Friday, February 16, 2007

Impressions: Baby Haldar

“Don’t you find it tiring being asked the same questions again and again?” I asked Baby Haldar. We were sitting in the lobby of our hotel. This was the day after her conversation with Urvashi Butalia, presumably similar to the one they had in Jaipur and in countless other places.

“No,” Baby said. “I get asked the same questions, but for the people who ask, it is the first time. I always try and find something to say that I have not said before.”

Baby was waiting for some relatives to come and meet her, before she left for the University to meet a group of domestic workers. We were all about to leave for the morning session. Baby would follow later. “Will you be all right,” Urvashi asked, but it didn’t need asking. Baby sat on the sofa in the lobby and waited, not getting impatient or restless (as I would undoubtedly have been) or even slightly worried. She was totally calm.

The most fascinating thing about Baby is her self-confidence. I found her way of answering questions, sitting amongst a crowd of people she did not know, who were talking in a language she did not understand, utterly magnificent. Which is not to say she was indifferent; far from it. During her talk, there were moments of clear emotion: when she spoke about her mother, for instance. Or when someone said to her, “I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to hear about your book; to which she asked, eyes sparkling, “Pease tell me how happy. I also want to know!”

Urvashi, while talking about one aspect of the book, A Life Less Ordinary, said that one of the things that struck her about Baby’s writing was the matter-of-fact way she talked about violence or abuse: this happened, we went there, he broke my arm. As a feminist and a publisher, Urvashi said, she was struck anew by the ways in which violence was so much a part of Baby’s daily life that it was no longer a question of becoming inured to it; violence was undifferentiated from other aspects of her life.

I haven’t read the book as yet, but in light of the conversation and from what I saw of her, I’m wondering how such a contrast is possible. Someone else asked her if she didn’t feel any anger. To which she replied that had she been angry, she would probably not have been able to write. And I can believe it, though one has got used to the contrary view: that anger impels creativity, or ignites ideas; is, in some way, activity-generating.

Philosophically, I can understand the view that anger is to be let go of, that it is fundamentally destructive. But I also always believed that it is something one understood intellectually, something one never actually practised. The sense I got of Baby was that she really did have no anger in her. I wondered what the cost to herself was, to arrive at this position. Urvashi said that one of the narrative devices Baby often uses is to start speaking of herself in the third person, in times of acute emotional stress. This was, of course, not said in answer to my unvoiced wondering, so it really explains nothing.

Is Baby merely lucky? Is it happy chance that her employer encouraged her to write and passed on the results to people who might have been able to help in getting it noticed? Are other domestic workers’ lives any different? Probably not. But Baby is writing, and they aren’t. And I find that extraordinary.

Yesterday, I spoke to someone who had read the book, and she said that what was really interesting about Baby’s book was the way in which she told her story, as a story. “We know how to tell stories because we are used to hearing them,” she said, implying that even autobiographies can be artfully told, because we are used to hearing narratives structured in particular ways.

But I haven’t read the book. So I can’t be impressed by her writing abilities. I’m still trying to find out what I found amazing about the girl.

1 comment:

The Mad Momma said...

Yeah .. she is lucky. Very lucky. How many of them would have escaped all the abuse and could have written a book that saw the light of day...?