It’s 11pm and Baby Halder’s day is just winding down. Dressed in a blue-and-white salwar kameez, the 39-year-old domestic helper finishes washing a pile of dishes, then mops the floor and turns off the kitchen lights before retiring to her small one-room flat on the terrace of her employer’s palatial, well-appointed house in Gurgaon, on the outskirts of India’s capital, Delhi.
But she is not yet ready for bed. Even though it’s late and she has to start work at 6am, Baby fishes out a notebook from the desk and begins to write. “It’s become a habit now,” she smiles. “I’ve got to write at least a few pages before I go to sleep. It’s fulfilling at the end of the day.” Baby has a lot of reasons to smile. Although she dropped out of school at the age of 12, the mother of three is already a popular author. Her first two books Aalo Aandhari (meaning Darkness and Light in Bengali) and Eshast Roopantar (Self-portrait) were literary successes in Bengali; her third book Ghare Ferar Path (The Way Home) was published by Dey’s Publishing, a Bengali publishing house, in December 2014 to rave reviews from the critics.
Aalo Aandhari, a thinly veiled autobiography published in 2002, was a success in Bengali. But it was its English translation, A Life Less Ordinary, published two years later, that made Baby a literary phenomenon after it sold more than a million copies. The book was translated into 24 languages including French, German and Korean and heralded Baby’s arrival on the literary scene.
And yet she works as a maid from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.?
Baby, who only completed grade 7 before she was married off by her father, smiles shyly when she recalls the praise she received. “It’s nice to know that the book was read by so many people,” she says, recalling how she met Bollywood stars such as actress Nandita Das during one of her book launches. She has invested the earnings from the royalties – around Rs2.5 million (about Dh148,000) over the years – into a house that she has built in her village in Kolkata. She has also put her children through school. The eldest Subodh, 26, works as a chef, while Taposh, 20, and Tia, 17, are in college. Tia wants to become a fashion designer and Baby is planning to enrol her into a design school with her literary earnings.
She is hoping they will be boosted by the English version of Eshast Roopantar, which was published in Hindi in 2010, and is expected to hit the stands later this year.
Baby, who has attended several major literature festivals in Frankfurt, London, and Jaipur, and dined and discussed literature with world-renowned authors including Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, admits that all three books of hers are autobiographical in parts.
One degree of separation; I’ve dined and discussed with Taslima too.
So, why does Baby – who has been featured in The New York Times, The Guardian andBBC, earned decent royalties, and travelled abroad for book fairs, literary festivals and book launches – still toil as a maid in Prabodh’s mansion?
“I’m very superstitious,” says the author. “I have this great fear that if I stop working as a maid, I won’t be able to write at all. These are very frightening thoughts.
“Moreover my simple life suits me. There are no complications. My needs are few. I’m happy and comfortable. And if I change my lifestyle, where will I get the raw material for my books, which are essentially about marginalised people and therefore appeal so much to the common man? I’m averse to taking risks.”
Ok but couldn’t she work better hours? But it’s her life, not mine. Anyway her employer is part of the story.
She was married off at age 12 to an alcoholic who beat her; after 12 years she left, taking her children with her.
She found a maid’s job but changed employers frequently as she was overworked and underpaid.
Finally, 14 years ago, she landed in Prabodh’s home. “He was so kind and took me in with the children. He gave me a job and then allowed me to dream of becoming a writer.”
Leaning back in his armchair, Prabodh recalls how he spotted Baby’s inherent talent in the first week she began work.
“One morning I saw her near the bookshelf in my drawing room looking through the books, stopping to read a few pages in one then flipping through another while dusting the shelves,” he says.
Baby, who saw her boss staring at her, thought she would be rebuked for shirking her job and quickly promised not to waste time. “But I told her to relax and said she was welcome to read all the books during her free time.” He also gave her a pen and a notebook, and encouraged her to put down her thoughts on paper.
And that’s how she got started.
Baby could not believe it. “That was the first time after over 25 years that I was holding a notebook,” she says. “I love reading but I could never pursue it because there weren’t any books at home, nor did I have the time.” But now here, in Prabodh’s house, she was surrounded by books.
“I enjoy reading Bengali books and there were plenty here,” she says. After reading a bit, particularly books by Taslima Nasreen, Baby decided to follow Prabodh’s advice and write.
And she wrote beautifully, and her first book was a best-seller. Cinderella eat your heart out.
H/t Kausik Datta