Baby Halder- A journey from a domestic worker to an author
The new maid Professor Prabodh Kumar found through the milkman behaved oddly. All day the 29-year-old Bengali girl, a mother of three, worked hard and silently, sweeping, mopping, cooking; but her busy hands would still as she dusted the books, the dust cloth moving with unnecessary slowness through the pages of his Bengali tomes. Prabodh, a retired professor of anthropology and a grandson of Munshi Premchand, finally confronted her. “Do you read?” She looked as guilty as if he’d caught her hand in the biscuit tin.
Baby Haldar, it turned out, had been to school intermittently until she was married off at 12 to a man 14 years her senior. And when the kind professor offered her the use of his bookshelves, she hesitantly chose Taslima Nasreen’s Amar Meyebela (My Girlhood). “It was as if,” recalls Baby, “I was reading about my own life.” Other books left Prabodh’s shelf in rapid succession: novels by Ashapurna Devi, Mahashweta Devi, Buddhadeb Guha. That was when Prabodh one day took out a pen and copybook from his desk and gave to Baby. “Write,” he told her, an order that made Baby almost weep with frustration. What was there to write? Hers, she says, was a mindless life, moving where her father, an ex-serviceman and driver, took them, from Kashmir to Murshidabad to Durgapur, a motherless child unquestioningly enduring an abusive father and step-mother and a husband, until one day out of desperation she boarded a train for unknown Delhi with her three children. In the capital city, she soon did what thousands of women fleeing poverty and despair and drunken husbands are doing: took ill-paid work as a domestic, sometimes spending the near-freezing winter nights with her children on the streets.
Here then for the first time in her bleak life was an unlooked-for mentor urging her to write about her life. So she picked up the pen, with the same curious blend of grim determination and blind faith, covering the first few pages as painstakingly as if it was yet one more chore in her busy day. “It was nearly 20 years since I had ever written in a copybook, I had forgotten spellings. It was very embarrassing, especially when my children wanted to know why I was writing in a copybook instead of them.” But her first words worked their own magic: they unlocked her past. All her searing, suppressed memories of the mother who abandoned them, the night when the man she married climbed into her bed and raped her, the terror and pain of delivering her first child at 13, memories she had never confided to anyone, didn’t even realise she had, flowed out into the notebook. There was no stopping Baby now. She wrote in the kitchen, propping her notebook between the vegetables and dishes, she wrote in between sweeping and swabbing, after the dishes and before, and late at night after putting her children to bed. Her mentor was bemused: “I need so much preparation before I can get down to writing anything, my chair, my study, my writing materials, and here was this girl writing as easily as if she was chopping vegetables.”
Diary of Anne Frank.Prabodh was persuaded to translate it into Hindi. Aalo Aandhari (Light and Darkness) was ready. But finding a publisher for such an unusual narrative was tougher; the book was too strange for their tastes. But Sanjay Bharti, who owns a small publishing house, Roshani Publishers, agreed to risk it even if it lost him money.
Aalo Aandhari began selling from the first day of its launch. “Everyone from the sweeper to the retired headmistress next door wanted to buy a copy.” It sold so well that the second edition will be out in less than two months.
But for Baby, the best thing about her rebirth as an author is the regard of her new friends. “For the first time in my life, I feel confident that my story is worth telling, and in my own words.
Baby Halder’s story is extraordinary precisely because domestic workers’ realities are so invisible in middle and upper-class peoples’ everyday consciousness. Halder battled enormous odds, a single mother of three, at the age of 25. Her autobiography, written alongside her job as a domestic worker, is a bestseller and has been translated into twenty-one languages.
A Life Less Ordinary: A Memoir
When she was very young, Baby Halder was abandoned by her mother and left with a cruel, abusive father. She was married off at twelve to a man twice her age who beat her. At fourteen, she was a mother herself. Her early life was marked by overwhelming challenges and heartbreak until, exhausted and desperate, she fled with her three children to Delhi, to work as a maid in some of the city’s wealthiest homes. Expected to serve her employers’ every demand, she faced a staggering workload that often left her no time to care for her own children. But she never complained, for such is the lot of the poor in modern-day India.
Written without a trace of self-pity, A Life Less Ordinary is a shocking look deep inside a world of poverty and subjugation that few outsiders know about—and an inspiring true story of one remarkable woman’s strength, courage, and determination to soar above her circumstances.