It’s 11pm and Baby Halder’s day is just winding down. Dressed in a blue-and-white salwar kameez, the 39-year-old domestic helper finishes washing a pile of dishes, then mops the floor and turns off the kitchen lights before retiring to her small one-room flat on the terrace of her employer’s palatial, well-appointed house in Gurgaon, on the outskirts of India’s capital, Delhi.
But she is not yet ready for bed. Even though it’s late and she has to start work at 6am, Baby fishes out a notebook from the desk and begins to write. “It’s become a habit now,” she smiles. “I’ve got to write at least a few pages before I go to sleep. It’s fulfilling at the end of the day.” Baby has a lot of reasons to smile. Although she dropped out of school at the age of 12, the mother of three is already a popular author. Her first two books Aalo Aandhari (meaning Darkness and Light in Bengali) and Eshast Roopantar (Self-portrait) were literary successes in Bengali; her third book Ghare Ferar Path (The Way Home) was published by Dey’s Publishing, a Bengali publishing house, in December 2014 to rave reviews from the critics.
Aalo Aandhari, a thinly veiled autobiography published in 2002, was a success in Bengali. But it was its English translation, A Life Less Ordinary, published two years later, that made Baby a literary phenomenon after it sold more than a million copies. The book was translated into 24 languages including French, German and Korean and heralded Baby’s arrival on the literary scene.
It detailed her life as a child bride, at 12 marrying a man 14 years her senior and becoming a mother at 13. She went on to have two more children but then fled her abusive husband, finally ending up as a maid in a rich man’s house.
The book attracted rave reviews from across the world and she was invited to several book festivals.
The New York Times compared it to Pulitzer Prize-winner Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, saying “[Baby’s] book provides a moving depiction of life for millions of impoverished Indian women, and of aspects of Indian society not usually the focus of novelists’ attention. It’s a simple description of a grim existence that has no need of embellishment with literary tricks.”
Baby recalls a woman she met in the city telling her this was precisely her story too, which made her very happy. “There are so many other women in India who have left home like me. There is no support for them; life is not easy, and they are not able to speak out. I feel that I have spoken on their behalf too.” Baby, who only completed grade 7 before she was married off by her father, smiles shyly when she recalls the praise she received. “It’s nice to know that the book was read by so many people,” she says, recalling how she met Bollywood stars such as actress Nandita Das during one of her book launches. She has invested the earnings from the royalties – around Rs2.5 million (about Dh148,000) over the years – into a house that she has built in her village in Kolkata. She has also put her children through school. The eldest Subodh, 26, works as a chef, while Taposh, 20, and Tia, 17, are in college. Tia wants to become a fashion designer and Baby is planning to enrol her into a design school with her literary earnings.
She is hoping they will be boosted by the English version of Eshast Roopantar, which was published in Hindi in 2010, and is expected to hit the stands later this year.
Baby, who has attended several major literature festivals in Frankfurt, London, and Jaipur, and dined and discussed literature with world-renowned authors including Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, admits that all three books of hers are autobiographical in parts.
“I had a very tough life. I really struggled until I arrived here,” she says, referring to the home of Prabodh Kumar, a retired professor of anthropology and the grandson of famous Indian novelist Prem Chand. “He was kind enough to give me a job as a maid. And my life could not be any better.”
So, why does Baby – who has been featured in The New York Times, The Guardian and BBC, earned decent royalties, and travelled abroad for book fairs, literary festivals and book launches – still toil as a maid in Prabodh’s mansion?
“I’m very superstitious,” says the author. “I have this great fear that if I stop working as a maid, I won’t be able to write at all. These are very frightening thoughts.
“Moreover my simple life suits me. There are no complications. My needs are few. I’m happy and comfortable. And if I change my lifestyle, where will I get the raw material for my books, which are essentially about marginalised people and therefore appeal so much to the common man? I’m averse to taking risks.”
