Baby Halder, formerly a domestic help and now a writer, is the author of three memoirs. Her first book, Aalo Aandhare (2002), written in Bengali, is the first account of a domestic help from India. It has been translated into 25 languages. Here, she speaks to Souradeep Roy and Sruti M D from the Indian Cultural Forum, on writing the book, her influences, and her current preoccupations. The interview is in Hindi and Bengali.
The following is an extract from A Life Less Ordinary, the English translation of Baby Halder's autobiography Aalo Aandhare.
It was only after Didi went away, that we realized how difficult things could be without a mother. When the moment had come for Didi to leave, she’d cried, saying that if Ma had not gone, we wouldn’t have had to shoulder this burden. “You’re sending me off,” she told Baba, “but now the responsibility of looking after these young children will be yours. They have no one else to call their own.” Didi left and our problems began in earnest. Baba never stayed at home. Sometimes he would give us money and tell us to get ourselves something to eat. But he would still say: “whatever you do, don’t forget to study.”
That was why, in the midst of all this hardship and trouble we never stopped going to school. I had a good friend in school, whose mother often called me home and gave me something to eat, and even asked me to stay with them. Our school headmaster was also very kind to me. He gave me notebooks and pencils and, after Ma left, and our tuitions stopped, he got his daughter to give me free tuitions.
I loved school as much as I hated home. I never wanted to go home – there was no one there who appreciated my work in the same way as my teachers at school, so there was no incentive for me to go back. The days when there was no school stretched out forever, and I missed Ma and Didi terribly, so whenever I got the chance, I’d run off to play with my friends. I used to love playing games with them! We played kit-kit, lukochuri, rumalchuri and skipped to our hearts’ content and the hours would just melt away.
I never missed a day of school, and often, people did not know that I’d come to school without having eaten a thing. I was too scared of Baba to tell him there was no food. One day a friend of mine came to our house to fetch me so we could go to school together. I quickly got ready to go. My friend told me I should eat something before we left and I blurted out that there was nothing in the house to eat. Baba heard this. I didn’t know he was at home, else I would not have said anything. That day, when I came home from school, he beat me so badly that it was three days before I could get up and many more before I felt able to go back to school again. My teachers and friends came to ask after me.
As soon as my Dada was a little older, he decided he could not live with Baba and so he went to stay with Pishi-ma, my aunt. Once he got there, he realized that she wasn’t too well off either, and was only just managing to scrape by herself. At home now there was only Baba, myself and my younger brother. Our Jetha thought the best way to put our family back together again was to get Baba to remarry. When he first suggested this, Baba resisted, but very soon he came around to the idea.
My stepmother never listened to anything Baba said. She never fed us on time, she often beat us without reason, and she’d cook up tales about us and tell Baba and we’d get beaten by him as well. Baba was not willing to listen to anything we had to say, and there were times when he would refuse even to look at us. There was nothing we could do. When Jetha realized what was going on, he called Baba and explained to him that before he punished the children he should at least try to find out whether they were at fault. After being told this, Baba began to change. He began to realize that not everything our stepmother told him about us was true. But then, the moment he began to question her, things became much worse at home. Whenever things became unbearable, he would take her to her brother’s home and leave her there. There her father and brother often tried to reason with her, but the moment she came back to our home, everything was the same again. She would not feed us properly, nor treat us well. Things got so bad that sometimes we – and even Baba – were forced to try and cook our own meals. Since we were still so small, we would sometimes burn our fingers in the process. While all this was going on, Baba started something – a business perhaps – that took him away from home for two, three days at a stretch, but the moment he returned he’d have to listen to our tales of woe about not being properly fed or looked after.
Days and weeks and months went by like this, and then suddenly one day, Baba announced that he had to go to Dhanbad for an interview for a driver’s job. He told Jetha he was going and he came back only a month later. He was only at home a few days before he was off again, leaving us in Jetha’s care. And this time he was away for many months. He didn’t send us any money either and we were in real difficulty. He turned up out of the blue one day and took us both, and our mother to Dhanbad where he’d been given a place to stay. My brother and I were sent back to school. He did not bother to buy us books and notebooks, but we managed somehow. I loved school and worked hard. Perhaps that is why I had so many well-wishers there. I don’t quite know how Baba spent the money he earned, but I do know that he used to drink, and that this had become much worse after my real Ma left.
We’d been in Dhanbad only a few days when Baba got a job in a factory in Durgapur. So he left us with a friend who was like a sister to him and went off to Durgapur. Even though she wasn’t a blood relation, she was really good to us, but when the money Baba had left with her for our expenses ran out, she became very worried. What would she do now? After a lot of thought she decided it would be best to send my brother and me to her father, and to send my new Ma to her brother. By the time she made this decision, Kali Puja had come round. On Puja night, everyone wore new, colourful clothes to celebrate and there was a general atmosphere of festivity. But not for us. My brother and I sat on our doorstep and watched all this and we cried.
I was really angry with Baba. Because of him we had to listen to all sorts of things from people. They would say things like: even though you have parents, you my as well be orphans; and your father works somewhere far away, and that’s why you are in this state,… and if you don’t have a mother, you have no one!
Baba came back a few days after Kali Puja. It was the middle of the night. We were all asleep but when we heard his voice we woke up with a start. He called us to him and gave us the good news that Ma had returned and it made us so happy. I asked him again and again where she was and he said that if you both want to meet her you will have to come with me now. He then told our new Ma a lie. He said, “I am going to your father’s house. Tomorrow morning, take the train and join me there. I don’t want to delay things any further right now. There are also some people I owe money to.” He added, “if they see me they will demand to be paid and I don’t have any money so it’s best to leave quietly.” He lied to her like this and took us with him and left. When we got to Durgapur we found that the woman Baba was calling our mother was another mother altogether. I said to my brother, “How much more do you think we will have to bear?” and he began to cry. Our third mother could not bear to see him cry so she gathered him in her arms and began to soothe him. That made me think that perhaps we would get love from her, but the reality that unfolded was quite different.
An ICF series of interviews begun on International Working Women's Day: