Halder, Baby; Urvashi Butalia (tr.);
A life less ordinary (Bengali: Alo-AndhAri, Hindi Alo-AndhAri Prabodh
Zubaan / Penguin 2006, 163 pages ISBN 818901367X, 9788189013677
topics: | biography | india | caste | translation
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.
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. ]
[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. ...]
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.
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!