biblio-excerptise:   a book unexamined is not worth having

A life less ordinary (Bengali: Alo-AndhAri, Hindi Alo-AndhAri Prabodh

Baby Halder and Urvashi Butalia (tr.)

Halder, Baby; Urvashi Butalia (tr.);

A life less ordinary (Bengali: Alo-AndhAri, Hindi Alo-AndhAri Prabodh

Kumar 2002)

Zubaan / Penguin 2006, 163 pages ISBN 818901367X, 9788189013677

topics:  | biography | india | caste | translation

Horror stories from our own pantry

Even the New York Times took notice when this barely literate woman, working as a maid in Delhi penned down
her life story.  Written originally in dialect Bengali, it was translated
into Hindi by her employer, Prabodh Kumar in 2002.  The Bengali edition
actually appeared a year later.  A Malayalam and an English translation
came out shortly thereafter.

What I find fascinating about the book is how we middle-class Indians have
inured ourselves against the details of the lives of the servant class.
Here is a story, right out of our own houses, and these people are around
us all day, and we do get to hear some of these stories, but yet, the
direct personal story retains considerable surprise.

In the first half of the story, one horror follows another.
In the end, she decides to leave her abusive husband - a giant decision for
a woman in these circumstances, and by taking the huge risk of coming to
Delhi she manages to recover a semblance of a life.

And then, after her employer Prabodh Kumar found her flipping through the
pages of the books she was dusting, he encouraged her to write.  The rest
is history.

Witnessing mother's murder

As a child, Baby Halder never knew what hit her.  After her mother
disappeared, her father married off his sister at a young age and never
inquired after her.

One day the news comes that she is dead.  By the time he
reaches, they have cremated the body.  It was said that she had smallpox, but
her little son has a different story.

    "Oh Didi," Baba said, "she had to bear so much.  That bastard Mangal was
    carrying on with someone else.  And if my daughter said anything to him,
    he would beat her... I asked her little boy to tell me what happened.  At
    first he was a little scared and would not talk to me.  I felt so sorry
    for him, poor little child, he's only five.  Then, I picked him up and
    took him out, and spoke to him there.  Slowly he told me...

    Dadu, he said, there was nothing wrong with her.  I told him, quickly,
    tell me what happened, I'll take you with me.  Do you want to come?  Yes,
    the child said, you promise you will take me?  I said yes, yes, and you
    will stay with Didda.  Now tell me what happened.  I'll tell you, he
    said, but you must promise not to tell my father.  I promised that I
    wouldn't let anything happen to him.

    Then slowly, the child started to tell me his story.  This is what he
    said: 'Do you know Dadu, that for three or four days now Baba had been
    fighting with Ma and beating her.  Yesterday he locked the door of the
    room and beat her up very badly.  I was in the room at the time.  When Ma
    began to shout for help, Baba caught hold of her throat and began to
    strangle her.  When her tongue started coming out, I cried out: Baba,
    stop, she will die, let her go, my Ma will die... and I began to howl and
    and beat him on his back but even then he didn't stop.  When Ma's voice
    was completely gone and she could not speak any more, he let her go and
    she fell with a thud to the ground." [p.63]


Later, her uncaring father marries her off also, at the age of twelve,
without verifying much at all about the groom.  He turns out to be a sadistic
lout, utterly irresponsible. His parents are alive but for some reason he
hides this at the time of the wedding...

   At the time I could not imagine I would be married off to a man like him.  I
   was a little over twelve years old and he was twenty-six! 28

   Now I was alone with my husband.  I kept looking at him and wondering what
   he would do now, but he did not utter a word.  I kept watching him
   quietly.  For a little while, he did this and that, all sorts of little
   chores in the room, then he spread a mat on the chowki and indicated to me
   that I should sleep there. I lay down on the chowki and fell asleep
   immediately.  In the night I woke up with a start and find him lying next
   to me!  I sat up, frightened, then I moved away and spread a small mat on
   the floor and went to sleep there. ...

   The days passed well enough but no sooner would evening come than I would
   be filled with fear and dread.  My heart would start beating frantically.
   I used to sleep on the same mat as my husband but I'd turn my head the
   other way.  Three or four days passed like this and then, suddenly, one
   night, he caught hold of me and pulled me roughly towards him.  He put his
   hand on my breast and told me in a gentle voice that he did not like
   living like this and he no longer wanted to do so.  And so saying he began
   to press his body against mine.  I started to cry out in feat.  But then,
   I thought, what's the point?  I'll just wake everyone by shouting like
   this, so I shut my eyes and my mouth tightly and let him do what he
   wanted.  I just endured everything.

[He never gives her any money.  When she is pregnant, she wants to eat
chop-muRi but she has no money.  So she saves some rice, and tries to sell it
to him.  But he laughs it away, offers her a small amount, and they have a
fight.  At that point her stepmother comes and takes her to hospital. ]

My husband did not say a word even as I got my things ready.  I left with
Ma. 48

[After three days, she returns to her husbands'.  Next week the pains
start. Her husband tells her brother,]
    "Your mother was quick to take her away but she wasn't able to keep her
    there for long." 50

When her father comes later, he tells the husband that he thought that I
should be taiken to the hospital straightaway.  Shankar rounded on him: "So
when you took her away saying you would see what happened, why did you not
keep her there? Why have you sent her back?"

