Read A Life Less Ordinary Online

Authors: Baby Halder

A Life Less Ordinary

A Life Less Ordinary

A Memoir

Baby Halder

Translated by Urvashi Butalia

Published by arrangement with Zubaan and Penguin Books, India

the meaning of “dedication.” But then it wasn't enough to merely understand the word; I also needed to know how you choose someone to dedicate something to and why you dedicate it to them. So I started to look at different books. Some were dedicated to friends and loved ones, some to sisters, others to fathers. I also found that there were writers who had written many books, and each one was dedicated to a different person. But I have only this one book—whom should I dedicate it to? I can perhaps dedicate it to someone I know, someone I respect. But if I choose one person, I may end up making another unhappy. There are so many people I could dedicate my book to, like my gurus, Ramesh Goswami, Ashok Prasoon Chatterji, Ashok Seksaria, Prabodh Kumar…but then I wonder, ought I to do that? If I do, they'll probably laugh at me, for more than being mine, this book is theirs. So then?

As these thoughts go round and round in my head, it strikes me that whatever I am writing now would not have been possible had it not been for my teachers, both the masters and the
, who taught me the Bengali language and Bengali literature at school. This is why I have chosen to dedicate this book to them.

her life has been almost constantly in the news since it was published in India, first in Hindi and then in a number of other languages. Baby—and that is her real name, although it probably began as a nickname (she does not remember being given a “proper” name)—is a young woman in her thirties, a mother of three. Abandoned as a young child by her mother, married off by an uncaring father to a man fourteen years her senior when she was barely thirteen, a mother by the time she became fourteen, trapped in a violent marriage, Baby's story is not unique. It is the story of thousands of women caught in similar situations across the world. What makes it different is Baby's strength and resolve; her determination not to stay in an abusive marriage, to make a new life for herself and her children; and, above all, her absolute commitment to the one thing she had always held close to her heart: the desire to read and write.

The story of how one woman escaped a life of hardship and poverty is what this book is about. But more than that, it is a book about reading, a book about books, a book about hope and
despair. It is not a literary book: the writer is someone who almost learns to write as she goes along, whose prose goes from being sometimes staccato, sometimes stilted, to being fluent, expressive, and elegant. There is much about this book that may be puzzling for the reader who is not familiar with the world Baby describes, a world in which violence seems to be an almost routine, everyday affair. The voice that recounts this violence does so, similarly, without melodrama, without self-pity, in a curiously flat tone. There is also a vast network of relatives, a web of relationships that are both supportive and oppressive, sometimes moving from one to the other almost seamlessly.

Baby's account of her life begins with her childhood. As the adult eye looks back, we see a period that is at times idyllic and at times hard, but in many ways simply too brief. Before she knows it, she is thrust into marriage and adulthood, the transition from one to the other being marked only by the exchange of a dress for a sari. As her father and other relatives negotiate her marriage, Baby serves them food and drink, little knowing that it is her future that is being discussed. And then, exhausted from all the running around, she finds a moment to rest, and think, and her childhood passes before her: “Poor Baby! What else could one say of her? Imagine a childhood so brief, so ephemeral, that you could sit down and the whole thing could unravel in front of you in barely half an hour…Baby remembers her childhood, she savors every moment of it, licks it just as a cow would her newborn calf, tasting every part.” The nostalgia for a childhood long gone disappears swiftly, however, as the narrative moves into an account of Baby's later life and leads the reader to the moment she makes the decision to leave. Finding her way to Delhi alone, frightened, two of her three children with her, Baby eventually manages to find a job, and the last part of her narrative takes the reader through the most exciting part of her life, when she begins
by being a domestic worker in a home, and turns into a writer with a unique voice.

Baby Halder works today as a domestic worker in a house in Gurgaon, near Delhi. Her employer, Dr. Prabodh Kumar Srivastava, is also her mentor, and it is with his help that she has turned into a writer. Prabodh Kumar himself comes from a literary family. His grandfather, Premchand, was one of India's best-known writers, and his novels and short stories formed part of the great social upheaval of the early twentieth century and the movement for independence in India. Baby arrived at Prabodh Kumar's house one day in search of a job and began work as a domestic helper. Prepared to be more or less invisible, Baby was surprised when her employer actually spoke to her, asked about her life, and treated her like a human being. As the days passed, Prabodh Kumar noticed that Baby paid extra attention to his bookshelves, dusting and cleaning the books with care, looking at them with longing. And that was his signal for encouraging her, first to read and then to write. The result was the book you have in front of you,
A Life Less Ordinary
(published in Hindi and Bengali as
Aalo Andhari, From Darkness to Light