Born in Kashmir, Baby was barely two when her family migrated to Durgapur, a city about 150km from Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, in search of better prospects. Her family struggled to have even one square meal a day. Baby’s father, Narendranath Halder, now 80, earned a pittance as a truck driver. “He would get drunk and regularly beat my mother and me for no reason.”
Fed up with the abuse, her mother Ganga Rani walked out of their house when Baby was only four. “Although I loved to study and read and write, I had to drop out of school because my father could not afford to pay for books and my uniform,” she says.
When she turned 12, Narendranath married her off to an alcoholic twice her age. “And I became pregnant with my first child at 13,” she says.
Seven years after Subodh was born, she had another boy Taposh, then two years later, a daughter Tia.
“My husband would return home inebriated and beat me severely even for minor issues,” she says.
Unable to take it any longer, she did what her mother had done years earlier – she walked out of the house, abandoning her husband of 12 years. But there was one difference – she took her children along. “I was 24 when I jumped into a train from Kolkata and arrived in New Delhi in search of a new life in 1999,” she says. She found a maid’s job but changed employers frequently as she was overworked and underpaid.
Finally, 14 years ago, she landed in Prabodh’s home. “He was so kind and took me in with the children. He gave me a job and then allowed me to dream of becoming a writer.”
Leaning back in his armchair, Prabodh recalls how he spotted Baby’s inherent talent in the first week she began work.
“One morning I saw her near the bookshelf in my drawing room looking through the books, stopping to read a few pages in one then flipping through another while dusting the shelves,” he says.
Baby, who saw her boss staring at her, thought she would be rebuked for shirking her job and quickly promised not to waste time. “But I told her to relax and said she was welcome to read all the books during her free time.” He also gave her a pen and a notebook, and encouraged her to put down her thoughts on paper.
Baby could not believe it. “That was the first time after over 25 years that I was holding a notebook,” she says. “I love reading but I could never pursue it because there weren’t any books at home, nor did I have the time.” But now here, in Prabodh’s house, she was surrounded by books.
“I enjoy reading Bengali books and there were plenty here,” she says. After reading a bit, particularly books by Taslima Nasreen, Baby decided to follow Prabodh’s advice and write.
Once she was done with the day’s chores and had put her children to bed, Baby would sit down to put down in words what she knew best – memories of growing up and her marriage. Night after night she would head to her little room on the terrace and pour everything out into her notebook, with no hope of seeing it in print. “I wrote because it made me feel lighter,” she says.
Several weeks later, when she had written around 100 pages, she shyly showed her work to Prabodh.
“Barely a few pages into the book I was overwhelmed by what I was reading,” he says. “I was reminded of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl. It was an outpouring of pain and helplessness but expressed with great dignity and with very little rancour towards those who ill-treated her. She didn’t seem to bear any ill will towards her mother, Ganga Rani, who abandoned her [and subsequently died alone], or even towards her brother-in-law who was responsible for the death of her sister Sushila. Initially, I edited her writing a bit but she was in control faster than any beginner by my reckoning and was soon writing near-perfect prose in Bengali.”
Beginning her story with how her mother abandoned the family – she set off to the local market and failed to return – Baby writes about her father introducing her to one stepmother after another, and being forced to drop out of school, “although I loved to study and read and write”. She also wrote with raw emotion about how the family, which included her elder sister Sushila, often had to go to sleep on an empty stomach because they were too poor to buy food.
The innocence of a young girl comes to the fore in her book when she writes about how she was thrilled when her father informed her, at age 12, that she is going to get married. “At least I will have a good feast,” she tells a friend. And barely a year after her wedding, Baby is taken to a doctor after a bout of severe nausea, only to learn that she is pregnant. “I still remember the doctor admonishing me for becoming pregnant at such a young age, but I did not even know what was happening to me,” she writes.
More shocking incidents are narrated – how her husband, incensed at seeing her speaking to a stranger, attacks her with a rock, cracking open her skull; of having two more children; of having to force her eldest son to become a domestic servant at the age of 12 so he would have one square meal…
“When I was writing down my memories and thoughts, I felt as though I was talking to a friend,” says Baby. “It was as though a huge boulder had slipped off my shoulder. It made me feel lighter and free.”