"Her place is here, this is her lot..." was all Baba said in reply and then
he and Ma left.  50


[After two days of labour pains, a neighbour (Sandhyadi) forces Shankar to
call a midwife.  The dAi-mA checks her and says there are still two or three
days before the child is ready to come.]

She set all my clothes right and then told me that if I had made a knot in
any of my clothes or in a rope, I should undo it.  Then she made me open the
lids of all the spice boxes, and then she put them back on herself.  I began
to weep. 51

Six days later, Sandhya-di, her husband, and Shankar take her to hospital by
a truck that was standing there.  Once I was admitted, they all got back into
the truck and left. 52

[She's not even fourteen.  She describes terrible pain - the child's head is
visible but he's not coming out.  Finally a son is born.  She doesn't know
how to clean up the child after his first stool. ]

Neighbourhood stories

[A neighbour Panna, drinks a lot.  One day he burns his wife "a beautiful,
doll-like woman", and tries to run away.  He is caught by neighbours and
handed over to the police.  But the wife, who was alive until hospital,
refuses to blame him and he is released.

[Three sisters in the neighbourhood have a reputation, although all they have
done is to have abusive husbands who left them, or whome they left.  When she
is found visiting them, Shankar drags her by her hair and kicks her and beats
her.  Then a neighbour called Ajit starts paying her attention and gets her
in trouble with the neighbours and her husband beats her up.  But he keeps
stalking her.  Another night he beats her with a sturdy piece of wood.  She
feels a piercing pain in her stomach.  In the middle of the night she goes
over and asks a neighbour to call her brother.  The neighbour doesn't know
the house, so he goes with the son and finds the house.  The brother takes
her on a thela, and his wife ascertains that she has not had a period for
four months, and says that the baby will not be born.  One sachin-da is
called, who gives some medicine, but it does not work, leaving her in
terrible pain.  Eventually she aborts and "Dada and Sachin took away the
dirty thing that had come out of my body to throw it in the jungle." 81]

In her third pregnancy, she is resolute, and gets herself operated so she
will have no more babies. ...  Another night the daughter is sick and husband
can't be bothered so she and Shashti (one of the bad women) go around by
rickshaw looking for a doctor.  The first doctor gives up, saying it is too
late, and recommends a second one.  Fortunately the child survives.]

[Finally she leaves for Delhi through a friend, and eventually finds a job
with Prabodh Kumar, whom she calls Tatush. ...]

Other reviews

From the NYT review:
Written baldly, without self-pity - how her mother, exhausted by her
father's extended absences and his failure to provide for the family,
goes out to the market and never returns.  How her father beat her for
telling a school friend that there was no food in the house.  Married
to a man twice her age, she has three children before her husband
splits her head open with a rock, and her elder sister is murdered by
her husband.  She runs away from the village, reaching New Delhi.  Her
employers have her lock up the kids in the attic while she works for
them endlessly, massaging the mistress after serving her.

... intermittent spells of schooling were cut short by money shortages and
domestic chaos, and how her elder sister was abruptly married off because
their father could no longer afford to keep her.

Ms. Halder was too young to understand the significance of the preparations
for her own marriage, preferring to play with her friends in the street
instead. After meeting her future husband, twice her age, the 12-year-old
Baby tells a friend: “It will be a good thing to be married. At least I will
get to have a feast.” Even in the hours before her wedding, she writes, “I’d
sing and jump about and play.”

A realization of the horror of her new married life comes suddenly. Soon she
is pregnant and, barely understanding what has happened, finds herself being
rebuked by the doctor for “choosing” at so young an age to have a child. Two
more children follow; then her husband splits her head open with a rock after
he sees her speaking with another man, and her elder sister is beaten and
strangled by her own husband.

Prabodh Kumar on how Baby Halder came to be a writer

I could see Baby’s interest in books... Whenever she dusted the racks of my
library I noticed that she would pick up a book and glance through the
pages. I came to know that she studied for a few years in a school in her
hometown Durgapur in West Bengal before she got married at 13. I asked her
whose books she read at school. She named a few authors and poets like
Rabindranath Tagore, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Kazi Nazrul Islam and others.

At that time the Sahitya Akademi had asked me to write an article on Kazi
Islam for its magazine Samakalin Bharatiya Sahitya. I asked her to recite a
poem by the noted poet. She recited the whole of Mora eki brinte duti kusum,
hindu musalman. I was amazed to see that a girl who was out of touch with
books for so long could recite the poem now.

I thought I must encourage her to read. I gave her some books which were
meant for light reading, so that she feels like reading more and does not get
intimidated. She read Taslima Nasrin’s Meye Bela and few books by Buddhadeb
Guha. I also gave her an exercise book and asked her to write something about
her life. Soon after, I left for a month. When I came back I wanted to know
whether she had written something in that exercise book. What I saw I had not
expected. [The] book was full!

amitabha mukerjee (mukerjee [at] 17 Mar 2009