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.