The beginning of hope is an ending. Maybe it’s the ending of accepting the world as it is. Maybe it’s the ending of a bad habit. Whatever ends when hope begins, it’s a shift that isn’t always conscious. Sometimes it takes time and effort to sort through the feelings that come with change. For some of us, that means writing. For others, it means creating art to explore the full scope of the nuances of the issues in front of them.
For artist Amrita Das, words and pictures came together as she recounts the shift in perspective she experienced as she traveled by train from her home to Chennai, India in her memoir Hope is a Girl Selling Fruit. The memoir, which looks like a children’s picture book, begins with Das looking around, noticing a larger world for the first time. The book opens with these words: “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.”
Das writes that she knew she wanted her art to explore the lives of women, but what story would she tell? She begins with an idyllic scene of girls playing under a tree in the Mithila tradition of folk art, which originated from women in rural India. The delicate, detailed scene is lovely and fits well with the traditional art style. But tradition is not always truth.
“Was this the truth?” she asks herself. Was her own childhood so idyllic? The truth, she admits, is not always kind or happy. Her truth was the same as that of many other women, including a girl she had noticed on her journey to the city.
She imagines the life of girl she sees on the train, acknowledging the struggles and limitations she faces simply because of her gender. Das watches the girl traveling alone and asks herself why. Why was she alone? How could she sleep with nothing in her stomach? When she arrives in Chennai, she looks around at the women of the city. She does not stop asking questions.
Each spread depicts the modern reality of women’s lives in the traditional art to create a book that defies category. It looks like a picture book, but it isn’t meant for small children. It looks traditional, but it portrays modern settings and forward-thinking questions. The final pages make clear how pivotal the journey was for Das. She writes, “So here I am, having painted the story of a girl’s journey, now imagining my own future as a woman.”
Her book is an invitation for women to imagine their own futures, to create something new from the traditions we were given. There are no easy answers here, but there is some hope.