The new maid Professor Prabodh Kumar found through the milkman behaved oddly. All day the 29-year-old Bengali girl, a mother of three, worked hard and silently, sweeping, mopping, cooking; but her busy hands would still as she dusted the books, the dustcloth moving with unnecessary slowness through the pages of his Bengali tomes. Prabodh, a retired professor of anthropology and a grandson of Munshi Premchand, finally confronted her. "Do you read?" She looked as guilty as if he'd caught her hand in the biscuit tin.
Baby Haldar, it turned out, had been to school intermittently until she was married off at 12 to a man 14 years her senior. And when the kind professor offered her the use of his bookshelves, she hesitantly chose Taslima Nasreen's Amar Meyebela (My Girlhood). "It was as if," recalls Baby, "I was reading about my own life." Other books left Prabodh's shelf in rapid succession: novels by Ashapurna Devi, Mahashweta Devi, Buddhadeb Guha. That was when Prabodh went out one day and bought her a pen and copybook. "Write," he told her, an order that made Baby almost weep with frustration. What was there to write? Hers, she says, was a mindless life, moving where her father, an ex-serviceman and driver, took them, from Kashmir to Murshidabad to Durgapur, a motherless child unquestioningly enduring an abusive father and step-mother and a husband, until one day out of desperation she boarded a train for unknown Delhi with her three children. In the capital city, she soon did what thousands of women fleeing poverty and despair and drunken husbands are doing: took ill-paid work as a domestic, sometimes spending the near-freezing winter nights with her children on the streets.
Here then for the first time in her bleak life was an unlooked-for mentor urging her to write about her life. So she picked up the pen, with the same curious blend of grim determination and blind faith, covering the first few pages as painstakingly as if it was yet one more chore in her busy day. "It was nearly 20 years since I had ever written in a copybook, I had forgotten spellings. It was very embarrassing, especially when my children wanted to know why I was writing in a copybook instead of them." But her first words worked their own magic: they unlocked her past. All her searing, suppressed memories of the mother who abandoned them, the night when the man she married climbed into her bed and raped her, the sister who was strangled by her husband, the terror and pain of delivering her first child at 13, memories she had never confided to anyone, didn't even realise she had, flowed out into the notebook. There was no stopping Baby now. She wrote in the kitchen, propping her notebook between the vegetables and dishes, she wrote in between sweeping and swabbing, after the dishes and before, and late at night after putting her children to bed. Her mentor was bemused: "I need so much preparation before I can get down to writing anything, my chair, my study, my writing materials, and here was this girl writing as easily as if she was chopping vegetables."
The results were even more unexpected. "All I had in mind when I urged her to write was to take her mind off her problems. But the closely-written pages of the notebook were astonishingly good," says Prabodh. Prabodh was excited but did not trust his own judgement. He consulted friends Ashok Seksariya and Ramesh Goswami with whom he shared a common interest in literature. Both were enthused by Baby's manuscript, hailing it as another Diary of Anne Frank. Prabodh was persuaded to translate it into Hindi. Aalo Aandhari (Light and Darkness) was ready. But finding a publisher for such an unusual narrative was tougher; the book was too strange for their tastes. But Sanjay Bharti, who owns a small publishing house, Roshani Publishers, agreed to risk it even if it lost him money.
There was, however, yet another surprise in store for all the four friends of literature: Aalo Aandhari began selling from the first day of its launch. "Everyone from the sweeper to the retired headmistress next door wanted to buy a copy." It sold so well that the second edition will be out in less than two months. There is talk of film rights (by Prakash Jha); someone wants to make a play out of it, others want to translate it into English, Oriya, Tamil, Telugu; and a new literary magazine in Calcutta, Bhasha Bandhan, will start serialising the book in the original Bengali from its next issue.
But for Baby, the best thing about her rebirth as an author is the regard of her new friends. "For the first time in my life, I feel confident that my story is worth telling, and in my own words."