‘A publishing sensation’ Amelia Gentleman, New York Times ‘A story of courage and grace a book worth waiting for’. Mahasweta Devi ‘Both a social and literary fence- breaker Truly this is a story of courage under fire.’ The Hindu,
The story of Baby Halder’s life is an extraordinary lesson in courage and survival. It is the story of a young domestic worker, who has battled poverty, hardship and violence to make a name for herself as writer. First published in Hindi, the book has since been translated into eight Indian languages, fourteen languages internationally, and has become a bestseller.
Baby Halder’s moving and beautiful account of her life has been almost constantly in the news since it was published in India, first in Hindi and then in a number of other languages. Baby and that is her real name, although it probably began as a nickname (she does not remember being given a ‘proper’ name) is a young woman in her thirties, a mother of three. Abandoned as a young child by her mother, married, by an uncaring father, to a man fourteen years her senior when she was barely thirteen, a mother by the time she became fourteen, trapped in a violent marriage, Baby’s story is not unique. It is the story of thousands of women caught in similar situations across the world. What makes it different is the fact Baby’s strength and resolve, her determination not to stay in an abusive situation, to escape, to make a life for herself and her children, and, in the end, her absolute commitment to the one thing she had always held close to her heart, education and learning and the desire to read and write.
The story of how one woman escaped a life of hardship and poverty is what this book is about. But more, it is also a book about reading, a book about books, and a book about hope and despair. It is not a literary book, the writer is someone who almost learns to write as she goes along, whose prose goes from being sometimes staccato, sometimes stilted, to being fluent, expressive and elegant. There is much about this book that is also somewhat puzzling for the reader who is not familiar with the world Baby describes, a world in which violence seems to be an almost routine, everyday affair. The voice that recounts this violence does so, similarly, without melodrama, without self indulgence, in a curiously flat tone. There is also a vast network of relatives, a web of relationships that are both supportive and oppressive, sometimes moving from one to the other almost seamlessly.
Baby’s account of her life begins with her childhood. As the adult eye looks back, we see a period that is at times idyllic and at times hard, but in many ways, almost too brief. Before she knows it, she is thrust into marriage and adulthood, the transition from one to the other being marked only by the exchange of a frock for a sari. As her father and other relatives negotiate her marriage, Baby serves them food and drink, little knowing that it is her future that is being discussed. And then, exhausted from all the running around, she finds a moment to rest, and think, and her childhood passes before her. ‘Poor Baby!’ she says, ‘What else could one say of her? Imagine a childhood so brief, so ephemeral, that you could sit down and the whole thing could unravel in front of you in barely half an hour Baby remembers her childhood, she savours every moment of it, licks it just as a cow would her newborn calf, tasting every part.’ The nostalgia for a childhood long gone disappears swiftly, however, as the narrative moves into an account of Baby’s later life and leads the reader to the moment she takes the decision to leave. Finding her way to Delhi, alone, frightened, her two children with her, Baby eventually manages to find a job, and the last part of her narrative takes the reader through the most exciting part of her life, when she begins by being a domestic worker in a home, and turns into a writer with a unique voice.
Baby Halder works today as a domestic worker in a house in Gurgaon, near Delhi. Her employer, Dr Prabodh Kumar Srivastava, is also her mentor, and it is with his help that she has turned into a writer. Prabodh Kumar himself comes from a literary family. His grandfather, Premchand, was one of India’s best known writers whose novels and short stories formed part of the great social upheaval of the early twentieth century and the movement for independence in India. Baby arrived at Prabodh Kumar’s house one day in search of a job and began work as a domestic help. Prepared to be more or less invisible, Baby was surprised when her employer actually spoke to her, asked about her life, and treated her like a human being. As the days passed, Prabodh Kumar noticed that Baby paid extra attention to his bookshelves, dusting and cleaning the books with care, looking at them with longing. And that was his signal for encouraging her, and then helping her to read, and then to write. The result was the book you have in front of you, A Life Less Ordinary (published in Hindi and Bengali as Aalo Andhari, From Darkness to Light).
Baby’s book came to my notice when I read a short report about it in a local magazine, and then on the web.
The report mentioned that Baby lived and worked in a house in Gurgaon, a city that borders on Delhi, and that the Hindi publication of her book was received with much acclaim. Gurgaon is a large, sprawling urban jungle. Locating a domestic worker called Baby Halder in a city that large, that rich and that anonymous was well nigh impossible. Domestic workers inhabit the shadow world of the near invisible people without whose help middle class urban India would not be able to survive. But try to track them down, and you know you are attempting something that is virtually impossible. Yet in Baby’s case we had at least one clue to go on, and that was the link with Premchand. For there were other members of Premchand’s family who could be tracked down — the middle class urban intelligentsia network in India is a powerful one — and it was through them that I found my way to Baby, a young woman of enormous poise, wisdom and compassion. Over time, Baby and I got to know each other, and her initial hesitation and concern about ‘the outsider’ in her life, gradually gave way to trust, and the beginnings of a real friendship, and it is this that has formed the basis of my translation of Baby’s story.
In a strange kind of twist, Baby’s translator is also her publisher. In Zubaan, as publishers of books by and about women, our main concern has been to provide a platform where women’s voices can be heard, where those who are on the margins can find the confidence to speak. But we know that it is rare, even for publishers like us who wear our politics on our sleeves, to be able to publish writers like Baby. Not only are they largely invisible, many, indeed most, have not had the privilege of an education, and although they may feel strongly about issues, they often do not have the luxury to be able to give literary expression to them. For us then, publishing Baby’s book was enormously important, it is the kind of book that publishers like us dream about. It is a book from which we have learnt a great deal, just as we have done from Baby, its protagonist and writer. And today, A life Less Ordinary has become the international success that it deserves to be. For us, it also remains a book that we have been privileged and proud to publish, a book that has been inspirational in many small ways, a book that reminds us that there is so much that needs to be said and written about women’s lives.
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