PUBLISHED in 2006, this book has already been widely, and deservedly, feted. It is an extraordinary achievement: the autobiography of a domestic help who studied up to only the seventh standard. Baby Halder started writing her life story at nights in school exercise books given by her benign Delhi employer, who noticed her love for books. Baby has produced a chronicle of subaltern life of almost electric energy, densely packed with the dramas of her own beleaguered existence.
Her book is worth reading for many reasons, not least because it is a searing account of the horrendous lives that many women are forced to live in India. Oppressed by poverty, Baby’s life is traumatised further by the brutal subordination of women that is the norm of her Bengali community. Though her exact caste status is never spelt out, it appears that although very poor, the community allows women to do only unpaid work within the home, and forces them to be utterly dependent on their husbands.
But these husbands are often irresponsible men – her father being one such. This drives Baby’s mother to despair, so that when Baby is still only a child her mother cracks under the strain. “Suddenly, it all became too much for her, and one day, with grief in her heart and my little brother in her arms, she just walked away from home.”
Baby’s account, quietly factual and stunningly free from self-pity, is a catalogue of the everyday cruelties faced by girls and women. Because her father wants to be rid of her, Baby is married off at the age of 12 to a worthless, impecunious man more than twice her age. Her husband either ignores her or ill-treats her. Not yet 14, when she is due to give birth to her first child, she is abandoned at the hospital. In terrible labour pains, she lies “crying and screaming. When the other patients began to complain Baby was moved to another room where she was put on a table and her arms and legs were tied”.
Early in the book the author develops the technique of distancing herself from the grotesque horrors she documents by reporting them in the third person. This literary device, which she seems to instinctively adopt, enables Baby to write about her sufferings in a cool, clear voice.
Something quite amazing happens during the course of this book. We see Baby’s literary skills evolving and growing before our very eyes. Its first few pages are pedestrian, but by page 28 Baby has already become self-conscious and reflective, using the distancing technique of referring to herself as “Baby” for the first time, while creating a poignantly memorable simile: “Poor Baby!... 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 savours every moment of it, she licks it just as a cow would her newborn calf, tasting every part.”
This simile works on many levels, also subtly reminding us that Baby herself now has no mother to “savour” her. Her self-centred father remarries and continues to neglect his children. Owing to his indifference, her Didi (elder sister) is ill-treated, then horribly abused at her in-laws’ home, and strangled to death by her husband. Baby’s father ends up doing nothing: no case is filed against Didi’s husband.
Writing against all odds. Baby Halder, a 2006 photograph.
Meanwhile, Baby’s sufferings owing to her own husband, continue. The abusive nature of marital relations in her neighbourhood is reflected in yet another tragedy: “A man called Panna had set fire to his wife and burnt her to death”. Here too, the murderous husband goes scot-free – but in this case because the wife, in her dying statement, refuses to blame him. Baby attends a puja to “pray for Panna’s little children” but her brute of a husband pulls her away from the event by her hair. Outraged, Baby’s women friends rush to her house to berate her husband, telling Baby they cannot understand why she stays with him. This gives Baby new courage: “I began to think I would have to do something about my life: things just could not go on like this.”
So Baby picks up the courage to challenge her caste’s norms and to go out to earn a living. She starts paid work as a domestic help and, after yet another thrashing from her husband, moves out with her children. Her supreme concern is their education and so, to improve her earnings, she sets out with them for the great unknown, boarding a train to Delhi. After various tribulations she eventually arrives at the house of Prabodh Kumar, a retired professor, as a domestic help. He gets her to read Taslima Nasreen’s My Girlhood Days in Bengali and later encourages her to try to write the story of her life. The rest is history.
The extraordinary energy that pulses through this book sweeps up the reader. The pace never flags. Baby is particularly skilled in writing dialogue that vividly conveys character. Originally written by Baby in Bengali, the book was first translated into Hindi. Using that Hindi translation, Urvashi Butalia, writer and publisher, has given us a superb translation in English. Anyone wanting to know about the lives of poor women in India should read this book. And anyone who has read this book will look forward with high expectations to Baby’s next book.
This young author, despite her very limited education and humble social status, has given remarkable literary voice to subaltern lives that are usually ignored. The events that her book records are miserable, bleak, brutal, often horrific. What a triumph, then, to have conveyed them to us through a literary sensibility that always remains balanced, clear-sighted, undaunted and unafraid. What a remarkable book – but even more, what an extraordinary woman! Because finally, beyond even this amazing book, it is its author, Baby Halder herself, who deserves to be cherished and acclaimed. Long may she and her writing prosper.
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