Abandoned by her mother at 4, married off at 12 to an abusive husband, a mother herself at 13 — there is little in Baby Halder’s traumatic childhood to suggest that she would become an emerging star on India’s literary horizon.
A single parent at 25, struggling to feed her three children by working as a maid for a series of exploitative employers, Ms. Halder had no time to devote to reading or to contemplating the harsh reality of her existence until she started work in the home of a sympathetic retired academic, who caught her browsing through his books when she was meant to be dusting the shelves. He discovered a latent interest in literature, gave her a notebook and pen, and encouraged her to start writing. “A Life Less Ordinary,” this season’s publishing sensation in India, is the result of her nighttime writing sessions, squeezed in after her housework duties were finished, when she poured raw memories of her early life into the lined exercise books.
Prabodh Kumar, the retired anthropology professor who discovered her, was impressed with what he read and encouraged her to continue. After several months, he sat down with her and helped edit her text into book form. Written in Bengali and translated into several other Indian languages and English this year, Ms. Halder’s autobiography has become a best seller.
In a sense, this is an Indian “Angela’s Ashes”: Ms. Halder echoes Frank McCourt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning account of his miserable boyhood in Ireland with her story of a bleak upbringing in northeastern India in the 1970’s. Ms. Halder’s style will never win her literary prizes; even with Mr. Kumar’s editing, the narrative is rough, and the horde of characters who flit in and out can be confusing. Nevertheless, her 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.
Ms. Halder recounts her life story in plain language, without a trace of self-pity. She starts out with a snapshot of how her mother — exhausted by her husband’s extended absences and his failure to provide for the family — goes out to the market and never returns. She relates, unsentimentally, how her father beat her for telling a school friend that there was no food in the house, how he introduced one “new mother” after another into their household, how intermittent spells of schooling were cut short by money shortages and domestic chaos, and how her elder sister was abruptly married off because their father could no longer afford to keep her.
Ms. Halder was too young to understand the significance of the preparations for her own marriage, preferring to play with her friends in the street instead. After meeting her future husband, twice her age, the 12-year-old Baby tells a friend: “It will be a good thing to be married. At least I will get to have a feast.” Even in the hours before her wedding, she writes, “I’d sing and jump about and play.”
A realization of the horror of her new married life comes suddenly. Soon she is pregnant and, barely understanding what has happened, finds herself being rebuked by the doctor for “choosing” at so young an age to have a child. Two more children follow; then her husband splits her head open with a rock after he sees her speaking with another man, and her elder sister is beaten and strangled by her own husband.
Ms. Halder decides to walk out on her marriage. She flees on a train to Delhi, where, like many other desperate women, she seeks work cleaning the homes of the capital’s rising middle class. There she escapes destitution by sending her eldest son out as an under-age domestic servant and by working for abusive employers. Her bosses treat her harshly, forcing her to lock her children in the attic all day while she works.
She writes of one employer: “As soon as she sat down, I’d offer her tea, water, sherbet, whatever she wanted. Then I had to massage her head or her feet or whatever: the work was never ending.”
Ms. Halder never articulates her rage directly and rarely blames her father or her husband for the cruelty she experienced, but the facts stand powerfully for themselves. This is a simple description of a grim existence that has no need of embellishment with literary tricks.
During an interview at Mr. Kumar’s house in Gurgaon, just outside Delhi, where she still works as a housekeeper, she seemed initially more at ease with her role as maid than as writer, refusing to sit down until everyone was given water and offered tea.
Ms. Halder, now 32, said she wrote up in the servants’ quarters, once her tasks were finished and the children asleep.
“When I wrote, I felt like I was talking to someone, and after writing I would feel lighter, as if I had taken some sort of revenge against my father, who never took care of me as a father should, and against my husband,” she said. “I never thought that other people might be interested in reading my story.”
Mr. Kumar, however, said he was immediately struck by what she had written. “I was amazed; I knew it was very special,” he said. He photocopied the work and sent it to friends in the publishing world.
Ms. Halder added: “They liked it and said it reminded them of Anne Frank’s writing — she was a girl who wrote a diary and died young. I was encouraged to write down everything, my whole life. I had no plan to start a book; I was just writing.”
Hailed by Delhi’s literary elite as a groundbreaking work, “A Life Less Ordinary” has also found readers among women who have shared Ms. Halder’s difficulties.
“This is not a book that can be read and tossed aside. It raises questions about the fate of the millions of domestic workers in our country and their ill treatment,” a review in the newspaper The Hindu concluded. “Truly this is a story of courage under fire.”
It also illustrates how Indian society treats women who leave their husbands, stigmatizing them and pushing them to the margins of existence.
“It is the most difficult thing for a woman to do,” Ms. Halder said. “People in the villages say dirty things about you, but I wanted to give my children a better life, so I had no choice.”
“One woman told me that this was precisely her story too, which made me very happy,” she added. “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. If I can give them some confidence, then I will be satisfied.”
Mr. Kumar explained that he helped Ms. Halder reorder the text so it became a chronological account of her life, removing repetition and fixing grammar. He said that at first her spelling and handwriting were poor, but that she swiftly improved and gradually gained greater sophistication as a writer. Her later manuscripts show tidy handwritten Bengali, crushed into the lined pages of the notepad as if she were concerned not to waste paper.
Despite her book’s success, Ms. Halder says she has no plans to change careers. She is writing her second book, continuing the narrative of her life, in between domestic chores.
“I want to be a writer and I will continue to write,” she said. But for now, she said, she cannot abandon Mr. Kumar, “so I will go on working here.”
And then she left, to prepare lunch for her boss.
By Amelia Gentleman in New York Times
On August 2, 2006