HONG KONG : Baby Halder’s incredible life journey — from ‘runaway mom’ to domestic helper to best-selling author — ran into a bureaucratic wall at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi. Waiting to fly out for the Man Hong Kong Literary Festival, along with feminist publisher Urvashi Butalia, Baby was told that since her passport didn’t have the ‘Emigration Clearance’ waiver stamp, she’d have to be grounded.
Butalia told DNA that she had tried to reason with the immigration officer at the airport, showing him Baby’s autobiography (A Life Less Ordinary) and the festival invitation to Baby.
First, the immigration officer asked for Baby’s 10th standard pass certificate. “When I told him she’d studied only up to the sixth standard, he asked, ‘How could she have written a book if she was illiterate?’ When I informed him that Baby had taught herself to read and write, he said, ‘Yeh mein kaise maan sakta hoon?’ (How can I accept this)”
The officer then asked for Baby’s income tax returns details. “I pointed out that she was a domestic worker who earns Rs 1,200 or so a month, and so didn’t file her tax returns,” recalls Butalia. “But he wasn’t interested in helping her out and it became a ‘class’ issue…”
Baby and Butalia had to return home. “Baby was crushed,” Butalia told DNA. “She had been so excited about travelling abroad for the first time.”
Butalia worked the system and secured the necessary clearance. The two arrived in Hong Kong on Saturday, a day later than scheduled. Later that afternoon, Baby recounted her extraordinary and profoundly moving life experiences: abandoned by her mother in Murshidabad, she was married off at age 12 and became a mother at age 14. Unwilling to tolerate the domestic violence she experienced, she decided to leave home with her children and move to New Delhi, where she took up an ill-paid job as a domestic worker.
Providence led her to the home of Prabodh Kumar, grandson of legendary writer Munshi Premchand, who, noticing Baby’s interest in reading, encouraged her to write her own story — and opened up a whole new world for her. The book that emerged from that labour has now been translated into 21 languages, including 13 foreign languages.
Her narration, the first on foreign soil, is emotionally draining for her, and she breaks down a couple of times, particularly when she recalls her struggle to provide for her children’s education, and her enormous gratitude to the man who opened up her caged world and taught her to fly…
“This book has changed my life,” says Baby. She did not have much time in Hong Kong to buy gifts for her children. Next week, she’s off to France for another literary festival. Perhaps she’ll have better luck with her shopping list there.