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IN CONVERSATION

`Writing has to be classless'

MITA KAPUR

A freewheeling chat with Baby Halder, who broke the tradition of silence that shackles women's lives in India.

Photo: Mita Kapur

Story of the marginalised: Baby Halder.

WARM, livewire, steely, soft, fiery, calm, innocent, wise; random words buzzed around in the mind space. She evoked multiple reactions, all in a moment, leaving me trying to grasp thoughts in mid-air.

Baby Halder, hailed as a star for her life-story A Life Less Ordinary, broke the tradition of silence that shackles women's lives in India. She's worked out the trajectory between the bitterness of bearing the burden and the need to turn the tragic into a reservoir of learning.

Her story is the story of the marginalised. Being a woman is in itself a form of abuse. "Why can't people think of her first as a human being and then a woman? We have the same limbs, eyes and a mind and can live our lives just like everyone else. We should stop depending on men — that they will earn and we will cook and serve. If they step out to work, we also work at home." She still has the 10 paise coin Baby's mother left in her palm before walking away from her children.

Early life

Without rancour, Baby recalls how she lost her sister at the hands of her murderous brother-in-law. She grew into an adult before childhood was over. There were happy moments when she went to school sporadically, followed by a cruel stepmother, a nearly absent father, a loveless marriage, three children and a husband who thought he could beat her when he wished.

"My cousin sister gave me strength, She made me think. I wanted to see if I could live by myself and bring up my children on my own. Even when I lived with my husband, I was working in other people's houses. I could do the same staying alone with my children, why should I bear all the beatings, ashanti and violence?" Baby's brother and sister-in-law taunted her with the proverbial "everyone had fights at home, do they all run away?" but "I thought, I'd already lost my sister and my mother to this malaise, why should I suffer as well?"

The indignities borne by domestic workers in our society is a part of Baby's reality. "Don't give in to any kind of torture and discrimination. I've decided I will not cry anymore. I have to work more and write more. To reach within myself, I want to delve inside and throw all the weakness out."

Her first sentence seemed a squiggle, a formless pattern to her. "I held a pen after many years. My first sentence was about the time I was born in Kashmir. For the first three-four pages, I feared, `what will Tatush think?'" Tatush is an affectionate term for Prabodh Kumar, her employer. He encouraged her to write more. Prof. Kumar showed Baby's work to his friends, they all sent her appreciative and encouraging letters.

After the book

"I could never have dreamt that I will write a book. I loved studying as a child, was always hungry to read and write, ... " She lets the thoughts linger. She feels she's "done something. So many people want to meet me now and I'm being called by people like you for such festivals."

The writer and the worker are fused, there are no walls: "I look at my housework and writing as a whole. I began as a domestic worker. If I hadn't come to work for Tatush, mere likhne ka kaam kaise hota?"

Baby will not stop writing or working for Tatush. "This is not work. I don't get a salary, it's my pocket money." Her wealth is the caring, respect, dignity and love she receives as a daughter in that house. No wonder then, Baby rushed back to Delhi the day her session for the Jaipur Literary Fest was over. "Tatush is alone and not too well."

Dealing with success

As a natural aftermath of the explosion that her book made in the world of literature, `success' becomes a buzzword. Baby smiles, "It feels nice but I've seen people who let their success change their thinking. They lose their own identity and can't recognise themselves... My family looks at me with more respect now and that's what matters. I know I'll never be ill treated again, I'll face anything ... "

She has other concerns in her mind now. "I want to write about society and the country, what is good and what's bad, I need to analyse it." Baby recently wrote an article, condemning Saddam's execution as an inhuman act. She wishes to contribute in spirit and in strength to the women's empowerment movement in the country. "Why should a man give up his seat in a bus for a woman? This makes women weaker and gives men a self-delusory pride that they are better and stronger... we don't need that."

Baby wonders about those writers who've written lots of books but have not been read by many. "When you write you should write in a universal `language' that everyone understands and empathises with. Writing has to be classless."

Reasons for writing a book and reading a book are very different. "Publishers mark high prices on books. How are people like me expected to read them? If a book is priced at Rs. 50, it will sell more in volume and will earn the same amount of money, as when priced at Rs. 1000. It will reach out to more people."

Currently reading Sharat Chandra's novel, her dreams are to continue on her journey with her guide and mentor and to keep writing. For her children, "They must study to become something." Her elder son is training to be a chef, the younger son wishes to fly as a pilot and her daughter wants to be a doctor. "I hate to see little children working when they should be studying. They have to be granted freedom."

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