such Bengali luminaries.That destiny dropped her at that household in Gurgaon one hot afternoon seven years back can't be denied completely as her employer is no other than Prabodh Kumar, the grandson of the great writer Premchand. Himself a writer and a retired professor, Kumar gave her a notebook and a pen one day to try writing whatever comes to her mind. "I became very confused. I told him, I don't know what to write and then he said, why don't you write about yourself. And so I began writing," Baby relates. And what happened thereafter is indeed history. From a faceless domestic help, Baby became a writer. From her sufferings she suddenly broke free to enter a new world of words. "After seeing what I wrote, Prabodh ji said, someone called Annie Frank had once written something like that. On hearing that, I felt quite good," she says. Prabodh Kumar translated her memoirs, "Aalo Aandhari" into Hindi and got it published by a Kolkata-based publisher in 2002. In 2004 came her Bengali original by the same publisher. A year after, a Malayalam translation appeared and this past week came its English translation "A Life Less Ordinary" by Urvashi Butalia of the imprint, Zubaan. It is a Penguin and Zubaan publication.Urvashi says, "She is not always flat in her tone in the book. She has her literary moments and from first person she at times goes to third person." Very soon, Urvashi informs, Baby's book shall be translated in French too. "We are also talking about translating it in Japanese," she adds. Also, Baby is writing yet another book, "on things that I don't like in our society," as she puts it.More than happy at the moment, Baby thinks the great purpose that her book has served is changing her father's attitude not just towards her alone but towards daughters in general. "He said nobody in our family has gone so far in life and that makes me feel very good. After reading the book Baba told me if time would have allowed him, he would like to go back to the days when we were kids and undo all the wrongs that he did towards us and my mother, I felt very good," she recounts. For a girl who doesn't even know her birthday, isn't it a great gift from a father?

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