Nicole T. Walters and Prasanta Verma were both raised in the Southern United States but have ties to South Asia. Nicole fell in love with classical Indian dance and then Mother India herself through social work in the country. She and her family spent two years in Bangladesh working with a nonprofit. Prasanta’s roots are in India. She was born under an Asian sun, and lives in the U.S. now, and her ancestors and relatives come from this region of the world.
Their two very different perspectives converge in their love of South Asia, chai, faith, and writing. Together, they interact with the first ever U.S.-Bangladeshi co-production, the acclaimed film, Rickshaw Girl.
This is a story that helps the audience…
…to Feel the Weight: Nicole
You cannot help but feel when you watch Rickshaw Girl. Through the rich color, grit, and complexity, you feel the full arc of the plot—from the weight of poverty to the grief of oppression and to the hope of new beginnings.
Having lived in Dhaka and feeling all the paradoxes of life in Bangladesh, I was eager to first read Mitali Perkin’s young adult novel Rickshaw Girl and then watch the film adaptation. Watching the movie was like stepping into a memory for me, while also stepping into parts of Bangladesh I could never know fully as a foreigner. It was like pulling back the curtains into what I only heard from friends.
In the movie, you are immersed in the life of a young girl whose father is a rickshaw driver in a village outside of the capital city of Dhaka. The difficulties of poverty send her into the city to find work to help her family and bring her face-to-face with the struggles facing women in the majority-Muslim country that was part of India until the British withdrawal in 1948 left a divided and warring subcontinent.
…to Rise Above: Prasanta
The movie starts with a painting.
The protagonist, Naima, is cheated out of payment for her painting, and her mother tells her to be grateful for what she did receive. Then her father becomes ill, can’t drive his rickshaw, and falls behind on payments. Her mother also loses her job due to an unjust accusation. Naima finds herself surrounded by injustice. How does one break this kind of cycle, when the whole world seems to be scheming against her?
I’ve ridden in rickshaws in India, fully aware that the life of the person pulling the rickshaw bears no resemblance to mine—and the ability to leave such a lifestyle is only available to a few who are fortunate to find a way out. But for the grace of God, it could be me in those shoes, like Naima, with a rickshaw-pulling father, bathing in a river, scrounging for money, and subjected to mistreatment.
The movie feels authentic to the life I’ve witnessed in India—as one who claims a tie through her ancestral roots to that region of South Asia. The scenes looked familiar to me, and if I didn’t know the setting was Bangladesh, it could have easily been in India.
Naima’s only skill is painting—but she is very good at it, painting walls of houses, sidewalks, and rickshaw covers, brightening the dull and dreary days with her colorful scenes. Her vibrant paintings of flowers and birds are a cheerful, stark contrast to the darkness surrounding her, to the broken concrete and fragile dreams, her faded clothes and the never-ending cycle of hardship and suffering.
Her paintings reveal a bit of what’s inside her heart: the desire to dream, to fly, to rise above—the desires that exist in the young where hope resides—that small drop of belief that a smidgen of justice remains hidden somewhere beneath the mounds of desperation of her family’s plight.
The heaviness that settled over my chest that morning was as dense as my husband’s weighted blanket tangled around my feet. I kicked off the covers but the anxiety wouldn’t lift. It was one week into the Coronavirus crisis that had settled over our country like a dense fog.
It started on a normal Thursday when I picked the kids up from school. Headlines were trickling in about rising virus cases in the U.S. but when news came that afternoon of immediate school cancellation, we all felt sideswiped. The torrential news that followed overwhelmed me so that one week later I was lying under its weight.
Shame was another layer of heaviness over the anxiety. My husband still had a job, something I couldn’t say a month and a half earlier. I already worked from home so, while days now became a complicated balance of work, entertaining and educating the children, and keeping the house quarantine-clean, I still was able to work. We had the ability and privilege to stay home; others weren’t as fortunate.
My heart grew heavy with worries for friends stuck abroad or separated from their family, others who had to leave everything to return to their passport country, and our friends who still work among the rural poor and refugee communities in Bangladesh—the truly vulnerable. We had it easy compared to what we could have known had this happened a year ago when we were still living in Dhaka. The guilt said, “Shut up, you have nothing to complain about!”