Baby's book came to my notice when I read a short report about it in a local magazine, and then on the web. The report mentioned that Baby lived and worked in a house in Gurgaon, and that the Hindi publication of her book had been received with much acclaim. Gurgaon is a large, sprawling urban jungle. Locating a domestic worker called Baby Halder in a city that large, that rich, and that anonymous was a task that was more or less doomed to failure. Domestic workers inhabit the shadow world of the nearly invisible people without whose help middle-class urban India would not be able to survive. But try to track them down, and you know you are attempting something that is virtually impossible. Yet in Baby's case we had at least one clue
to go on, and that was the link with Premchand. For there were other members of Premchand's family who could be tracked down—the network of middle-class urban intelligentsia is a powerful one—and it was through them that I found my way to Baby, a young woman of enormous poise, wisdom, and compassion. Over time, Baby and I got to know each other, and her initial hesitation and concern about “the outsider” in her life gradually gave way to trust and the beginnings of a real friendship, and it is this that has formed the basis of my translation of Baby's story.

In a strange kind of twist, Baby's translator is also her publisher. At Zubaan, as publishers of books by and about women, our main concern has been to provide a platform where women's voices can be heard, where those who are on the margins can find the confidence to speak. But we know that it is rare, even for publishers like us who wear our politics on our sleeves, to be able to publish writers like Baby. Not only are they largely invisible, but many, indeed most, have not had the privilege of an education, and although they may feel strongly about issues, they often do not have the luxury of being able to give literary expression to them. For us, then, publishing Baby's book was enormously important: it is the kind of book that publishers like us dream about. It is a book from which we have learned a great deal, just as we have done from Baby, its protagonist and writer. And today,
A Life Less Ordinary
has become the international success that it deserves to be. For us, it also remains a book that we have been privileged and proud to publish, a book that has been inspirational in many small ways, a book that reminds us that there is so much that needs to be said and written about women's lives.

Begin Reading

and Kashmir with my father and mother, my brothers and my sister. Baba, my father, worked there. It was a beautiful place with tall, high mountains and many different kinds of flowers. From there Baba took us to Murshidabad. After we had been there awhile, Baba was transferred to Dalhousie and we went to live there. Dalhousie reminded me a lot of Jammu and Kashmir. Snow would fall from the sky, the snowflakes swirling around like a swarm of bees, and settle gently on the ground. And when it rained, it was impossible to leave the house, so we would just play inside, or we'd watch the rain falling from our windows. We loved Dalhousie and we stayed there for quite a long time. We'd go out walking every day. We were so happy, just looking at all the flowers on the hillsides. We played all sorts of games among the flowers, and sometimes a rainbow would arch across the mountains, filling my heart with joy.

We wept when Baba took us to Murshidabad again, where my elder uncle, our Jetha, lived. Baba rented a house for us, and sent us children to school. Then he left us and went off to his job again. Every month he would send money home to cover our household expenses. At first the money would arrive regularly, but then, gradually, there were gaps of several months. Ma found it very difficult to make do: how could she not? After a while, even his letters began to arrive only after long gaps. Ma wrote letter
upon letter to him, but there was never any response. Baba was so far away that Ma could not even go there. She was very worried, but despite all her difficulties, she did not let us stop studying.

Several years passed before Baba came home again. We were so happy to see him. But after a month or two, he was gone again. For a short while, he sent home money regularly, but then the same old pattern started again. Ma was so angry and frustrated that she often took it out on us. She asked our Jetha for help, but he was having a difficult enough time making ends meet for his own family. Meanwhile, Didi, my elder sister, was growing up, and that was another worry on Ma's head. Ma asked Baba's friends for help, but none of them was in a position to take on the burden of another family. Ma also thought of getting a job, but that would have meant going out of the house, which she had never done. And after all, what work could she do? Another of her worries was, what would people say? But worrying about what people will say does not help to fill an empty stomach, does it?

Then, one day, without any warning, Baba turned up. Ma burst into tears when she saw him. And all of us began to cry, too. My Jetha and others in the neighbourhood tried hard to explain to Baba that going off like this was not the right thing to do, but he did not seem to be convinced. He just left Ma and went off again. She was in a terrible state. I was a little better off than she because at least I had some friends, especially Tutul and Dolly, whom I could always talk to and who loved me a lot.