Prabodh says he had only a few suggestions to make regarding the draft. “I told her to move some of the sections around to make it more chronological,” he says. He also helped her by correcting the grammar and a few spelling errors.
An overjoyed Baby did not expect it to be published – “I was a nobody in the world of literature.”
Prabodh, however, shared the draft with a few friends in his literary circle and the response he received was encouraging. Hoping it would have a larger audience, he translated it into Hindi and decided to approach a small Kolkata-based publishing house, Roshani Publishers, which published the book in 2002.
An instant bestseller in Hindi, two more editions came out in quick succession and two years later, the original was published in Bengali exactly how she had written it before it was translated into English.
Baby credits Prabodh with all that she has achieved. “He blew out all the carbon dioxide from my life and infused it with oxygen,” she says.
She is also full of praise for Urvashi Butalia, India’s leading feminist publisher, who translated her first book into English and printed it. Butalia is now translating Halder’s second book, Eshast Roopantar, which captures the euphoria immediately after the release of A Life Less Ordinary.
For all her fame and trips abroad, Baby doesn’t wear trendy clothes, shoes, watches, handbags or visit beauty salons. She doesn’t possess gold jewellery worth talking about. The entire income from her writings has been invested in a small house in Halishahor, an hour-long train ride from Kolkata, where she hopes to live one day. So what are the real rewards?
Baby is taken aback by the question. But she thinks hard and says with a big smile, which highlights her dimples, “Earlier my children were ashamed to introduce me to their friends. But now they proudly say, ‘My mother is a writer’.
“I can see respect in the eyes of those people who know that I’m an author. It’s a wonderful feeling because of my personal background of destitution and abuse at the hands of my own father and husband, not to speak of employers who were no better than slave drivers.
“I have addressed domestic workers’ unions and associations. There is a great sense of achievement when they hang on to every word that another maid – who still works as hard as they do – is saying. I’m overwhelmed by their response.”
Critics, too, are impressed with her work.
“Halder has evolved both as a person and as an author since I first met her almost 10 years ago,” says Butalia. “Her writing style has changed as she has gained confidence from recognition in the country and abroad. She has become more contemplative and descriptive.”
Halder’s latest book is about her journey back to Durgapur after tasting literary and financial success. She revisits her home and the old haunts that she frequented as a child and later as a child bride. She meets relatives and friends who have watched her on national television and have read adulatory newspaper and magazine articles about her transformation from a domestic worker to a celebrity. “I found that nothing had changed – and yet everything had changed”, Baby says. “I noticed multistoried buildings and malls and internet cafés, which had mushroomed since my departure.”
Of her eldest, Subodh, she says, “I spared no efforts to educate him but he is a school dropout; he simply wasn’t interested in studies.” He is a cook in a restaurant in Durgapur where he lives with his father – identified as Shankar in A Life Less Ordinary.
Taposh and Tia live with Baby; he is into martial arts and conducts tae kwon do classes, while she is eyeing fashion designing as a career.
Four years ago, when she learnt that her estranged husband sustained head injuries in a road accident, Baby rushed to Durgapur and paid the hospital bills of the man whose physical abuse had forced her and their children to leave home.
“I do not want to dwell too much on that,” she says. “But he had tears in his eyes when he saw me helping him.” She also generously helps her father, who lives alone in Murshidabad.
He came to Gurgaon after reading her book and the dutiful daughter invited him to her home, where he broke down and begged her forgiveness for all the wrongs committed against his wife and daughters.
“I guess we all need to go on in life. There’s no point in carrying our burdens with us,” she says, getting ready for the next day’s work at her employer’s home.
Does she at any point want to move away from the life of a maid and spend more time writing?
Baby shudders at the question. “No,” she says, a faraway look in her large eyes. “I don’t think I would do that. I am really afraid that I won’t be able to write any books if I change the way I live.”