Sunday, April 20, 2014

Sunday Thoughts: Baby Haldar’s Less Ordinary Life

(Baby Haldar with her books)

Sometimes, when you are in a busy street, quite unexpectedly a family approaches you. There is a man, a woman, a couple of children and some baggage. They ask you whether you speak Hindi or Marathi. Caught unaware you may say yes. Then they tell their story. It is the usual story. They just came from a remote village as they could not live in their village anymore. Poverty has driven them to the city. They do not know anybody here. Could you please help with some money? They point out to the children. The children look at you with their wide eyes. By the time you brain comprehends what has just happened, a sense of disgust comes filling your mind. You feel that this is the same old story. They are the migrant poor, one family amongst many that come to the city from somewhere and join the milling poor in the city. They are just exploiting your goodwill. They do not want to do any work. It is a different form of begging. By the time you reach this conclusion, you have already walked off. Still the faces of the children haunt you for a while. Then you forget that too. You do not have time or mind to think about these people. You don’t want to listen to their stories. Or do they have a story at all? Isn’t it the same as the ones that you have read in the feature stories in the newspapers? Forget them.

They do have stories. As we think, those stories are the same kind of stories; the tales of famine, exploitation, failed crops, growing debts, land grabbing by the corporate houses, loot, rape, natural calamities. The list is too long and you just do not want to listen to that. But these are the people who have just survived the calamities both natural and man-made. They did not commit suicide like many others do. Instead, they have packed up their things and moved to a city, hoping that one day they would make their lives there. Death looms large over their faces and only hope lies in the horizon that still shows the silhouettes of skyscrapers under construction. Tomorrow, if they are lucky here, they are going to disappear behind these buildings. They become a few amongst the many urban poor who too had come to the city the same way, or in a better way. But the result is the same. However, I feel their stories are different. Each struggle looks like the one that has gone before and the one yet to come. But they are different. And each person has a different story that we do not care to listen. You never know the poverty stricken woman who had come to you seeking help a few years back could turn out to be a writer of international repute one day. While you continue with your well paid obscure life, these people rise up from their obscurity and write their lives. Though it is a rare phenomenon, when it happens they hit you right at your guts. The visceral reactions that their recounted lives generate in you cannot be measured using your already felt emotional parameters. Is it of shame, remorse, repentance or disgust?

The story of Baby Haldar, a domestic help who became a writer of international repute with her first autobiographical book, ‘A Life Less Ordinary’, which was initially published in Bangla, then in Hindi and later on translated and published in English by Urvashi Bhutalia of Zubaan Books, reminds you of one of your encounters with the urban poor. Baby Haldar too had come to Delhi/Faridabad like an urban poor looking for a job. She was literally escaping from a violent marriage and uncaring relatives. She wanted to stand up in her life and do something with it. But she had three children by the age of twenty from a ruthless husband. But when she decided to leave, she took the children along and migrated to a strange place, where after a few years of toiling found her place as a domestic help in an old scholar’s house who treated her like his daughter. The rest, as they say, is history. I would like to recount her story here for you.

Baby Haldar was born to a lower middle class family. She was born in Kashmir and later she spent her childhood in Dalhousie. Her father had a job that took him to different places. Finally he brought them to Murshidabad, Kolkata and left the family there. Her mother waited for him endlessly. He had already taken another woman as his wife. One day, taking her youngest son with her and pushing a ten paise coin in the hands of Baby, the mother walked out of the house, never to return. The burden of the family fell on the young Baby. She and her siblings were taken by her father but the step mother was not so kind to them. Though some of the relatives treated the children with kindness, it was not sufficient for the children to grow up. Her father married again. By the time Baby became fourteen years old, they married her off to a twenty four year old man with no particular job. Baby started off her life in a poor shanty but before she could know what the meaning of marriage was, she became pregnant. Domestic violence was a permanent feature. Baby was fiercely independent but she did not know how to exercise her rights. Finally, by the time she got the courage to walk out, she picked up her children and travelled to Faridabad where two brothers lived. By the time her real mother had been brought back but she did not feel anything for that woman, though she wanted to feel.

In Faridabad, she faced a new reality. She was a woman without husband and her sisters-in-law treated her very badly. Finally, she got the job as a domestic help somewhere in Gurgaon. But the woman at the house treated her like a slave. But the dog in that house loved her. When she was about to leave that job and went to collect her things from the servant quarters, the owners did not allow the dog to come out and say bye to her because they feared that the dog would feel bad and it might create a bad effect on it. Baby got a job at an old scholar’s house. He, Mr.Prabodh Kumar was the great grandson of Munshi Premchand, the legendary writer. He found out that Baby spent a lot of time cleaning his bookshelves. He asked her about her education and once he knew that she wanted to learn and write, he encouraged her. To resume reading was really a tough task for her. But she did start reading and later on writing. The pages she wrote were full of her life, its woes and her dreams. The landlord was touched by her story. He sent it to his friends in Kolkata. They too liked it. Finally it started getting serialised in a Bengali magazine. Soon it became a best seller book Bengal. The Hindi edition followed and then the English edition. Now Baby Haldar is an internationally reputed writer and she is currently working on her second book. But she still works as a domestic help in her mentor’s house, whom she considers as her own father or rather the family considers her as their own daughter.

Baby Haldar’s story, the history of her life is very inspiring. It should be inspiring to all those women who think that their lives, despite all the facilities they have is full of pathos and they are absolutely helpless and victimized by the society and the family members. One does not need a proper job or a cushy life to become a writer. If you have the will to live and the guts to face life, and above all if you have the urge to put those experiences in any one of the mediums of expression, you could become a Baby Haldar. We treat domestic helps as wretched women who are forced to do such work. Their woes start from the very roots of their lives. But those who come up for air and breathe it afresh survive not only as human beings but as creative human beings. Baby Haldar is an exceptional woman amongst the domestic helps. But I think that if one is given a paper and pen to any poor person in this world and asked him or her to put down their thoughts without heeding much to the style, they would come up with exceptionally touching autobiographical literature. But writing is one of the cruellest of acts. It needs guts. It takes courage to face the society as a writer who ruthlessly reveals his or her innards in public. Even the poorest of poor however is afraid of the society for no reason. So they do not write or express at all, even if they are asked to. That’s why Baby Haldar is exceptional. She dares to bare and in that baring act, she gives a different dimension to her life not only as a domestic help but also as a creative writer.

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