A short while after Baba left this time, he wrote us a letter to say that he'd soon be retiring and coming back home. We were overjoyed, but when Baba eventually came home, he did not seem at all happy to have retired. He would not speak to us or to Ma properly, and he'd lose his temper at the smallest things. We were a little frightened of him, and now we began to keep out of his way—whenever we saw him coming, we would creep away.

Didi was growing up, and Ma could not stop worrying about her. One day my younger uncle from Karimpur wrote to say that he had found a possible match for her. As soon as he read my uncle's letter, Baba quickly packed a few things, took my sister, and, without saying anything to anyone, left for Karimpur. Ma was really upset. She kept saying she couldn't live like this anymore. When, she asked God, would she have peace in her life? Suddenly it all became too much for her, and one day, with grief in her heart and my little brother in her arms, she just walked away from home.

At first we thought she'd just gone to the market as usual. But when she didn't return even after a couple of days, we realized that something was amiss, and all of us began to cry. Our Jetha, who lived nearby, tried to reassure us, saying that perhaps she had gone to visit her brother and would be back soon. Baba was in Karimpur when she left and four days later, when he came back, he asked us what she had said before leaving. We told him she had said she was going to the market. He then went to her brother's house in search of her, but she wasn't there. He searched every place where she could have possibly gone, but there was no trace of her. He was completely at a loss—he'd looked everywhere and was now really worried because there was nowhere else to look.

Finally, someone suggested that he should consult a faith healer and see if he could help. And so Baba set off in that direction. He kept doing this: someone would suggest one thing and he'd go off and do that, and someone else would suggest something else and he would turn around and do that. But he must have known—just as all the people in our neighborhood had perhaps guessed—why she had left. And everyone blamed him, saying she wouldn't have left if it had just been a question of a little bickering. These things upset us a lot, but there was not much we could do. Baba was also unhappy. These nagging worries had
changed him a lot. He was also very concerned about Didi. How could a grown girl be kept at home once the mother had gone? Didi wasn't even that old—just fifteen or so. But Baba wasn't willing to wait, and he just married her off so that no one would have anything left to say.

It was only after Didi went away that we realized how difficult things could be without a mother. When the moment had come for Didi to leave, she'd cried, saying that if Ma had not gone, we wouldn't have had to shoulder this burden. “You're sending me off,” she told Baba, “but now the responsibility of looking after these young children will be yours. They have no one else to call their own.” Didi left and our problems began in earnest. Baba never stayed at home. Sometimes he would give us money and tell us to get ourselves something to eat. But he would still say: “Whatever you do, don't forget to study.”

That was why, in the midst of all this hardship and trouble, we never stopped going to school. I had a good friend in school whose mother often called me home and gave me something to eat, and even asked me to stay with them. Our school headmaster was also very kind to me. He gave me notebooks and pencils, and after Ma left and our tuitions stopped, he got his daughter to give me free tuitions.

I loved school as much as I hated home. I never wanted to go home—there was no one there who appreciated my work in the same way as my teachers at school, so there was no incentive for me to go back. The days when there was no school stretched out forever, and I missed Ma and Didi terribly, so whenever I got the chance, I'd run off to play with my friends. I used to love playing games with them! We played
, and
and skipped to our hearts' content, and the hours would just melt away.

I never missed a day of school, and often people did not know
that I'd come to school without having eaten a thing. I was too scared of Baba to tell him there was no food. One day a friend of mine came to our house to fetch me so we could go to school together. I quickly got ready to go. My friend told me I should eat something before we left, and I blurted out that there was nothing in the house to eat. Baba heard this. I didn't know he was at home, or else I would not have said anything. That day, when I came home from school, he beat me so badly that it was three days before I could get up and many more before I felt able to go back to school again. My teachers and friends came to ask after me.

As soon as my brother was a little older, he decided he could not live with Baba, and so he went to stay with my aunt. Once he got there, he realized that she wasn't too well off, either, and was only just managing to scrape by herself. At home now there was only Baba, myself, and my younger brother. Our Jetha thought the best way to put our family back together again was to get Baba to remarry. When he first suggested this, Baba resisted, but very soon he came around to the idea.

