By Jamuna Rangachari
When Baby Halder, a housekeeper with a retired Delhi-based professor, published the story of her life, a Life less ordinary, a new literary icon was born. Here’s a profile of this remarkable achiever
It is not just rags to riches, but anonymity to fame for Baby Halder. Entering a glittering phase of life with the remarkable success of her first book, A Life Less Ordinary, she globetrots, is the toast of literary events and seminars, and is avidly discussed in the media. Baby wrote her memoir in Bengali some years ago with the encouragement of her employer, Dr Prabodh Kumar, a retired professor and grandson of Premchand, the well-known Hindi and Urdu writer. The book, Aalo Aandhari was published in Hindi and Bengali, and became a bestseller in both languages. The English translation by Urvashi Butalia, A Life Less Ordinary, published by Zubaan, is also doing extremely well.
With all her success, the most striking thing about Baby Halder is her extraordinary ‘ordinary-ness’.
“Nothing has changed except for people’s perceptions,” she says. For her, writing, and specifically, the book, just happened. It was her thirst for reading, for exploring and the void left by her abruptly curtailed schooling that spurred her on to read, and then, write.
Just back from Paris from a literary festival, she is still a bit groggy when I meet her.
“The place is nice. People are very friendly, but I don’t really like the attire of the women there,” she observes. After a little thought, she adds, “Freedom should not mean loss of decorum, I feel.”
Now, these trips are a regular feature of her life. She has been on book tours to Hong Kong and Paris, and her book has been translated into French and other languages of the world.
“Now, people ask me what I think on varied subjects. This is quite a welcome change from before, when I was considered more of a piece of furniture,” she says with a smile.
The success of her book is still strangely unreal to her, but has not overwhelmed her. Her life now is just as she wants it and she wishes to change nothing, happy but not enamoured of the options before her.
She will continue to work for Dr Prabodh Kumar, her employer, a former professor of Anthropology in New Delhi, who she calls Tatush (‘father’ in Polish).
“When I came to Delhi, I was extremely disappointed when my first employer was not even marginally interested in my life, and refused to even guide me regarding my children’s education.
“But with Tatush, it was always different. He was interested in me and my aspirations, and really helped me bloom.”
As she has said about this period in her book, “Every morning, I read the papers. I do not know English, but I still looked at the English papers, sometimes just at the pictures, and I would ask Tatush to explain them to me. Then Tatush would say, ‘Try to read the words that are below the pictures’. I’d then read the letters, one by one, and Tatush would keep nodding or saying, ‘hmm, hmm’. After I finished reading the characters, Tatush would pronounce the whole word, and explain its meaning to me.”
Recounting how she put the children in school with his help, and even moved in there when her old home was demolished, she says, “Earlier, I used to call him Tatush more out of respect and as a formality. Gradually, he actually became my Tatush.”
She is quite a doting daughter, too. “You know, only I know exactly how to cook for him,” she says. “No one else knows how to cook such bland food.” When she travels, which is pretty often now, she ensures she cooks for at least two days and instructs her stand-in how to manage on the other days.
This does not mean that writing will take a backseat. She is now working on her next book, a more in-depth analysis of her relationships and life.
Writing has certainly made her more introspective, and a world citizen. She understands situations, people and society, in much greater depth.
“When people tell me India is a poor country, I have to disagree. How are there so many cars, if that was true? How are all the malls always crowded? Yes, there is disparity in our society, like in many others,” she says, and adds wistfully, “If we learn to respect each other and treat each other like human beings, like my Tatush has done with me, there is really no stopping us from being a great nation.”
Sensing perhaps that there are still some questions I have on what she feels about the decisions she has taken, she says, “I had to leave my husband to give my children a better life,” and adds, after a slight pause, “Theek kiya na?” (“I did the right thing, didn’t I?”)
The question is not rhetorical. She genuinely wishes to know what I think.
I recollect that the art of conversation is said to be the art of making the other person add their responses to the subject one is talking about. To Baby, this comes naturally. Connecting is not a cultivated art with her, but part of who she is. This is not really surprising. Her raw material is, after all, human nature – her own, as well as that of those around her.
Her memoirs chronicle her agonizingly short childhood, her bewilderment at being abandoned by her frustrated mother, her persistence at studies, the love-hate relationship with her father, friction with her stepmother, torture by her husband, her escape spurred on by the resolve to educate her children, her fascination with books that was only waiting to be revived, and the new lease of life she got as a writer.
Snatches of the book float in my mind while I relate them to the young lady in front of me.
“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! And yet her childhood fascinates Baby. Perhaps everyone is fascinated by the things they’ve been deprived of, the things they long for. Baby remembers her childhood, she savors every moment of it, she licks it just as a cow would her newborn calf, tasting every part.”
“My employer Prabodhji has lots of books, including many Bengali books. While dusting them, I always used to think if one day I could read them. Even as a child, I always wanted to go to school. Despite our poverty, my mother never stopped us from going to school and even after she left us, I continued going. I studied till class seven. So when Prabodhji once saw me a little lost while dusting the books, he asked me whether I would like to read a Bengali book, to which I said yes. He gave me Taslima Nasreen’s autobiography, and soon I realized her life is so similar to mine.”
Her writing style is unique, as it combines the first person and third person narrative, floating easily from one to another.
So too is her style in life. “My children are, of course, proud that I am a writer now, but I don’t want to change their school or any aspect of their lives. They are comfortable where they are, and I only wish to ensure that they complete their studies,” she says.
Switching without a trace of pedantry to a different plane, she muses, “People who are in worse circumstances than I was are struggling to keep their children in the same school. Wouldn’t they get disheartened if people abandon it the moment they are able to? ”
I realize then that both personal and societal concerns merge easily in her conversation, for they are complementary, not contradictory.
I had gone to meet a woman who has had a remarkable success in making the unseen visible, the unheard voice heard. However, Baby Halder is much more than that.
Be it in her unique faith (“Yes, God is there. He has given us our limbs, brains, everything that we have. But we cannot leave everything to him. We must work to do the best we can”), larger vision (“even if I have more money, I cannot eat more than what I eat now. I would like instead to help a hospital or a school”), courage (“we cannot take the easy way out, but must always try to leave a better world for our children”), lack of bitterness, rancour or self-pity, and most of all, her acceptance and understanding of human nature (“everyone, even my father, did wish to do the best they could in their circumstances”).
Embracing life, she has given her best to everything that came her way, be it housework, cooking, parenting, reading, and now writing, assimilating new dimensions but never abandoning anything.
Yes, hers is truly ‘a life less ordinary.’
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