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.
…to Open Our Eyes: Nicole
After a wave of nostalgia washed over me, the other feeling the movie gave me was that of passion. I wanted everyone I know to see this movie. Because words will never do justice to the complexities of life in this South Asian country and the possibilities that live there. Someone who hasn’t visited Bangladesh perhaps would watch the movie and assume it is over-dramatized for emotional impact. They would be wrong. It is a vivid depiction of the hardness and the beauty of life for most people in Bangladesh. The average income in Bangladesh is around $2800 per year. Rickshaw drivers, like Naima’s father make only a few dollars a day.
Watching Naima’s struggles as the daughter of a rickshaw puller, I flashed back to conversations with a close friend. Like Naima, he was from a rural area and his father drove a rickshaw in their village. Between the rickshaw rent and dwindling numbers of customers as villagers headed to cities for jobs, he couldn’t make enough. So, our friend followed suit and headed to the capital at the promise of better opportunities.
We helped as much as we could: used his services exclusively, sent customers his way, and helped him with a loan to buy a rickshaw. It never seemed enough. He battled sickness and fatigue, no customers in the rainy season, harsh garage managers, and demands to support his parents back in the village.
…to Look Deeper: Prasanta
Naima takes flight like one of her painted birds—realizing she can’t sit idle, and she doesn’t feel fit for school. She leaves home for Dhaka, and ends up finding work as a maid, sitting alone on the floor of a pristine, marble floor in a luxurious apartment in the big city, the likes of which she’s never seen before in her life. Everything is new: the gleaming floors, the appliances, the up-close experience of the lifestyle of the middle and upper class. At one point, a smart home device tries talking to her and she runs away and hides.
While working in the home, she spots a bird trapped outside. But her windows are locked shut and the bird is stuck. She can’t open the windows and reach out to help the bird. They’re both trapped.
When she sits on the spotless, shiny floor, she spots a bit of dirt. She picks up the morsel of dirt, caresses it between her fingers, and smiles.
This is home. Home is this dirt. She is used to dirt—to dirty feet, to living on a dusty floor, to running barefoot, and to the liminal space between being underground and beneath the sky. Something shifts within her, and suddenly, she becomes like a bird.
As soon as the opportunity arises, Naima flees, and faces even more injustice in the big city—such as the obstacles of a poor young, female looking for work in a hard city must face. At one point she asks a rickshaw garage manager how she can get a job driving rickshaws? And he tells her, when she’s a man, then she can get a job driving rickshaws. Where is she to go now? She knows no other life but the life of the daughter of rickshaw puller.
Looking deeper into the city, we see street children living in abandoned buildings, homeless people, the cacophony of downtown and dazzle of night time lights and shops, people walking everywhere, men pulling rickshaws, and people surviving as best as they can. Asia is full of poor, desperate lives like these.
…to Find Hope: Nicole
For girls, life is even harsher. Another close friend helped us see this reality. Her husband, a rickshaw driver, didn’t bring home enough and what he did often went to drugs. Her work as a house helper (which we glimpse Naima experience) paired with day labor as a brick-breaker helped, but her employment options as a woman were limited. Her seven-year-old daughter was in school, but she couldn’t afford books for much longer and wondered when she would need to leave school to help provide as well.
Rickshaw Girl paints an accurate and painful picture of this reality—and of the beautiful spirit of the Bengali people, which is why we grew to love the land so much. Perkins says the story is “about the power of girl children.” It’s a story I hope many will take the time to watch, to feel, and to let it transform the way they see the world. It’s the kind of story that stays with you, and which compels you to respond.
…to Find the Courage to Dream: Prasanta
We find resilience in Naima and her story. We witness courage. We see the grit and determination of a girl who does whatever is in her power to help her family—using the giftings of her own hands. We see the determination of a young girl making gutsy choices, because choosing to do nothing is not an option she can live with. Conviction and love move her to look beyond herself, and deep within, to live her life for more than just herself, and yet to also be true to herself.
Not all stories, of course, have a happy ending, and Naima must face her losses. Yet, she also finds a dream fulfilled. Her father told her to never stop painting. Naima keeps this voice alive in her head, this voice that affirms her talents, and spurs her on, as she pursues her dreams on the dusty streets of Dhaka.
Prasanta Verma was born under an Asian sun, raised in the Appalachian foothills, and currently resides in the upper Midwest. She writes essays and poetry about loneliness, cultural identity, belonging, culture, and race. She has a book about ethnic loneliness forthcoming in 2024, and you can connect with her on Twitter, Instagram, or sign up for her newsletter on her website, prasantaverma.com.