Abandoned by her mother, beaten by her father, and hurriedly married off at twelve to an abusive man twice her age, Baby Halder's early life was marked by overwhelming challenges and heartbreak. Exhausted and desperate, the young mother finally fled with her three children in 1999 to Delhi, where she found work as a maid in some of the city's wealthiest homes. Expected to serve her employers' every grueling demand, Halder faced a staggering workload that often left her no time to care for her own children. The young woman's luck finally turned when she started working for Prabodh Kumar, a retired anthropology professor who noticed Halder's interest in his library. Kumar helped her to read his books and newspapers - which she devoured enthusiastically - then suggested that she write down her own life story. In A Life Less Ordinary, the fascinating result of her writing sessions with Kumar, Halder speaks for a multitude of Indian women, revealing a world of poverty and subjugation few outsiders have heard about.
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June 16, 2008
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Excerpt from A Life Less Ordinary by Baby Halder
Until the age of four I lived somewhere in Jammu and Kashmir with my father and mother, my brothers and my sister. Baba, my father, worked there. It was a beautiful place with tall, high mountains and many different kinds of flowers. From there Baba took us to Murshidabad. After we had been there awhile, Baba was transferred to Dalhousie and we went to live there. Dalhousie reminded me a lot of Jammu and Kashmir. Snow would fall from the sky, the snowflakes swirling around like a swarm of bees, and settle gently on the ground. And when it rained, it was impossible to leave the house, so we would just play inside, or we'd watch the rain falling from our windows. We loved Dalhousie and we stayed there for quite a long time.
We'd go out walking every day. We were so happy, just looking at all the flowers on the hillsides. We played all sorts of games among the flowers, and sometimes a rainbow would arch across the mountains, filling my heart with joy.
We wept when Baba took us to Murshidabad again, where my elder uncle, our Jetha, lived. Baba rented a house for us, and sent us children to school. Then he left us and went off to his job again. Every month he would send money home to cover our household expenses. At first the money would arrive regularly, but then, gradually, there were gaps of several months. Ma found it very difficult to make do: how could she not? After a while, even his letters began to arrive only after long gaps. Ma wrote letter upon letter to him, but there was never any response. Baba was so far away that Ma could not even go there. She was very worried, but despite all her difficulties, she did not let us stop studying.
Several years passed before Baba came home again. We were so happy to see him. But after a month or two, he was gone again. For a short while, he sent home money regularly, but then the same old pattern started again. Ma was so angry and frustrated that she often took it out on us. She asked our Jetha for help, but he was having a difficult enough time making ends meet for his own family. Meanwhile, Didi, my elder sister, was growing up, and that was another worry on Ma's head. Ma asked Baba's friends for help, but none of them was in a position to take on the burden of another family. Ma also thought of getting a job, but that would have meant going out of the house, which she had never done. And after all, what work could she do? Another of her worries was, what would people say? But worrying about what people will say does not help to fill an empty stomach, does it?
Then, one day, without any warning, Baba turned up. Ma burst into tears when she saw him. And all of us began to cry, too. My Jetha and others in the neighbourhood tried hard to explain to Baba that going off like this was not the right thing to do, but he did not seem to be convinced. He just left Ma and went off again. She was in a terrible state. I was a little better off than she because at least I had some friends, especially Tutul and Dolly, whom I could always talk to and who loved me a lot.
A short while after Baba left this time, he wrote us a letter to say that he'd soon be retiring and coming back home. We were overjoyed, but when Baba eventually came home, he did not seem at all happy to have retired. He would not speak to us or to Ma properly, and he'd lose his temper at the smallest things. We were a little frightened of him, and now we began to keep out of his way--whenever we saw him coming, we would creep away.
Didi was growing up, and Ma could not stop worrying about her. One day my younger uncle from Karimpur wrote to say that he had found a possible match for her. As soon as he read my uncle's letter, Baba quickly packed a few things, took my sister, and, without saying anything to anyone, left for Karimpur. Ma was really upset. She kept saying she couldn't live like this anymore. When, she asked God, would she have peace in her life? Suddenly it all became too much for her, and one day, with grief in her heart and my little brother in her arms, she just walked away from home.
At first we thought she'd just gone to the market as usual. But when she didn't return even after a couple of days, we realized that something was amiss, and all of us began to cry. Our Jetha, who lived nearby, tried to reassure us, saying that perhaps she had gone to visit her brother and would be back soon. Baba was in Karimpur when she left and four days later, when he came back, he asked us what she had said before leaving. We told him she had said she was going to the market. He then went to her brother's house in search of her, but she wasn't there. He searched every place where she could have possibly gone, but there was no trace of her. He was completely at a loss--he'd looked everywhere and was now really worried because there was nowhere else to look.