Baby Halder may be a feted author on the verge of having her third book published but the maid in her is never far from the surface.
When I step onto the terrace of the house where Halder lives, her black cocker spaniel, the unruly Coco, sinks her teeth into the fleece jacket I am carrying, dragging it to the ground. When we manage to retrieve it, Halder, looking stricken, goes to the bathroom and returns with a box of Surf washing powder, intending to wash my jacket there and then. I have to stop her and remind her that I am here to interview her, the author.
Nevertheless, Halder, who lives in Gurgaon, outside the Indian capital of New Delhi, continues to work as a maid and says she sometimes forgets she is now an acclaimed author, too. And who can blame her?
This is a country where domestic helpers are not supposed to answer back – even when they are being beaten.
A maid writing a book good enough to be published is a feat unprecedented in the annals of Indian literary history, a feat Halder, 39, achieved eight years ago with A Life Less Ordinary, a searing account of her brutal childhood, even more brutal marriage and a series of vicious employers.
That book has since been translated into 24 languages and has taken her on tours in Hong Kong, Germany and France. She has attended literary festivals in India and won awards. The global media profiled her at length when A Life Less Ordinary was published because it was a sensational story – a book written by one of the faceless, voiceless domestic servants who cook, dust, mop, shop and do laundry all day for the Indian middle class but are invisible as individuals.
The terrace on which Halder lives is on the roof of the house owned by her employer and mentor, Prabodh Kumar, a retired professor of anthropology and himself a published author.
Halder began working for him 14 years ago. One day, he caught her browsing through his Bengali books while she was dusting and he took an interest in her past. As she started talking, he gave her a notebook and pen and urged her to start writing.
Slowly, in the gaps between household chores at the Kumars’ home, Halder began describing, with raw emotion, a life that would have crushed most people.
It began in Durgapur, in West Bengal, the day her mother, exhausted by a feckless husband’s failure to provide for the family, walked out and never returned. Baby (the name her parents gave her) was four. Her father was a rough man who once beat her for telling friends there was no food in the house.
He began bringing home one new mother after another. Halder’s schooling was disrupted by money problems and domestic strife. Her elder sister, Sushila, had been married off aged 16, when Baby was a child. (Baby’s brother-in-law would turn out to be violent and, one day, in 1994, when Sushila confronted him about his infidelity, he strangled her to death.) When Baby’s father decided he could no longer support her, he married her off, too, to a man twice her age. She was 12 and had no idea what was going to happen.
On her wedding night, her husband raped her. By the time she was 13, she was pregnant with her first son, Subodh. Two more children followed, a son, Tapas, and a daughter, Pia, but her husband became more malevolent by the day, beating her and, on one occasion, after seeing her speaking to another man, splitting her head open with a rock.
Like millions of other rural Indian women escaping either poverty or marriage to a violent drunk, or both, Halder fled to New Delhi in 1999, to look for work that would allow her to support her children.
Close to destitution, she was forced to send her eldest son out to work as an underage domestic servant. For her part, she endured the contempt of middle-class employers who wanted her to lock up her children in the attic all day while she slaved for them.
“I don’t understand why employers are so cruel,” says Halder. “We all have to work. We all need to eat. Work is a good thing – there is nothing wrong with manual labour. Because we have to do manual labour does not make us … less. But there must be izzat [‘dignity’]. But rich people here are just driven by their self-interest and nothing else.”
In a 2012 interview with Outlook magazine Halder spoke of those Indians who feel little empathy towards their poorer countrymen: “I don’t think you can call such people [who mistreat their helpers] educated. It’s the people who think of the well-being of the poor who are the educated ones. The middle class is busy running after money.
It’s as if the poor don’t exist, as if they are machines that the rich can use and simply forget about.” Her tiny room contains two single beds, a couple of shelves, a big, idle fan-driven air cooler and a small table. On this table, surrounded by a miscellany of objects – an Indian flag, pens, a Father Christmas toy, a water jug, books – Halder is busy chopping. Today, she is making Kumar a lunch of raw bananas, potatoes, onions, tomatoes and coriander, called a sabzi.
Kumar is now 79 and frail. He speaks little and so softly he is barely audible. He exudes benevolence. He has climbed the narrow outdoor spiral staircase from his home on the ground and first floors to the terrace for the interview. He still looks at what Halder has written and makes suggestions. He still translates her books, written in her native Bengali, into Hindi.
When he saw her first manuscript, he told friends that the book reminded him of Anne Frank’s The Dairy of a Young Girl. That may have been stretching literary generosity but he was right in so far as here was a fresh, original voice writing about the horrors experienced by a countless number of others.
Has Halder grown as a writer, in content and style? After all, though powerful and moving, the writing in A Life Less Ordinary was never going to win any major prizes. Kumar thinks carefully before answering.
“Yes, I have to do much less. I have never changed too much because it has to be her writing. Her style is becoming more sophisticated,” he says.
Halder can feel the difference, too. She says she is more conscious of the act of writing whereas earlier it was a visceral outpouring of emotion. Her writing remains plain, though, partly because that is what she is capable of and partly because “if I don’t write the way I speak, how will ordinary maids, drivers and cooks in India understand me? I want them to read me and I want to make sense to them.”
