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HindustanTimes Thu,31 Jul 2014

A bestselling author, she works as a domestic help in Gurgaon

Manoj Sharma, Hindustan Times  New Delhi, January 04, 2014
First Published: 22:32 IST(4/1/2014) | Last Updated: 01:36 IST(5/1/2014)

She has been on book tours to cities such as Paris, Frankfurt and Hong Kong; her books have been translated into 12 foreign languages -- including French, German and Japanese. She is often invited to speak at literary festivals across the country.

Her new book is set to hit the stands later this month.

However, there is an intriguing twist in the tale of Baby Halder. This 39-year-old prolific writer does not like to be called an author.

"I am a domestic help, not a writer," said Halder, who has two best-selling books to her credit and first shot to fame in 2006, with her work A Life Less Ordinary.

For the past 14 years, Halder has been working as a maid at the house of Prabodh Kumar in Gurgaon, where she lives in a temporary house on the terrace.
Kumar, 80, her employer, is not only her employer, but also her literary mentor and translator. 

"When she started working at my house, she had enormous interest in books. She would pick Bengali books from the bookshelf and avidly read them. As I interacted with her, I realised that she had a story that needed to be told," said Kumar, a retired professor of Anthropology. 

Halder had a motherless childhood and an abusive father. Her step-mother married her off at the tender age of 13 years to a man twice her age. She was raped on her wedding night.

Fed up with her abusive husband, she boarded a train from Durgapur in West Bengal for Delhi, where she started working as a maid at a house. She, however, soon left the house after her employers started mistreating her. Soon, she found work at Prabodh Kumar’s house and life took a turn for the better.

One day, Kumar handed Halder a pen and asked her to write her story in her mother tongue, Bengali.

"I was nervous when I held the pen in my fingers. I had not written anything since my school days. But when I started writing, words began to flow effortlessly. In fact, writing turned out to be a cathartic experience," revealed Halder, who has studied up to 7th grade.  

"What she wrote had enormous depth. In fact, I showed it to my friends and they agreed with me," said Kumar, who has translated Halder’s books into Hindi.

In fact, her first book ‘Aalo Aandhari’ (Light and Darkness) was published in 2002 in Hindi. In 2006, it was published in English, titled ‘A Life Less Ordinary: A Memoir.’

In 2010, she published her second book ‘Eshast Rupantar’, -- a sequel to her first book -- the English translation of which is slated to be released next month. Her third book -- the story of her progression from childhood to teenage -- will be published by the end of this month.

Halder said she writes between cooking, sweeping and swabbing and it took her a year to finish each of her books. "I am not organised or disciplined as far as writing is concerned. I write anytime, anywhere," she added.

Halder has rubbed shoulder with many top writers at literary festivals and seminar across the world.

She is a fan of Arundhati Roy, Taslima Nasrin and Jhumpa Lahiri.  Nasrin’s ‘Amar Meyebela’ (My Girlhood) is her favourite book. "I have met her several times; she has always been very encouraging," said Halder.

And what do writers talk to her about?

"They mostly discuss my life and my writing; but one question that everyone asks is why I continue as a domestic help," Halder said.

Halder has built a house in Kolkata with earnings from her books. "I need not work as a domestic help anymore, but I am not comfortable leaving my employer who is a father-like figure to me. But eventually I hope to move to Kolkata someday, which I think is the best place for people who want to write in Bengali," said Halder.

Her two children, Tapas, 20, and Piya 17 -- who want to become a fashion designer -- often complain about not being sent to a private English-medium school.
"They do not understand that when they started going to school, I did not have enough money. Today, I would have certainly sent them to a private school," Halder added. 

A voracious reader, Halder is looking forward to reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Lowland’ and ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’. "Many people say it is similar to my first book," Halder said.   

She has been closely following the Devyani Khobragade issue and feels that it was Sangeeta  Richard, the maid, and not her employer who is the victim in the case.

"I appreciate the domestic help’s courage in taking on her powerful employer, who I believe shortchanged her in terms of salary. Unfortunately, there is no respect for physical labour in India. The rich and the powerful feel that they have a right to exploit their domestic help," she added.


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