“Writing gave me the identity I never had. It is my life.”
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Born in the beautiful Kashmir valley, Baby Halder was abandoned by her birth mother at the age of four. She grew up at the mercy of her abusive father and her stepmother, who forced her to drop out of school in class 6.
“I remember the house being full of guests one day. I was taken away from my friends while I was playing with them, forced to wear a saree and made to sit in a mandap with an older man I had never seen before. I kept thinking it was a pooja until I was asked to accompany him home.”
She then realized that she was married off to the “older man”, her senior by 14 years. She was 12 years old then.
While her friends studied or played, Baby became a mother. Her fate wasn’t any different from what it was earlier. The abuse that started on the first night of her marriage continued for more than a decade.
Until she decided to end it.
In 1999, at age 25, Halder left her husband and escaped on a train to Delhi with her three children to start a new life.
She worked as a domestic help in several homes, where she was often humiliated for being a single parent and housemaid. But her life turned around when she started working at the home of writer and retired anthropology professor Prabodh Kumar in Gurugram. He is the grandson of noted Hindi literary stalwart Munshi Premchand.
For four years, Baby meticulously cleaned, swabbed and cooked in his home, never uttering a word. But she remembers how her arms would slow down when she approached the professor’s bookshelf. Sometimes, she would pick up a book when nobody was watching, feel the fine print inside and keep it back.
But the professor saw it all unfold.
From Amar Meyebela (My Girlhood) to many other books written by remarkable authors, he encouraged her to read, emphasising that it was never too late to do what she loved.
“Reading Amar Meyebela felt like I was reading my own story aloud,” she says.
When Professor Kumar was to take a trip to South India, he handed her a blank book and a pen and asked her to write.
She was perplexed by the strange request. What was she going to write about?
Her lost childhood, the horror of her first night, the labour pains she suffered at 13, the scars that marred her body from years of domestic abuse or the repressed memory of her sister being strangled by her (sister’s) husband.
She hadn’t written in a book for 20 years. But she did not let that stop her from relearning her lost skills. Despite difficulties in recalling spellings and constructing sentences, she began to write. The experience was liberating for her. When the professor returned, she had already written over 100 pages!
He was in tears after reading the finished manuscript of Halder’s first book and autobiography, Aalo Aandhari (Light and Darkness). When he shared it with literary enthusiasts, they compared it to The Diary of Anne Frank.
After several rejections, Roshani Publishers, a small publishing house in Kolkata, decided to publish it. Aalo Aandhari hit the shelves in 2002 and sold out from day one. From sweepers, domestic helpers to the retired headmistress who lived next door, Baby Halder’s story resonated with everyone.
The English translation by feminist Urvashi Butalia, published in 2006, became a bestseller. The New York Times harked it India’s Angela’s Ashes. Today, the book has been translated in 21 local and 13 foreign languages, including French, Japanese, Korean and German.
Halder wrote two more books after that. She concludes, “Writing gave me the identity I never had. It is my life.”
Once she was financially independent, she moved to Kolkata where she lives with her children, Subodh, Tapas and Piya.
Watch her story here.
Baby Halder’s story can be very well summed up in this famous proverb, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years, the second best time is now”, meaning it is never too late to begin in life or in investments.
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Never too late to begin
In Life. And Your Investments.
Reach For Better
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)
Disclaimer: An Investor Education and Awareness Initiative by Franklin Templeton Mutual Fund. Mutual Fund investments are subject to market risks, read all scheme related documents carefully.