Indian housemaid pens Dickensian memoir of poverty

The hardships of Baby Halder – abandoned at 4, married off at 12, a mother herself by age 13 – could fill a book.

Small surprise then that Ms. Halder's breathtaking memoir, "A Life Less Ordinary," is causing a stir in the Indian publishing industry. Halder's book offers a window into a world that shocks many Indians, one in which women, and particularly poor ill-educated women, remain second-class citizens.

Still in its first printing of 3,500 books after three months, admirable for a first-time author in India, Halder's personal memories as a poor domestic worker aspiring to a better life seems to be selling best in bookstores that cater to foreigners in India. But the book's buzz also has the potential to stir debate about the social responsibilities of India's wealthy as the country moves toward greater individual opportunity and fewer collective obligations.

"The semifeudal contract that existed before between rich and poor, between master and servant, has broken down. And nothing has come to replace it," says Nandu Ram, a sociology professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and specialist in caste issues.

Many older prejudices have waned, as citizens of lower castes are taking greater part in the political process, and as more of those of humble background prove themselves in the today's marketplace. But the waning of caste prejudice has not meant that more Indians are suddenly doing more for those less fortunate, says Mr. Ram. "There is a generation gap of our younger people who are becoming more and more self-centered, with not much consideration for the poor, for even the older members of their own family."

Baby Halder's book forces consideration. Ms. Halder's life is a parallel world where domestic abuse is acceptable, hunger is unremarkable, women are bound by rules of family honor, survival is uncertain, and education is an extravagance. And thanks to the unstinting descriptions of Halder – a housekeeper turned author – it's a world that has become easier to imagine.

"I don't feel angry with anybody, or sorry for myself for what happened," says Halder, in an interview at the office of Zubaan Books. "In many ways, everyone in my life was doing what they were equipped to do, what they knew. If a dog barks at night, you can't say to the dog, why are you barking?"

That said, Halder's stoicism is remarkable. The birth of her first child was so painful that doctors had to tie her hands and feet to the bed. None of her family, and certainly not her husband, bothered to visit the hospital until days after the birth. While pregnant with another child, Halder was beaten by her husband with a piece of timber for visiting female friends. Days later, Halder had a miscarriage.

Yet Halder's lack of fatalism – and her earthy, dispassionate style of writing – makes this book almost revolutionary to read. "There's no sense of 'how does this happen to me?' " says Urvashi Butalia, editor of the English edition of Halder's book, and chief of Zubaan Books in New Delhi. "Baby refuses to be a victim, and she's able to articulate something that thousands of women have gone through."

At face value, Halder's future was written the moment she was born into a working rural family. While she received a rudimentary education, paid for by her mother, Halder soon was left behind when her mother fled the constant beatings of her father. And when, at the age of 12, she became too much burden for her father and new stepmother, Halder was married off to a man hardly anybody knew.

The good times, such as they were, were over.

"I had to do as he said, I had no independence," Halder writes, about her husband after the birth of her first son. "But why? I used to wonder at the injustice of this. It was my life, not his."

But even though society doesn't grant it, Halder staked out an independence of sorts in her drive to give her children an education and a future.

Leaving before dawn, she took jobs cleaning other people's homes, then returned to cook breakfast and ready her children for school. This work, itself demeaning in the eyes of her husband and other villagers, was actually the foundation of Halder's growing confidence, and it gave her the financial means to eventually leave her abusive husband and the cruel gossip of village life.

"The ability to bear pain sometimes is also a strength," says Halder. "We should never see women as victims. They have an inner strength that allows them to bear these things. I might have been the same kind of woman, if not for my children. Thinking about them, about their future, and my past, made me want to move out."

Yet Halder's story would have remained a silent one – another numb stare in a crowd on the streets of Delhi – if Halder hadn't found employment at the home of a former schoolteacher, and if that teacher hadn't noticed Halder pausing while dusting his bookshelves.

"Can you read at all?" he asked her.

"I won't lie," she said, "but what I know is like knowing nothing."

Her employer pressed her further, and realized that not only did his maid know how to read, but had studied to the fifth grade, and had even gained an appreciation for the Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore. He handed her a notebook, and encouraged her to write her life story.

Dipankar Gupta, a sociologist at Jawaharlal Nehru University, argues that do-gooders like Halder's employer – whom she calls "Tatush," an affectionate Bengali term for "father" – are not so much a sign of Indian largess as they are a sign of the failure of the Indian government to provide the barest essential services to its citizenry.

"Why are there so many Mahatmas in Indian society; that in itself shows the inadequacy of the state social services, of health, and education, and so on," says Mr. Gupta. "The state doesn't look after its citizens."

Today, with proceeds of the book saved away for her children's education, Halder continues to work for this employer, a man she regards as the father she wished she had. She also makes time to write.

"I can't give this up," she says with a smile. "It is a different kind of writing. Today I'm a very different person. [I write to] recover that sweetness that I find in my daily life. I don't want to lose it."

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