“Nature creates ability, luck provides it with opportunity”

_Francois de la Rochefoucauld

The new maid Professor Prabodh Kumar found through the milkman behaved oddly. All day the Bengali lady, a mother of three, worked hard and silently, sweeping, mopping, cooking; but her busy hands would still as she dusted the books, the dust cloth moving with unnecessary slowness through the pages of his Bengali books. Prabodh, a retired professor of Anthropology and a grandson of Munshi Premchand, the well-known Hindi and Urdu writer finally confronted her. “Do you read?” She looked as guilty as if he’d caught her hand in the biscuit tin. Can you believe it, the same maid servant has written two best sellers? She has been on book tours to cities such as Paris, Frankfurt and Hong Kong; her books have been translated into 12 foreign languages — including French, German and Japanese. It is my privilege to share this incredible story with you.

Baby Halder was born and grew up largely in Murshidabad, in West Bengal. She had a motherless childhood and an abusive father. She was abandoned by her mother when she was 7. She had been to school intermittently. Her step-mother married her off at the tender age of 13 years to a man twice her age.  She was pregnant soon after. She had two more children, and then her husband attacked her with a stone for speaking to another man. With remarkable determination, she walked out and took a train to Delhi with her children, where she started work as a household cleaner. Her employers were largely abusive, one forcing her to lock her children in the attic, another demanding never-ending chores and massages.

Baby Halder

      Baby Halder with Prof Prabodh Kumar          

When the kind professor offered her the use of his bookshelves, she hesitantly chose Taslima Nasreen’s Amar Meyebela (My Girlhood). “It was as if,” recalls Baby, “I was reading about my own life.” Other books left Prabodh’s shelf in rapid succession: novels by Ashapurna Devi, Mahashweta Devi, Buddhadeb Guha. That was when Prabodh went out one day and bought her a pen and notebook. “Write,” he told her, an order that made Baby almost weep with frustration. “I was nervous when I held the pen in my fingers. I had not written anything since my school days. But when I started writing, words began to flow effortlessly. In fact, writing turned out to be a cathartic experience,” revealed Halder, who has studied up to seventh grade.  “What she wrote had enormous depth. In fact, I showed it to my friends and they agreed with me,” said Kumar, who has translated Halder’s books into Hindi. In fact, her first book ‘Aalo Aandhari’ (Light and Darkness) was published in 2002 in Hindi. In 2006, it was published in English, titled ‘A Life Less Ordinary: A Memoir.

Recalling her experiences of writing she said “It was nearly 20 years since I had ever written in a notebook, I had forgotten spellings. It was very embarrassing, especially when my children wanted to know why I was writing in a notebook instead of them.” But her first words worked their own magic: they unlocked her past. All her searing, suppressed memories of the mother who abandoned them, the night when the man she married climbed into her bed and raped her, the sister who was strangled by her husband, the terror and pain of delivering her first child at 13, memories she had never confided to anyone, didn’t even realize she had, flowed out into the notebook. There was no stopping Baby now. She wrote in the kitchen, propping her notebook between the vegetables and dishes, she wrote in between sweeping and swabbing, after the dishes and before, and late at night after putting her children to bed.

The results were even more unexpected. “All I had in mind when I urged her to write was to take her mind off her problems. But the closely-written pages of the notebook were astonishingly good,” says Prabodh. 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. He was excited but did not trust his own judgment. He consulted friends Ashok Seksariya and Ramesh Goswami with whom he shared a common interest in literature. Both were enthused by Baby’s manuscript, hailing it as another Diary of Anne Frank. Prabodh was persuaded to translate it into Hindi. Aalo Aandhari (Light and Darkness) was ready. But finding a publisher for such an unusual narrative was tougher; the book was too strange for their tastes. But Sanjay Bharti, who owns a small publishing house, Roshani Publishers, agreed to risk it even if it lost him money.

There was, however, yet another surprise in store for all the four friends of literature: Aalo Aandhari began selling from the first day of its launch. “Everyone from the sweeper to the retired headmistress next door wanted to buy a copy.” It sold so well that the second edition was out in less than two months. Noted directors like Prakash Jha have shown interest in making a film on it, someone wants to make a play out of it, others want to translate it into English, Oriya, Tamil, Telugu; and a new literary magazine in Calcutta, Bhasha Bandhan, will start serialising the book in Bengali. “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.” But for Baby, the best thing about her rebirth as an author is the regard of her new friends. “For the first time in my life, I feel confident that my story is worth telling, and in my own words.” However, there is an intriguing twist in the tale of Baby Halder. This 39-year-old prolific writer does not like to be called an author.”I am a domestic help, not a writer,” said Halder, who has two best-selling books to her credit. She lives in a temporary room on the terrace.

She is often invited to speak at literary festivals across the country. Halder has rubbed shoulders with many top writers at literary festivals and seminar across the world. She is a fan of Arundhati Roy, Taslima Nasrin and Jhumpa Lahiri.  Halder has built a house in Kolkata with earnings from her books. “I need not work as a domestic help anymore, but I am not comfortable leaving my employer who is a father-like figure to me. But eventually I hope to move to Kolkata someday, which I think is the best place for people who want to write in Bengali,” said Halder.Her two children, Tapas, 20, and Piya 17 – are aspiring to become fashion designers.