Monday, 7 November 2011

Alo-Andhari: The Story of Baby Haldar


Would you like to buy a precious gift just for fifty Rupees? Take my advice and buy a copy of “ALO-ANDHARI”- autobiography of Baby Haldar at this price. If you can’t spare this money, then borrow it, but read the book anyhow. The publication of this book is a unique event without any precedence. It may be dubbed even as an historic event. This uniqueness is in more than one sense. Let us take a look. The book is an authentic document of the conditions of Indian woman in late twentieth and early twenty-first century. This is also a truthful tale of the life of ordinary Indian citizens. An unknown woman, one among the millions, named Baby Haldar, who barely could manage to attend the school up to standard VII, has authored the book. And don’t be surprised that Baby is a maidservant working in an enlightened middle-class family in New Delhi. There is a heart-warming truth behind the uniqueness of this book that the master of the house, where Baby works, recognised the hidden talent of the girl, encouraged her to pen the story of her life and made arrangements for publication of the book. There is no dearth of writers. There is any number of fiction-writers, poets are dime a dozen, and number of autobiographers is also considerable. In Bengali- the language in which Alo-Andhari has been originally written- eminent writer Ashapurna Devi has written the biographical trilogy of her three generations. Another eminent writer Mahasweta Devi too has brought to us the tales of the hapless people in the same Bengali language. But Baby Haldar in fact has created history.

It’s a short story told in just 143 pages. It can be read in one or two sittings. It took me some three hours to go through it. But let me tell you, there are thorns strewn on each page and every paragraph. I have just completed the reading and my chest is riddled with the thorns. The thorns whose prick Baby has suffered day in and day out, from her early childhood up to the time little before writing this book. How cruel the life could be, how much resilience is needed to face it, and how one day a new beginning comes knocking on the door, all has been told by Baby from her own experience. This brave girl didn’t allow her dreams to dry up, in spite of pain and abuse suffered at every step. Did she knew that by assiduously preserving her taste for literature all these years, the day would come when she would write life-story of millions of Indian women, whose life was not much different from her own? And could it be hoped now that the book will turn some readers into volunteers to take upon them the responsibility to read it out in village Panchayats, in trade union meetings, in Anganbaris, in every conceivable meeting place, and motivate the listeners to seek inspiration from Baby’s story? Once upon a time, Subhadra Kumari Chauhan spread the story of Jhansi ki Rani, as heard from folk-singers, through her celebrated poem throughout India. Perhaps, the need of the day is to similarly spread Baby’s story, far and wide.

 To be sure, Baby Haldar is not Jhansi ki Rani. There is nothing novel about her life’s story. But isn’t it a feat of bravery that a maidservant, so called in the lexicon of urbane middle-class India, one day drops the broom and picks up a pen to narrate her tale? Wouldn’t this episode of extra-ordinary courage warm up innumerable people, who have made compromise with their destiny in silence? Wouldn’t they realise that the destiny could be moulded in real life, and not only in fairy tales? I am reminded of ACHHOOT- autobiography of Daya Pawar. It caused a storm when it was published in Hindi. It would not be wrong to suggest that a serious discourse on Dalit question in Hindi started with its publication. Marathi Dalit writing thus encouraged the Dalit literature in Hindi. Today, one can see a self-confident, vibrant Dalit literary movement. It is quite possible that Alo-Andhari may also become the fountain of inspiration for a new literary trend. There is no lack of books in Hindi, which tell the tale of women living in shanty colonies, hutments, Dalit localities, makeshift houses, nomadic tents or mill tenements. But written from a distance, they lack the intimate view. They may be full of sympathy, but the agony of being trampled is not there. Instead of pouring out one’s heart, there is the hidden desire to win acclamation as a writer. On the opposite, Baby’s book opens up a whole new world before us, with such ease and without any literary pretensions. There is an impossible simplicity in her narration. The words speak for themselves. No footnotes, no comments, no definitions, just take it as it is.

Baby Haldar is neither a social scientist, nor a political-worker. Daughter of a lower rank army personnel she was not even a writer. An irresponsible father, a mother who deserted home, a cruel husband- twice in age, and three children at a tender age, years spent in shanty towns here and there, hapless relatives, and odd jobs for survival- such is the content of the book. If there is an oasis in the desert, it is in the village of the in-laws where the father-in-law treats her as his own daughter. But if there is something extra-ordinary in this ordinary life, it’s baby’s courage and self-confidence. Then one-day baby decides to leave Kolkata and come to Delhi with her three children in search of a better future. Here she comes across Tatush. Tatush means well-known Hindi writer Prabodh Kumar, grandson of great writer Premchand. But this introduction is irrelevant and unnecessary. What should be told is that Prabodh is able to see the dreams in the eyes of this girl, came to his home as a maidservant. An affectionate father starts filling colours in the daughter’s dreams. It is he, who urges her to write, translates her writing in barely legible Bengali into Hindi and asks friends to publish the book. Is middle-class India prepared to learn something from him; it’s a million-dollar question?

Almost at the end of the book, Baby writes-“Her mother wanted to see her children get educated and become good persons. She herself was illiterate, but knew the importance of education, and as long as she was with them, always insisted upon them to read books. Had mother been alive today, and seen that her baby was eager to learn even today, her joy would have been boundless. Looking at the sky, as if trying to talk to her mother, Baby says, Mama! Come and see, your Baby still wants to learn, and wants to give good education to her little ones! She wants nothing but your blessings, mama. She was talking to her mother and her tears were dropping on the floor”.  

I had reached to the last paragraph and closing the book, I was also silently weeping with Baby, as I had wept many years ago, while reading the book “Aur Insan Jag Utha”- written by Godavari Parulekar on the struggles of tribal of Thane-Kolaba region in Maharashtra.


PS: The Hindi book was later translated into English by Urvashi Butalia and published under the title 'A Life Less Ordinary' by Zubaan. Thereafter this autobiography has been translated and published in many Indian and foreign languages.

Lalit Surjan