|THE FINE PRINT: Baby Halder (top) and the book cover
Every morning I read the papers. I do not know English but I still looked at the English papers, sometimes just at the pictures and I would ask Tatush to explain them to me. Then Tatush would say, “Try to read the words that are below the pictures.” I’d then read the letters, one by one, and Tatush would keep nodding or saying, hmm, hmm. After I finished reading the characters, Tatush would pronounce the whole word and explain its meaning to me. Sometimes I had so many questions for him that he could not manage to read the newspaper himself. Perhaps that was why sometimes he would say to me, “Baby, don’t you need to send the children to school'”
“Yes, but there is still time,” I’d say.
“When will you go' You’ll get late: you’d better go now.”
And then I would get up and go. Sending the children to school was not the only task I had to do: there was so much else. The moment Arjun-da woke up, for example, I had to get breakfast and some food ready for him. He liked to eat special things and he did not like cold rotis; so they had to be made fresh each time. I did not mind this: I like cooking for people and feeding them and even when I was with my husband, anytime I made something new I would share it with every one around. Perhaps that was what made him so unhappy with me!
I also liked looking at cookery books as much as I liked reading books and poems and stories. Reading the newspaper had become like an addiction and everything that Tatush read to me or told me about from the newspaper was like a new discovery for me. Perhaps this was why I waited at the gate every morning for the papers to come.
One day I was late waking up. When I came down I saw that Tatush had fetched the papers and he was reading them. I went quickly to the kitchen to make tea. I gave him his tea and picked up the other paper and started to look at the pictures. Tatush said, “Where is your tea' Go and fetch it.” I brought the tea and stood there drinking it, and he said, “Why are you standing' Sit down.”
I sat down in a chair, put my glass of tea down on the table and began to look at the paper again. Tatush said, “Baby, it has been a year since you came to this house. Tell me, how do you feel about this' What is it that you like and what don’t you like' What do you think you have learnt since you came here'” And then he went back to his paper.
Baby thought to herself, is this any kind of question' She did not give him an answer. She went and stood by the window and looked out at the sky. Baby remembered her mother and thought how much she had wanted her children to learn to read and write and to lead a good life. She did not manage to study herself but as long as she was with her children, she never stopped urging them to do so. Had she been alive today and seen that her Baby was able to read and was learning to do more, how happy she would have been. Baby looked at the sky, as if searching for her mother, as if to say to her, “Ma, come and see at once. I still want to read and write, I want my children to read and write. They need your blessings, Ma.” Baby was talking to her mother, and her face was wet with tears, her shirt damp as they slid down her chest and fell to the ground.
The tea had gone cold. Suddenly, Baby heard footsteps and started. She looked up and saw Arjun-da was awake and was coming down the stairs. “You people are drinking tea already'” he said, “Where’s mine'” She headed off to the kitchen to make tea when someone rang the bell at the gate. Outside was a boy from the neighbouring house. He had a parcel which he gave to her saying, “This came for you yesterday. It was delivered to our house by mistake.”
She took the packet and gave it to Tatush. But Tatush handed it back. “This is for you. Here take it ' see what’s inside.” She took the packet and went into the kitchen and put the water to boil for Arjun-da’s tea. Then she opened the packet. There was a magazine inside. She started to turn the pages when her own named jumped out at her. Surprised, she looked again, and it was true, it was there! The words said: Aalo Aandhar, Baby Halder! Her heart leapt for joy! It was as if it had begun to turn cartwheels. In the middle of all this she remembered Jethu’s story about Ashapurna Devi writing after doing all her other housework. She thought, Jethu was right, one can write along with doing household work.
Suddenly she noticed that the water had nearly boiled dry! She quickly made the tea and gave it to Arjun-da and then ran upstairs to her children shouting “Look! Look! I have something for you, look...” Her daughter hesitatingly read each letter and made out the words, Aalo Andhari, Baby Halder... “Ma! Your name in a book!!” Both children began to laugh for joy. She looked at them and tenderness welled up in her heart. She took them into her arms and held them close. And suddenly, the thought came to her that she had forgotten something: “Let me go, let me go,” she said to her children, “I’ll be back, right away!” and she ran downstairs. How silly I am! she thought, I saw my name in the magazine and forgot everything! She came downstairs and knelt down to touch Tatush’s feet. He put his hand on her head and blessed her.
Extracted from A life less ordinary by Baby Halder, translated by Urvashi Butalia, Zubaan-Penguin Books. This is Halder’s first book, written originally in Bengali