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.
CONTINUE READING AT THE MUDROOM
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...
CONTINUE READING AT THE MUDROOM
When we first moved I intended the "Life in South Asia" section of this website to be more of a fun section where I would write about culture or what I was learning, how I was listening for God in this new place. But life happened. Transition happened. I didn't write as much at first because—well, uprooting a whole family to the other side of the world takes a lot of time. Then I felt I needed to lay down my writing for a while. Then intense depression happened and my writing became much more serious. I felt the freedom to pick my writing back up and a responsibility to share what I was going through. I have had some incredible connections with people that have said, "Thank you! I know I'm not alone because of what you have written."
When I first experienced anxiety 12 years ago, (well, I am coming to see I have always had tendencies towards anxiety but didn't have a name for it until I was 25 years old) I thought it was just circumstantial. Life changed and my anxiety or depression dissipated for me. But then it reared it's head again during our move to the Middle East, again two years ago, and most intensely in the last year. I now know that like Lauren Winer says in Still:
"As far back as I can remember, anxiety has been my close companion, having long ago taken up residence in the small, second-floor bedroom of the house that is my body. Sometimes my anxiety takes long naps. Sometimes it throws parties. But I don't imagine it will ever tire of this neighborhood and move out for good."
I feel like I'm past the worst of it this time around. I want to say I'm "all better," that I see fruit and new life everywhere. Not yet. Grace P. Cho put the perfect words to the season I am currently in today:
"He is never annoyed with the slowness of transformation but always delights in the intricate care of redeeming burned things. And He is not done with us in the midst of fallow seasons...He burns away the old with fire and cultivates the land for the new things He is doing in our lives, allowing light and water to reach down deep, awakening and breaking open the seeds that have laid dormant before to thrive in the soil He has made good. What will come is a mystery, and we gain nothing when we rush into seasons we’re not ready for. So sit with Him, rest with Him, watch Him do His good and holy work while the land still lies fallow."
I am learning to be okay with this fallow season, trusting I've gone through the fire and that new life will come but that I am still in process. I'm asking for help. I am spending more time reading and seeking silence, working my muscles until they ache and feeling stronger on my mat every day. Playing. Praying. Working. Waiting. I am looking at my kids. Stopping and really seeing them. I see such beauty in my children, see God at work so much in them and in me as I mother them. They are helping me find my way back to joy.
For a while, I said I lost prayer during this season of fire and wilderness. I am realizing I didn't after all. It just didn't look like a daily examen or a war room or a prayer list, however you've come to expect prayer to look. As I read over my journals over the past few months, I see them as prayer. As I walk down the street to the market and notice the unfurling of the Krishnachura leaves and take a deep breath and thank God, I know it is prayer too (more about that one later this week). I am seeing God in things I haven't in a long time. I am noticing. As I walked slowly to the market today I stopped to take several photos. I heard Him speaking. I listened. I prayed "God, give me eyes to see what you want me to see and show me what you want me to share with others." I felt a long still stirring in my soul to write it all down...
So, I am finally getting around to writing here in a way that is less structured (as opposed to my essays for places like SheLoves Magazine and The Mudroom). I'll post pictures of things that speak to me and moments of finding God in the noise of this crazy city. In everyday beauty. I may notice five things a week and write about them. I may not see anything that inspires me for a while. I'll just take it as it comes. I am asking God to open my eyes to see Him in this season. There are ways I can see Him in South Asia that I couldn't anywhere else on earth. And I don't want to miss them.
So, from the land that is the contradiction and meeting place of 700 river deltas and also the most crowded city on earth - I am listening with you. This is where God is showing up for me in South Asia.
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After eight months of slowly dipping my feet into the churning sea of my adopted South Asian home’s culture, I’ve barely gotten past the surface. This country is much less diverse than America in terms of a melting pot of many nations. Our white faces draw crowds wherever we go because seeing foreigners is less common than in other more touristy locations in Asia. Yet, the diversity within this single culture is so staggering, I can’t navigate it well enough to place my finger on generalities.
One friend was married at age 13, a common practice in many villages. Another is still single nearing 30, her parents constantly trying to arrange her marriage. This girl covers her head while another wears jeans and a t-shirt. That woman wasn’t educated past third grade and can only write her name while yet another runs a school teaching the language to foreigners. One fasted the entire month of Ramadan and has been on the pilgrimage to Mecca. Another casually claims Islam but isn’t really observant. She has never left the small radius of her village. She is one of the few women in the capital city to drive a motorbike. She attended a small madrasa. She studied at the top international school in the country. All of these women are just as “normal” as the next, breaking the molds that try to contain them as women, as South Asian and as Muslim.
A co-worker has lived in this country for nearly a decade and has been outside of her passport country for 20 years. I thought surely she would have a good grasp of cultural norms and so I looked to her for guidance...
Are you ready to break down your boxes and get to know people who are different than you? Join me at The Redbud Post as I share about the challenges of cultural understanding...
I feel the tension every time I open my computer and am bombarded with need on every side. My news feed is filled with pictures of families fleeing from rising waters and stories of refugees flooding into the no man's land between countries. There are a thousand different appeals for funds, for volunteers, for someone—anyone—to see the need and care.
As I dive into nonprofit work, I feel like I am swallowed in the sea of hurt before I even begin. I recently had the opportunity to engage with others working around the world in places where people are in great distress. We had time to talk together about our work and it was encouraging to be with others who understand what it’s like to be surrounded by difficult circumstances while clinging to the hope that change can happen. We also had the opportunity to share with the members of the large church about what life is like for those in our respective countries .
I argue I am a writer, not a speaker. I prefer telling a story in the relative obscurity of a coffee shop, safe behind my computer screen than to a live crowd with a lack of editing time. But as I’ve spoken more frequently about the new role I am taking on and the stories of the dire conditions in the country where we are moving, I’ve found it easier to get lost in the narrative as I tell it, to let my passion for the urgency take over. I see the eyes of the children who work instead of going to school, their hands becoming calloused as they roll cigarettes and lay brick. I feel the ache of the woman who has lost two children and been cast aside, shamed and penniless though barely out of her teens. I hurt because I have seen the faces behind the tragedies. To me, they aren’t just statistics of child labor and child marriage, or lives without hope. To me, they are children whose hands I have held in similar circumstances. They are the people I will call neighbor and friend.
But to those listening, these stories are tales of another faceless need. They are just another woe in a sea of sad sagas woven by all of us who are doing what we can to help...
Why should we amplify each other's stories? Why should we seek justice? No matter how small an act, listening and sharing the burdens of others matters. It changes us. It changes the world. Join me at SheLoves today and share how you are pressing on to sweep away apathy...