The main developments have been in greater self-reflection and awareness of structure and chronology.
“Before, I used to think of an incident or emotion and write it down, anywhere. Now I’ve started using my brain and try to work out where that particular event belongs, where it fits in best,” she says.
Her first book was entirely autobiographical. Her second, Eshast Rupantar, published in 2010, is also about her life but traces the period after her first book was released.
Her latest, to be published by Zubaan Books in about three months, has yet to be given a title. This book has a broader canvas than the other two, documenting the stories of others and tracing changes that Indian society has gone through in recent years.
Among the stories she relates is that of her only childhood friend, Konika, who was also married off as a child and endured a violent marriage. Luckily for Konika, she had no children; leaving her husband was easier. Furthermore, when her parents realised that their daughter was being abused, they were sympathetic and took her in. (Often parents in India refuse to take a daughter back because of the shame attached to a married daughter returning to her parental home).
When Halder visited Konika a few years ago, she found her friend had become the leader of a women’s rights group in Durgapur, a personal transformation that is woven into Halder’s story.
The description of places is another new feature in her writing.
“I like to see how a place has changed,” she says. “I was surprised at the new tall buildings and offices in Durgapur. And how there are computers and the internet in the place in Calcutta where my father lives.”
Her own experiences – travelling and meeting other writers – have expanded her life beyond that of a maid and these, too, provide her with material. Her own reading matter is growing, too. Halder’s favourite authors are Bangladeshi Taslima Nasrin and Indian-American Jhumpa Lahiri. Nasrin’s My Girlhood is her favourite book. She has also started reading the works of Sukumar Ray, father of Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray.
“She has developed as a person and as a writer, in style, use of language and selfreflection,” says Zubaan founder Urvashi Butalia. “The big issue is whether she can go beyond her own life.”
Butalia recalls Halder’s first trip overseas, to Hong Kong, in 2009, to talk about A Life Less Ordinary. At Delhi airport, Halder was bursting with excitement at boarding a plane for the first time but an immigration official prevented her from catching the flight.
“It was just prejudice,” recalls Butalia. “He said I could get on the flight but she couldn’t because she was a servant. He demanded a special stamp in her passport to let her leave the country. She was shattered. I had to run around and get a senior civil servant to help. We boarded the flight the next day and made it in time.”
Despite his behaviour, Halder has stayed in touch with her father. He visits her in Gurgaon occasionally.
“He said he was proud of me for being the first in our family to do something so great,” she says, without any trace of rancour.
The only time the bright, big smile that constantly lights up her face fails is when she speaks of her mother, Ganga Rani, who died in a government hospital five years ago with no one at her side. Again, though, Halder harbours no ill will against the mother who abandoned her.
“My great regret is that I never saw her again but no one knew where she had gone. And my great grief is that her death was lonely,” she says.
Despite her success, Halder has chosen to continue with the life she knows. Tapas, now 20, and Pia, 17, live with her in her poky room above the Kumars (Subodh, who is in his 20s, has moved out). With only two beds in the tiny room, she rolls out her bedding on the floor every night.
Success and the rewards it has brought have not financed the purchase of jewellery, an expensive watch, gadgets or flashy clothes. In fact, when asked if she has used her income from the books to indulge in any substantial purchases, she looks surprised.
The one question everybody asks her is why she continues working as a domestic helper.
She gives three reasons: instinct, because she senses that this simple life suits her best; reason, because she has fathomed that, for her writing to be relevant to ordinary Indians, she must live as one of them; and superstition, which makes her no different from those writers who favour a particular pen or a particular chair in which to work.
“I feel scared that I won’t be able to write if I change the way I live,” she says.
There have been a couple of major developments in her life, though. One is that she is now the owner of a two-bedroom house on the outskirts of Calcutta, which she built with her literary income. Her eyes shine when she talks of how she is looking forward to furnishing it. For a poor Indian, having your own home is the stuff of dreams.
The other change is an unhappy one. It is a rift that is so upsetting that she and Kumar hesitate when gently probed about it. When they speak, it is only through subtle allusions and half-finished sentences. This is the only time in the interview when Halder looks wistful. She and Mrs Kumar have fallen out.
Halder is no longer welcome downstairs. In an odd arrangement, she cooks Kumar’s meals in her kitchen and takes them down to him in his bedroom, on the first floor, but does not venture into any other part of the house.
Neither offers an explanation. Was it a disagreement?
Did her success as an author create some rancour in Mrs Kumar, or subtly alter the dynamic between the two?
Did Mrs Kumar perhaps resent the time and energy her husband spent on Halder’s writing? Or did some residual class prejudice kick in?
“It was very different once. It was never like this,” is all Halder will say.
Kumar continues to be her rock. Because she is not welcome downstairs, he comes up to the terrace to talk to her. Theirs appears to be a father-daughter relationship, full of affection and mutual respect. And this daughter enjoys pulling his leg.
Asked how much time he devotes to reading her work, she interjects, before he can reply, “Not enough. He doesn’t have time!” she laughs. “He is too busy chatting to his friends on the phone. And he’s jealous. He has published books but they didn’t create the fuss that mine did!” The professor leans back, half closes his eyes and smiles indulgently.