Baby Haldar, right, with two of her children and Kumar, her employer
domestic helps
Baby Halder, the help-turned-author, at home

Most people who consider themselves ‘equalists’ would perhaps not be averse to having the house help share the couch in their living room. But when Baby Halder asks her employer to switch off the kitchen lights, frankly, we are a bit taken aback. Even Halder concedes this is extraordinary. “Would I have been able to do this in any other house?” she wonders. Very unlikely, but then this is the home of Prabodh Kumar (her employer or rather her father, as Halder would have us interpret, and whom she affectionately calls “Tatush”). This is where, after being abused and humiliated by family and employers for years, she found love, respect and, to top it all, the encouragement to become a best-selling, celebrated Bengali author. And it is in Gurgaon near Delhi that we find this story of a middle-class home treating their help as an equal.

Even Halder concedes this is extraordinary. “Would I have been able to do this in any other house?” she wonders.
“I don’t think you can call such people (those who mistreat their helps) educated. As I see it, it’s the people who think of the well-being of the poor and the nation at large who are the educated ones,” begins Halder, when asked about her thoughts on this emotive issue. “The middle class is busy running after money. It’s as if the poor don’t exist, as if they are machines that the rich can use and simply forget about,” Kumar adds. Rather than a “naukar-malik” relationship, Halder believes the maliks should think of it as a mutually beneficial relationship where the two help each other out in their lives. “And those who think otherwise should read my book (A Life Less Ordinary, published by Zubaan/Penguin) to realise that even the less educated can go far,” she adds.

It’s been a long journey for Halder to where she is now, from enduring long periods where she was ill-paid, abused, even forced to lock her children away and not send them to school (as ordered by a previous employer). Thankful for the respect she got from the Kumars, something that did wonders to her self-esteem, Halder has a word of advice for the helps too: “Those who just run after money, change houses for a little extra...they have to look beyond this. You must look for respect from your employers even if it means a little less money.”

Shuttling between domestic and literary chores, she hasn’t had the time yet, despite the many requests, to engage with organisations fighting for the rights of domestic workers. “But this is something that I really want to work on at a later stage,” she says. Right now, she’s scheduled to leave for Calcutta the day after we meet, where she has had a house built. Halder takes mild offence when this correspondent asks her if she is going on leave to spend some time at home. “Why do you ask that? Either you haven’t understood me or I have misunderstood you,” she says. “This is my home and family now,” she clarifies. There’s a little correction for our ingrained biases.

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