She was born in the beautiful valley of Kashmir. And even then, her life was anything but a bed of roses.
Baby Halder’s birth mother abandoned her at the tender age of four because she refused to put up with the domestic violence her drunkard husband would inflict.
And while she fled to be never seen again, she left a young Baby at the mercy of her abusive husband.
As a motherless child, Baby continued to suffer exploitation at the hands of her ex-serviceman and driver father and her stepmother, with whom she travelled from Kashmir to Murshidabad and finally to Durgapur in West Bengal, where she grew up.
Forced to quit school after grade 6, she was forcefully married off to a small-time decorator, who was 14 years older to her at the young age of 12.
Speaking to the Better India, she says, “As a kid I remember the house being full of guests and how I was taken away from my friends, forced to be decked up, made to sit in a mandap with an older man I had never seen before. I kept thinking it was all a grand party or a pooja until I was asked to accompany the man to his home.”
At an age where most girls her age studied and played all day, Baby was a mother at 13. She remembers how women around her would tell her to slow down when she would run to play unaware that her jumping and prancing with kids in the neighbourhood could harm her baby. She was only a child!
Her prayers to not face the same fate as her birth mother fell on deaf years. The abuse that started on the dreadful night of her marriage when her husband raped her, continued for 13 long years. Years of enduring domestic violence came to an end when Baby decided she had had enough.
In 1999, at the age of 25, Baby, then a mother of three kids, left her husband for good and escaped on a train to Delhi with her children to start a new life.
And if you have observed the lack of dignity with which most house-helps are treated in many homes across the country, you can imagine the humiliation she felt at numerous instances as a single parent and housemaid in New Delhi homes.
She bore the exploitation quietly, solely to support and educate her children, sons Subodh and Tapas and daughter, Piya. But like they say, there’s always light at the end of a dark tunnel.
Baby’s life was soon going to change because of one person she would continue to work for till 2015 as a househelp. This man was writer and retired anthropology professor Prabodh Kumar.
The old professor, also the grandson of noted Hindi literary stalwart Munshi Premchand, living in Gurgaon, would look on as Baby, then 29, would meticulously clean every corner of the home, sweep, swab and cook without uttering a word.
But every time she would look at his neatly stacked bookshelf, she would slow down, almost yearning to run her hands over the surface of the Bengali litterateurs’ works. Perhaps she would pick it out when nobody was looking, just to feel the fine print inside and keep it back. When the professor once asked her if she read, she recalls feeling embarrassed.
But the professor was perceptive enough to recognise the spark in her eyes, for reading. He was quick to offer her the books and soon enough what once started with a hesitant choice of Taslima Nasreen’s Amar Meyebela (My Girlhood) was followed by a host of novels by Ashapurna Devi, Mahashweta Devi, Buddhadeb Guha.
“Reading Amar Meyebela was as if I was reading my own story aloud,” she says. She continued to read and read until there was no going back.
It wasn’t long until Professor Kumar, before embarking on his trip to South India, handed her a blank copybook and a pen and told her to write.
Frustrated by the weird request, she almost cried. What was she going to write about?
The lost childhood she never had? The horror of the night when her innocence was ripped to shreds? The labour pain that ran up her spine at 13 while delivering her child? Or the scars that marred her body due to years of domestic abuse? Even the subdued memory of her sister strangled by her (sister’s) husband nagged at the back of her conscious.
What would she write about? The exploitation inflicted upon her that thousands of runaway women face as a domestic help, raising her children on the streets?
Well, the answer was yes. She wrote until all those repressed memories ran into pages into the notebook, filling it with ink, raw pain and unshed tears.
She thought of her birth mother whom she met in an unstable state years after all her kids were born. She thought of how one word from her sister’s mouth and a hand for help could have saved her from her tumultuous marriage. Perhaps she could be still alive. The floodgates of her past had finally opened, and she was drowning.
But it was more than 20 years since she had written in a book. She stumbled through spellings and sentence construction, but she never gave up. She was redeeming herself through writing!
It was soon a common sight in the Kumar household to see Baby perching her copybook on the kitchen counter, accommodating it between the chopped vegetables and cooked dishes and writing her memories down, as they came to her. She swept and swabbed, but she wrote her book through it.
This routine followed even before and after cleaning dishes and late at night after her kids were tucked safely into bed.
When the professor returned, she had already written over 100 pages! It was only when the retired professor read the manuscript, he knew this story deserved telling. Raw and heart-wrenching, her simplicity of writing had the power to pull the heartstrings of the reader. He cried as he read it and blessed her, encouraging her never to stop writing.
To avoid any bias, he quickly got in touch with some of his literature enthusiast friends Ashok Seksariya and Ramesh Goswami, who loved Baby’s work so much, they placed it on the pedestal of the Diary of Anne Frank.
And that’s how Baby’s first book, her autobiography, Aalo Aandhari (Light and Darkness) was translated by Professor Kumar, the father she never had and the guru she continues to revere, in Hindi.
Finding a publisher was not easy. After subtle rejections by many publishing houses that deemed the book unusual for their target audience, Sanjay Bharti, a small publishing house in Kolkata, Roshani Publishers, came to their aid.
Moved by her story, Bharti was all set to bear the risk of a loss. But Aalo Aandhari sold right from the first day it launched in 2002. People from all walks of life wanted to grab their copy. Baby’s writing had admirers from the sweepers to the retired headmistress next door. It immediately got extensive media attention as it threw light on the hard lives led by domestic servants in Asia, and within two years, it had published two more editions.
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.”
While the Bengali original, Aalo Aandhari (Light and Darkness) was published in 2002, a Malayalam version appeared in 2005. The English translation by feminist Urvashi Butalia, published in 2006, became a best-seller in India. The New York Times harked it India’s Angela’s Ashes.
Today the book has been translated into 21 local languages and 13 foreign languages, including French, Japanese, Korean and German.
Baby continued to write two more books and once she was financially independent moved to Kolkata where she continues to live with her children, Subodh, Tapas and Piya.
“Writing gave me the identity I never had. It is my life. How could I ever stop living my life?” she muses as she bids adieu.