Amrit Dhillon talks to the internationally acclaimed Indian author Baby Haldar, who has written three books while still toiling as a domestic servant
In small steps appropriate to an author who never imagined she would write anything other than shopping lists, Baby Haldar, the Indian maid turned author, is trying to broaden her subject matter beyond her own experiences and emotions. Haldar emerged onto India’s literary scene eight years ago with A Life Less Ordinary, a powerful account of a brutal childhood, violent marriage and a series of vicious employers. That book has since been translated into 24 languages and Haldar has been on book tours in Germany, Hong Kong and France, and won awards for her writing.
If she was feted by the world’s press at that time, it was because her achievement was singular. When was the last time a book had been written by one of the faceless, voiceless domestic servants who clean, cook, dust, mop, shop and iron all day for the Indian middle class but are invisible as individuals with feelings and aspirations?
A Life Less Ordinary was then followed by a second book, Eshast Rupantar (Self-Portrait in Bengali).
As we sit in the house of her employer and mentor, Prabodh Kumar, in Gurgaon, Haldar, now 39, appears unaffected by her fame: she continues to live in one rooftop room with two of her three children; she dresses simply, like any other maid. In fact, she still works as a maid. On a table in the corner of the room, she is chopping raw bananas, onions, tomatoes and coriander to make lunch for Kumar, who lives on the lower floors with his wife.
Still unaccustomed to answering questions as a writer, Haldar thinks carefully as she speaks about how her skill has evolved.
“Ï knew, with my third book, that I had to talk of other things. My first was totally autobiographical. My second was almost largely about my life. But in this one, I am writing about not just myself but the women I have known and what came of them,” she says.
To be published by Zubaan Books in Bengali (her native tongue), her book that still does not have a title traces her visit to Durgapur in West Bengal, where she grew up, to find Konika, a childhood friend. Konika had also been married off as a child bride and suffered a cruel husband. But unlike Haldar, she had no children, a fact that allowed her more freedom. To her delight, Haldar managed to find Konika, now a strong, self-possessed woman working for women’s rights in her village, a transformation that Haldar weaves into her book as an illustration of how India is changing.
Apart from broadening the content of her writing, Haldar is also trying to improve the style. When asked if it has improved, she laughs and turns to Kumar, a 79-year-old retired professor of anthropology, for an answer. Kumar is such a gentle presence that he murmurs rather than speaks. He still looks at every page Haldar writes. It was he who saved her from a life of domestic servitude when she came to work for him 14 years ago.
One day, he caught her browsing through his Bengali books while she was dusting. 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 her household chores, Haldar began telling him her life story. It began in Durgapur the day her mother, exhausted by her husband’s failure to provide for the family, walked out and never returned. Baby was four. Her father started bringing home one woman after another.
Eventually, he decided, having failed to educate her, that Haldar was a burden and, at the age of 12, married her off to a man twice her age. In A Life Less Ordinary, she writes of how she innocently looked forward to her marriage because she thought she would at least enjoy the wedding feast instead of the scraps of food she had been given all her life.
On her wedding night, her husband raped her. A year later, she was pregnant with her first child. Two more follow. Fearing he would one day kill her, she did what countless other women have done to escape domestic violence and fled to Delhi to find work to support herself and her children. At Kumar’s house, she found a haven.
After reading some of her rough but inspired words, he encouraged her to write and found her a publisher. “Her style has definitely improved,” he says. “I used to edit quite a lot, but now I am doing less and less,” he says.
Though a powerful and moving book, the writing in Ω will probably never be considered great literature. It was rough-hewn and plain, with disconnected sentences. Since then, Kumar says her writing has become more sophisticated.
Haldar’s publisher, Urvashi Butalia, the founder of Zubaan Books, echoes his view. “She has developed as a person and also as a writer – in style, use of language and self-reflection,” she says. “The big issue is whether she can now expand her writing to go beyond her own life.”
Haldar is more conscious of the process of writing now, unlike earlier, when it had been an outpouring of emotion. But still, she has made a conscious effort to keep her writing style simple and direct to speak to others in her situation.
“I need to keep it plain, keep it the way I speak. If I don’t write the way I speak, how will maids, drivers and cooks in India understand me? I want them to read me and I want to make sense to them,” she says.
The area where she has made greater strides is the need for 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.
Similarly, the description of villages, towns and landscapes is a new feature in her writing. “I like to see how a place has changed. 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,” she says.
The reading is expanding too. Her favourite authors are Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasrin and Jhumpa Lahiri, an Indian-American author. Nasrin’s My Girlhood is her favourite book.
As she juggles her household chores, the only time she has for writing is at night. When her two teenage children have gone to sleep on the two single beds in the room and before she has rolled out her own bedding on the floor, she picks up her lined notebook from the solitary bookshelf and starts writing.
The one question everybody keeps asking her is why she continues as a domestic help. The answer is that this is the life she feels suits her.
“If I want my books to be relevant to ordinary Indians, then I have to live like them,” she says. Then adds: “I feel scared that I won’t be able to write if I change the way I live.”
Amrit Dhillon is a regular contributor to The National.