My stepmother never listened to anything Baba said. She never fed us on time, she often beat us without reason, and she'd cook up tales about us and tell Baba and we'd get beaten by him as well. Baba was not willing to listen to anything we had to say, and there were times when he would refuse even to look at us. There was nothing we could do. When Jetha realized what was going on, he called Baba and explained to him that before he punished the children he should at least try to find out whether they were at fault. After being told this, Baba began to change. He began to realize that not everything our stepmother told him about us was true. But then, the moment he began to question her, things became much worse at home. Whenever things became unbearable, he would take her to her brother's home and leave her there. There her father and brother often tried to reason with her, but the mo
ment she came back to our home, everything was the same again. She would not feed us properly, nor treat us well. Things got so bad that sometimes we—and even Baba—were forced to try to cook our own meals. Since we were still so small, we would sometimes burn our fingers in the process. While all this was going on, Baba started something—a business perhaps—that took him away from home for two or three days at a stretch, but the moment he returned he'd have to listen to our tales of woe about not being properly fed or looked after.

Days and weeks and months went by like this, and then suddenly one day Baba announced that he had to go to Dhanbad for an interview for a driver's job. He told Jetha he was going and he came back a month later. He was only at home a few days before he was off again, leaving us in Jetha's care. And this time he was away for many months. He didn't send us any money, either, and we were in real difficulty. He turned up out of the blue one day and took us both and our stepmother to Dhanbad, where he'd been given a place to stay. My brother and I were sent back to school. He did not bother to buy us books and notebooks, but we managed somehow. I loved school and worked hard. Perhaps that is why I had so many well-wishers there. I don't quite know how Baba spent the money he earned, but I do know that he used to drink, and that this had become much worse after my real Ma left.

We'd been in Dhanbad only a few days when Baba got a job in a factory in Durgapur. So he left us with a friend who was like a sister to him and went off to Durgapur. Even though she wasn't a blood relation, she was really good to us, but when the money Baba had left with her for our expenses ran out, she became very worried. What would she do now? After a lot of thought she decided it would be best to send my brother and me to her father, and to send my new Ma to her brother. By the time she made this
decision, Kali Puja had come round. On Puja night, everyone wore new, colorful clothes to celebrate, and there was a general atmosphere of festivity. But not for us. My brother and I sat on our doorstep and watched all this, and we cried.

I was really angry with Baba. Because of him we had to listen to all sorts of things from people. They would say things like, “Even though you have parents, you might as well be orphans”; and “Your father works somewhere far away, and that's why you are in this state”; and “If you don't have a mother, you have no one!”

Baba came back a few days after Kali Puja. It was the middle of the night. We were all asleep, but when we heard his voice we woke up with a start. He called us to him and gave us the good news that Ma had returned, and it made us so happy. I asked him again and again where she was, and he said that if you both want to meet her you will have to come with me now. He then told our new Ma a lie. He said, “I am going to your father's house. Tomorrow morning, take the train and join me there. I don't want to delay things any further right now. There are also some people I owe money to.” He added, “If they see me they will demand to be paid and I don't have any money, so it's best to leave quietly.” He lied to her like this and took us with him and left. When we got to Durgapur we found that the woman Baba was calling our mother was another mother altogether. I said to my brother, “How much more do you think we will have to bear?” and he began to cry. Our third mother could not bear to see him cry, so she gathered him in her arms and began to soothe him. That made me think that perhaps we would get love from her, but the reality that unfolded was quite different.

Baba would not let our third mother out of the house: she wasn't even allowed to go to the tap to fetch water. If water was needed, we were sent out for it. And we were so frightened of Baba
that we did not dare say anything. The people in our neighborhood felt very sorry for us, but they, too, could not do anything. This mother's sister, that is, our aunt, was a very simple and loving woman. She cared for us a lot. Sometimes she would take us to her home, but Baba did not like that. She tried to tell her sister to treat us better, but our third ma said, “What can I do? I'm only following their father's wishes.” We used to think that she, too, did not like her sister taking us away to her home.

Baba had brought us to Durgapur, but he did not say a word about us starting school again. I had become so used to going to school that once all the household chores were done, I would go off anyway with other children from our neighborhood. But Baba was not happy about this. One day one of the girls from our neighborhood saw me standing at the edge of our road and crying. She told Baba. He came and asked me why I was crying, and through my sobs I told him that I was really missing Ma and asked why he had lied to us about her having come back. This ma was not our real ma…Baba's eye suddenly fell on the coin I was clutching in my hand, and he asked me what it was. I had to tell him then that it was the ten-paisa coin Ma had pressed into my palm the day she left and that every time I saw it I remembered Ma.

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