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Indian maid pens book on hardships

Baby Halder's life changed the day her employer gave her a notebook and asked her to pen her life.

india Updated: Jul 12, 2006 14:02 IST

For many affluent Indians, the ideal servant is one who is seen and not heard, rises early to get the kids off to school and uncomplainingly serves the family their last cup of tea at night.

They don't want to hear any heart-wrenching or even mundane details of their servants' lives.

But the kindly employer of 34-year-old Baby Halder was different.

The retired anthropology professor, noticing her interest in his books as she dusted his volumes, gave her a notebook and told her: "Write down your life."

A tale of poverty, hardship and violence emerged as Halder scribbled at night in a school exercise book after the meals were cooked, dishes washed, house cleaned and her own children abed.

Readers follow her as she is abandoned by her mother at four, married off by her father at 12, becomes a mother herself a year later, then finally flees her violent husband and takes her children to New Delhi to seek a better life.

Halder's memoirs, translated from her native Bengali, have now appeared in a book jointly published by Penguin and Indian publisher Zubaan entitled A Life Less Ordinary.

Nowhere does Baby Halder voice resentment against employers who treated her unkindly, making her work long hours for miserable pay, or for the abusive treatment she got from her father and her husband.

"I don't blame them for the way they behaved. It's the way they were brought up, so that was the way they treated others," said Halder, who despite her painful past, laughs easily and resonates cheerfulness.

But she says she feels a huge debt of gratitude to her mentor, Professor Prabodh Kumar, grandson of one of India's greatest Hindi language literary figures, Prem Chand.

"He was the first employer who treated me like a human being ... (and) turned me into a writer," Halder told AFP in her publisher's office, where she sipped a cup a coffee.

The book is already a best-seller in Bengali and in Hindi. A French translation is in the works and the book will be one of India's offerings at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October.

Indian reviewers have praised the book, hailing Halder as a "survivor," and say it raises troubling questions about the fate of Indian's millions of often badly treated domestic servants.

-- 'Baby lay there crying, alone and screaming' --

The book "comes from someone not used to words, or indeed to writing, someone who belongs to a group that is usually voiceless," says award-winning historical author Urvashi Butalia, who produced the English version.

"Indians don't always see their servants as people with their own lives, joys, tragedies -- this book makes them," she says.

A Life Less Ordinary begins with Halder's description of her earliest years in the northern state of Kashmir, where "the snowflakes swirled around like a swarm of bees."

Most of the book is in the first person, but to describe the most traumatic moments of her life she slips into the third person, referring to "Baby" rather using the autobiographical "I".

She writes poignantly about the loss of her mother, who walked out on the family without explanation one day after the family had moved to Kolkata.

As her mother left she pressed a small ten paisa coin into Halder's tiny hands that she kept for years afterwards.

"Did she even remember she had managed to rid herself of her little girl Baby?" Halder writes. "Did she remember she hadn't turned around once to look back? How then could she have known that Baby stood there and watched her until she became a mere speck on the horizon?"

The book recounts her ill-treatment by her stepmother and describes her explosive father, an ex-serviceman and driver who was given to unpredictable rages when he would beat her.

Then it takes her on to her marriage.

On her wedding day, which occurred, she recalls precisely, when she was aged 12 years and 11 months, she had no idea what was happening.