“Hope is a Girl Selling Fruit” is one of the most remarkable books I have read for some time. Written by a young artist from Bihar named Amrita Das the book tells the story of a journey by train to Chennai that is both simple and profound. If that may seem like a contradictory statement then I would recommend that you read the book and consider the voyage made by Amrita Das, and the observations that she makes along the way. The simplicity of the text, which in its entirety takes no more than twenty minutes to read is balanced by a thought provoking series of questions about the lives of women and in particular those who come from some of the poorer regions of India.
Without giving too much away, Amrita Das tells of her observations of a girl whilst making a long train journey to Chennai. She watches this young woman and wonders about her existence, the reasons for her travels and the kind of life she may lead. The story is immersed in empathy as the author reflects upon her own life and relates it to that of her young travelling companion. At the beginning of the book Das says “life is strange – you never know what awaits you” and so it is with this book where turning each page brings a new revelation and a shift in the thinking of the reader.
How can such a simple text be so profound? Part of the mystery of this book lies in the beautiful use of illustration. Amrita Das is an artist steeped in the Mithila tradition. Mithila was an ancient kingdom located in the Eastern Gangetic Plains of northern India, an area which today is located within the State of Bihar and originally extended into Nepal. In this area women traditionally learned how to paint images that adorned many of the village buildings. Many of these pictures represented images of local nature and some possessed a deep symbolic meaning. In the twentieth century some women began to transfer these images to paper and this is the path taken by Amrita Das. Whilst the text of this beautiful book can be read in minutes, each page can hold the attention for far longer in order to explore the complexities of the images, the rhythm of the shapes and the intricacies of pattern.
Writing of herself Amrita Das says:
“I started out not knowing much, certainly not about the outside world. I could paint, but apart from that there was not much I could do.”
This statement made me wonder just how little the artist’s talent may have been appreciated prior to the publication of “Hope is a Girl Selling Fruit.” There must have been a danger that the talent of this young woman could have remained hidden from the world, had it not been for those individuals in Chennai who encouraged her to produce this book. Her assertion that all she could do was paint should be of concern to every teacher. To have such a talent is surely something we would wish of all our students.
There are indicators throughout this work of the kind of life that Amrita Das experienced when she was growing up and that lead her to reflect on the life of a fellow train passenger. Expressions such as “my girlhood passed even before I knew it,” and “the rich go their way, and are what they are. I don’t really care to know them. I’m not drawn to them,” suggest that the opportunities she had when growing up were limited. Possibly most telling of all is a brief passage where she says of her childhood, “If you dream for a moment you’re asked why you are twiddling your thumbs.”
Fortunately Amrita Das has found an opportunity to dream, and in so doing she has provided us with a book that will surely endure and will be treasured by all who come to read it and enjoy her beautiful illustrations. I hope that you will make the time to obtain and read this magical text and especially to reflect upon the experiences that enabled the author to provide us with such a rich story.
“Hope is Girl Selling Fruit” written and illustrated by Amrita Das is published by Tara Books. ISBN: 978-93-83145-02-7