“Hope is a Girl Selling Fruit” by Amrita Das is a tribute to women’s mobility and choices

When Amrita Das attended a bookmaking workshop in Chennai, she was asked to think of a story to draw. She thought of her own childhood, and started painting two girls under a tree.

The girls are dancing, and everything is green. It is an idyllic scene, unlike anything Amrita’s childhood was like. In the next painting, the scene shifts dramatically. Amrita is perched on a small table in her kitchen, cooking, surrounded by the quotidian realities of her life – gas cylinders, brooms, vessels. “I was responsible for a great deal when I was very small, and my girlhood passed even before I knew it,” she writes.

Her mind then turned to the train journey she made to reach Chennai, and she found her story. In “Hope is a Girl Selling Fruit”, a picture book brought out recently by Chennai-based independent publishing house Tara Books, she provides an account of her journey, with sparse text and wondrous illustrations. For three nights, Amrita observed a poor young girl, all by herself on her berth. Her mind is full of questions — who is she? Where has she come from? Why is she alone? She might not be aware of the details of this girl’s life, but she illustrates her fate with empathy.

“I think she’s like a bird, a delicate bird in an invisible cage. If you were to open the door, she might fly away into freedom. Or maybe she would hesitate, not knowing where to go,” she observes. The thought of her loneliness fills Amrita with immense sadness. In imagining her fate, she comes to live it. And this encounter proves the starting point for a reflection on women’s lives. “If you dream for a moment, you’re asked why you’re twiddling your thumbs.”

The illustrations are in the Mithila tradition of folk art, which Amrita learnt in the Mithila Art Institute in Madhubani. As a note on the artist’s journey provided in the book points out, “…over the years, Mithila artists eager to take on themes beyond the traditional have adapted the conventions of their art form to new – and radical – ends.” The tension between communicating a contemporary reality in a traditional art form is evident in the illustrations.

“It was very challenging to depict the journey. It is very difficult to represent what I am thinking in a painting. In Mithila paintings you show things flatly, you cannot show dimensions. When you have to show someone crying, you cannot show teardrops. It becomes something else then. So you have to find something in the form to communicate that,” explains Amrita, adding that it is the same flatness that has led some to remark that the paintings resemble a comic.

Ultimately, the book effects a reconciliation. There is an adherence to as well as a departure from tradition. As Gita Wolf points out, in the scene where the narrator arrives at the Chennai station, “she chooses to frame the composition with two guardian angels — figures borrowed from a very different tradition of art — to add a sly and humorous layer of meaning.” These figures are rendered with motifs borrowed from Mithila art.

The girl vanishes, but the sight of another poor young girl, pushing a cart on one leg, in Chennai fills Amrita with optimism, and the courage to face the world confidently. “I’m unsure, but unafraid, and I have some hope.”