Ordinary women, extraordinary tales
They have given a voice to women used to being voiceless and faceless in today’s India
Baby Halder became a writer between domestic chores. She wrote, hesitantly, in the pages of an exercise book given to her by her employer, an anthropology professor. In intervals snatched between washing dishes, cleaning floors, making tea, she set down her story, one slow, compelling paragraph at a time.
Nalini Jameela, a sex worker, encountered writer’s block after one of her clients came across a line in an early draft of her book: “I am 49 years old.” She had told him she was only 42. Jameela lost the client and, briefly, her nerve.
Anjum Zamrud Habib became a writer in the Tihar jail, where she kept a journal during the five years she spent in prison on charges, later dropped, of supporting terrorism in Kashmir.
Sister Jesme, then the principal of a Roman Catholic school, says she was threatened with psychiatric treatment after she accused her religious order of exploiting women. She wrote ‘Amen: The Autobiography of a Nun,’ while defending herself against her superiors.
Over the last four years, these slim, starkly told memoirs — and others of their kind — have become a body of work. They have given a voice to women used to being voiceless, a face to women who are usually invisible in today’s India.
This year will see the publication of Anjum’s ‘Prisoner Number 100,’ and second works by Jameela and Baby. The languages are different — Urdu, Malayalam, Bengali, though all have been translated for an English-language audience. But the experiences shared by the servant, the sex worker, the prisoner and the nun expose the deep fault lines of urban India.
“What do I do with my maid?” asked the woman next to me at the literary festival.
Hers was an egalitarian household. She had come with her child’s nanny to hear Baby read from her book ‘A Life Less Ordinary.’
The problem was the seating arrangements. The woman did not want to ask her maid to sit on the carpet in front — not when they’re here to listen to another servant read. But the invisible but rigid code of class that rules all of us in India makes both maid and employer uncomfortable at the thought of sitting next to each other, in the same row of chairs.
There’s a Hindi phrase I’ve heard all my life growing up here: ‘Apni aukat me raho’ — know your place. Baby, by the simple act of writing her story, has redefined that place forever.
But four years after the book that started it all, Baby is still a servant, if a more privileged one. She has a passport with much-stamped pages. She has completed a second, soon-to-be-published book.
“There are so many women like me, like the old Baby Halder, who have their own stories, their own thoughts,” she said in a recent interview. “But to know what they think, you must take time.”
Despite the support of her publisher and her employer, house-cleaning still takes up most of her time. The writing squeezes into the corners.
Shortly after Sister Jesme’s ‘Amen’ was released, her superiors said that she was mentally ill and rejected her allegations of sexual abuse by priests. But to her audiences during book readings, Sister Jesme came across as calm, forthright, credible.
“Jesus has helped me,” she would say, flashing her trademark thumbs-up. In a country where sexual abuse is rarely addressed, ‘Amen’ sent many skeletons rattling out of the closet.
“I want to give the voiceless a voice,” Sister Jesme says. And she does. A collective sharing begins, tentatively, as women raise their own experiences of abuse — but it begins.
Our hypocrisy is another matter. A few years before I met Jameela, I attended a rally for the rights of sex workers and people with AIDS. It was held at India Gate, the symbolic heart of government in Delhi. There were college students, doctors, human rights workers — but no sex workers. “They can’t march with us!” said an organiser, scandalised that we would ask.
Instead, in the red-light districts of Old Delhi, the sex workers staged their own, parallel procession. Separated from them, safely sanitised, we marched for the rights of sex workers to be treated like us.
In 2007, the publishing house where I was chief editor agreed to publish the English translation of Jameela’s memoirs, and I accompanied her on book tours. Dignified in her crisp saris, Jameela would hold her own in interactions with curious, occasionally judgmental, readers and reporters. At one news conference, a young woman asked her how she could “sleep with men for money,” and whether she had lost all her dignity “as a woman.”
From across the room, Jameela caught my eye and grinned. “I wonder,” she said, “why no one thinks of the profession of wife in that way — as a woman who sleeps with one man, often for money or shelter. She could get better rates with a broader client base.”
Three years later, waiting for Jameela’s second book to come out, I realise how much our brief conversations have stayed with me. I think of the emphasis she places on owning and controlling one’s life, on feminine power — either sexual or financial, preferably both.
There are two things these women have taught me. One is obvious. Baby Halder, Nalini Jameela, Anjum Zamrud Habib and Sister Jesme demonstrate the power of raising one’s voice — against the injustice of being imprisoned for being on the wrong side of a long-raging conflict, against abuse, against deep-seated prejudices and class barriers.
The other is less apparent. As Jameela once told me: “Don’t wait for people — family, society, your man — to give you respect. Take it.”