From being a domestic helper to become a best selling author – real life story of Baby Halder
There is no paucity of ‘rags to riches stories in India, stories which are capable enough to inspire anyone. There are some who may not be born with a silver spoon, but have climbed the ladder of success with their hard work and passion, hence have made a special place in everyone’s heart. One such encouraging story is about an Indian woman who used to sweep and mop other people’s floors found her life transformed overnight when she became a bestselling author. The author is none other than Baby Halder.
Baby Halder, a school dropout, works as a domestic helper in Gurgaon and is an acclaimed author famous for her autobiography in Bengali ‘Aalo Andhaari‘ (A Life Less Ordinary, 2006) describes her journey of battleships, her woes, her survival and her peace of mind. The book has been translated into 24 languages, including 13 foreign languages.
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. I never thought that other people might be interested in reading my story.
Abandoned by her mother at the age 4, beaten by her father, and married off at 12 to an abusive man twice her age, Baby Halder’s early life was marked by overwhelming challenges and heartbreaks. Exhausted and desperate, the young mother finally fled with her three children in 1999 to Delhi, where she found work as a maid in some of the city’s wealthiest homes. However, she soon left the houses after her employers started mistreating her. Soon, she found work at Prabodh Kumar’s house, a retired professor of anthropology and a grandson of Munshi Premchand, where life took a turn for Baby Halder; but this time for the better.
All day Baby Halder would work hard – sweeping, mopping, cooking; but her busy hands would slow down as she dust the books and while going through the pages of Bengali tomes. Prabodh finally confronted her, ‘Do you read?’ And when the kind professor offered her to use his bookshelves, she hesitantly chose Taslima Nasreen’s Amar Meyebela (My Girlhood).
It was as if I was reading about my own life. Recalls Baby.
Prabodh Kumar, the retired anthropology professor who discovered her, was impressed with what she read and encouraged her to continue. One fine day, Kumar handed Halder a pen and asked her to write her story in her mother tongue, Bengali. After several months, he sat down with her and helped edit her text into book form.
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, the words began to flow effortlessly. In fact, the writing turned out to be a cathartic experience.
Her first words worked their own magic – they unlocked her past. All her searing, suppressed memories of the mother who abandoned her, 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. Then there was no stopping for Baby. She wrote at 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. What she wrote had enormous depth. Prabodh was excited but did not trust his own judgement. He consulted friends Ashok Seksariya and Ramesh Goswami with whom he shared a common interest in literature. Prabodh was persuaded to translate it into Hindi. Aalo Aandhari was ready.
Aalo Aandhari began selling from the first day of its launch. Written in Bengali and translated into several other Indian languages, Baby Halder’s memoir has become a best seller. Everyone from the sweeper to the retired headmistress next door wanted to buy a copy.
Since then, Aalo Andhari has been translated into 24 languages, including French, German and Japanese. She has been on book tours to cities such as Paris, Frankfurt and Hong Kong. She is often invited to speak at literary festivals across the country. Her second book, Eshast Rupantar, published in 2010, a sequel to her first book is also about her life, but traces the period after her first book was released. Her third book Ghare Ferar Path – the story of her progression from childhood to teenage was published recently in 2014.
Baby Halder has built a house in Kolkata with earnings from her books. However, there is an intriguing twist in the tale of Baby Halder. This 40 year old prolific writer does not like to be called an author. Despite her success, Baby Halder has chosen to continue with the life she knows. She continues to work as a maid for the employer who helped her to discover her literary talent.
Baby Halder strongly believes, women should not be classified as the inferior sex as they are capable enough to do anything which men can. Women should be independent and should avoid relying on others, one should rise like a phoenix and continuously strive to achieve their goals. Her appeal to all exploited and tortured women around – ‘move out of your shell and breathe openly.
In a country where domestic helpers are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, in a society where domestic helpers are not supposed to answer back even when they are being beaten up, a maid writing a book good enough to be published, a book written by one of the faceless, voiceless domestic servants who cook, dust, mop, shop and do laundry all day for the Indian middle class but are invisible as individuals, is an accomplished bizarre in the annals of Indian literary history.