But my children’s eyes told another story that shattered my heart. They were no strangers to living in limbo. While many of their friends in their suburban Georgia school were learning lessons for the first time about battling uncertainty in highly scheduled and planned lives, my children had become pros in the last few years. And their little hearts were weary.
hey were just six and eight when we told them we were moving to India. Once the shock abated, they were excited to dazzle their friends with stories of monkeys and cows in the streets. The first blow came when we were delayed by a few months due to visa issues. Then, after both my husband and I had quit our jobs in the U.S. and our house was ready to go on the market, the path to India completely collapsed.
Our lives became a series of delays, cancellations, rerouting, and waiting. Throughout the journey to our new home in Bangladesh and unexpectedly back again, we learned the hard way about living in the land of the unknown.
Living in Bangladesh, our family learned what it felt like to feel socially distant—separated from our family by 8000 miles but also from our neighbors by a language and cultural barrier. We knew loneliness well. Monsoon rains and protests would keep us isolated in our flat for days. We were constantly adjusting to new norms and the coursing emotions of culture shock that would strike unannounced. Our son asked us weekly when we would return to life as usual, longing for the familiarity of the U.S.
That was…until we told him we would be returning “home” after just a year and a half. Then he cried, “but Bangladesh is home now!” The bittersweet swirling of emotions didn’t end when we returned to our passport country either. We stepped into what we thought would be life as usual and found that we couldn’t ever go back. Georgia didn’t feel like home anymore and we had to start all over again. We then struggled through eight months of my unemployment and were barely a month into discovering a new normal…that the pandemic had upended again.
I was telling a friend how it pained me to see my kids plunged back into the void. My son’s angry outbursts masked his frustration at being isolated once more. My daughter’s thinly-veiled anxiety at possibly never going back to the school she was just becoming comfortable in was obvious when she emerged late at night, unable to rest.
“Write about it,” my friend said. “Everyone is feeling the strain of the uncertainty now, too. Tell them what you’ve learned.” And, you know, it made me feel so much less alone to think of it that way. We’re all in suspension together and no one is going to come out of this current crisis unscathed.
All of America is learning what it means right now to live in transition—stuck between the life they knew and an unknown future. We don’t know what tomorrow holds and each day there is plenty of fear waiting to tighten its stranglehold on us. This isn’t a transition any of us chose. But as I preach the lessons to myself that living in a state of limbo taught us, here’s what I know...
You’d think she was a celebrity, the way I watched her from across the room. I tried to work up the nerve to speak to her but the taste of salt in the back of my throat gave me pause. I didn’t want to embarrass her and I didn’t want to cry. But I wanted her to know what seeing her in that place meant to me.
She was just like every other woman at the conference that weekend. They were the farthest from celebrities you could get. Many were known only to those inside their villages. They had come together to encourage each other, some of them the only followers of Christ in their home area. I heard their stories over the span of those few days, the depth of their hardships and the hope they clung to in the midst of them.
I watched her quietly as she listened to the speaker. Her eyes sometimes closed as she savored the Scripture being read. Other times she leaned forward in her seat. She would tuck her headscarf behind her ear and laugh. I strained to get the joke, my feeble Bangla skills failing me.
The first time I’d seen her face was on my computer screen. My husband and I were sitting in our bedroom over 8000 miles away from this place. We’d been planning for over a year to move to India to work for a non-profit focusing on education and economic development. We had visas in our passports that gave us permission to go. Our house was about to go on the market. I had already quit my job. And then the organization we were going to work for found themselves facing issues with obtaining the permissions to have foreign workers. We were left asking God, “what now?”
Another organization expressed interest in having us work with them. They were located in India’s tiny neighboring country, Bangladesh. We were especially moved by the idea of empowering vulnerable women with skills to provide for themselves and their families.
They sent us a video about the work they were doing with child brides who were suffering from medical issues that arose from pregnancies their too-young bodies couldn’t handle. Most were then divorced and ostracized from their families. Once the women received surgeries that allowed them physical healing, they attended tailoring classes that gave them a marketable skill.
We watched this woman in a remote area on the other side of the world talk about how her life had been changed by the program. When she was asked about her plans for the future, she laughed. She said her plans were just to make clothes for her family and have a good life, a simple life. A life that honored God.
We sat silently for a few minutes after hearing her story, afraid to say the words that marked the finality of what we knew would come next. This was it. We would be moving to Bangladesh...