Perhaps, one of the most perceptive parts of Baby Halder‘s ‘A Life Less Ordinary‘ is its title. One does rejoice at her eventual triumph over a life of almost relentless oppression and suffering, but the joy is immediately tempered by the realization that her story is extraordinary. The ordinary is reality for most of her fellow women. I will not review her book here. All I will say is that I was gripped and finished the entire 163 pages in a matter of hours. Rather I would like to talk about what one can learn about the Indian society and state, and India’s modernization project from her memoir.
First, just a brief overview of her life as described in ‘A Life Less Ordinary’. Baby Halder was born somewhere in Jammu and Kashmir, where her soldier father was posted. Soldier here means ‘jawan’ (जवान), not officer. From there, her family moved around several states, until they finally settled in Murshidabad, West Bengal. Here, her father started behaving erratically, leaving home for months on end, returning for a few days, promising to stay and then leaving abruptly again. Unable to bear the financial and emotional stress, Halder’s mother simply leaves, taking her youngest son with her. Halder and her two older siblings are left behind.
Halder’s life then follows a pattern of almost unending beatings and oppression, from her father, from her husband (she has her first child at the age of 14) and from society, which blames her even when she is the one harassed by other men. She endures somehow, narrowly escaping death after giving birth to her second child and finally leaves home with her three kids and arrives in Delhi. There, working as a domestic help, she is faced with her employer’s antipathy. She finally escapes her pre-modern life when her next employer, an anthropology professor, Dr. Prabodh Kumar, recognizes her desire to write.
One can comment on the various forces at work throughout Halder’s life. The most obvious and most important is family. This shouldnt be too surprising, as it is the case for most people. But Baby’s family dictates the pre modern nature of her early life. Her father is not interested in her welfare or her studies. Her innocent queries about why she simply has to submit to the will of her father and then her husband, are laughed away with alarming indifference. Society’s comfortable ease with a 14 year old marrying a 26 year old left me shocked. But family is also where Baby finds the most protection, from her husband and from a hostile society. Her brother especially stands out as a key support in her search for modernity. But he still cant see her through to the end and wants her to find peace with her brutal husband.
Religion and caste, do enter the equation, but barely. The spiritual remains somewhat detached from her material travails, but she does pray for strength from time to time. Halder does mention caste, but in an idle, matter of fact kind of manner. Perhaps, the transition to modernity in India is somewhat uncoupled from religion and caste ?
This brings us to the third force in Halder’s life, the state. On many fronts, the state’s modernizing influence is clear. It provides the schools where Halder is first exposed to modernity: the ability to read, write and be her own self. It provides the hospitals, without which her life would have almost certainly been cut short. Its vast expanse and political unity provides Halder with the physical opportunity of escape. Its railroads provide the means of her escape into more modern areas (here Delhi).
But on many other levels, the state comes up short. Most notably, on the issue of domestic violence. Halder’s family (on both sides) does stand in her defense when she is abused by her husband. But their authority is limited and they always operate with a notion that she would ultimately depend on him. Unlike the state, they have no punitive powers. The police, however, are simply absent in Halder’s story. They arrive when something very serious like a rape or suicide occurs, but otherwise they subside into the background. Apart from one mention of a ‘community leader’, local politicians are never mentioned.
Perhaps Halder’s story tell us something about the limitations of the post colonial Indian state ? It manages to do macro level things fairly well and provide an overall environment for modernization, but fails miserably at reforming society at the micro level. But her story makes it clear that only when the state gets its act together, will Indian women step confidently into modernity.