Review of Rickshaw Girl
by Tara Menon
By Mitali Perkins
The other day, my neighbor and fellow book club member told me she is concerned her children who are growing up privileged in affluent Lexington won’t know what is like to be poor or disadvantaged. I, too, have similar concerns about my son. My neighbor and I have obligations that would make an extended stay in our countries of origin (Brazil in her case and India in mine), where the kids could become familiar with poverty and hardship, out of the question for the time being at least. Our conversation steered me to the thought that our children needed to develop empathy with fictional characters. This would enable them to see the world through less privileged eyes and learn what they take for granted, like education or equal rights for girls, may not be the norm in some places. Not long after my neighbor and I had expressed our worries, Rickshaw Girl, a novel by Mitali Perkins for 7 to 10 year-olds, came into my hands. It is the perfect book for girls and boys to understand what it is like to be a poor village girl as they immerse themselves in the story. The novel, widely nominated for several awards and translated into many languages, has been made into a play that has been performed by the Bay Area’s Children’s Theatre in California.
Naima belongs to a poor family in rural Bangladesh. Her passion lies in creating alpanas, a floral or geometric pattern made with rice powder. Her village holds a competition in the art form on International Mother Language Day, also known as Ekushey February. (The glossary states the day commemorates the martyrs who campaigned for the Bangla language to be recognized as one of the state languages of Pakistan before Bangladesh became liberated in 1971.) Naima, recipient of the previous year’s prize, wishes to win again and she races carefully through her chores, only being thoughtful when it comes to creating patterns for her alpanas.
Naima’s father needs to pay back the loan he took out to buy a new rickshaw, but because he’s been unwell, he hasn’t been able to work for weeks. Naima overhears him telling her mother he isn’t making enough money. She worries her father will be forced to give up the rickshaw and then what will he do to earn taka? Her mother exclaims it is a pity one of their daughters isn’t a boy, but her father retorts, “I have two wonderful daughters. They’re just as good as boys.” He is proud Naima is the best alpana painter in the village and her sister is the best student in her school. Naima dropped out of school because he couldn’t afford to educate both their daughters.
Her friend Saleem is the only person who knows she is unhappy about not attending school. Now that she is ten, they have to secretly signal each other when they meet -- Naima sports a white ribbon and he lets a white handkerchief peep out of his pocket. Saleem drives his father’s rickshaw to help his parent get some rest. As Naima talks to him, she gets the idea she’ll disguise herself as a boy and drive passengers in her father’s rickshaw. She confides her plan to Saleem, who tries to dissuade her. She doesn’t listen and, alone again, sneaks away, pedaling the rickshaw, daydreaming about handing the taka to her smiling father, unwrapping a sari for her teary mother, and seeing her sister pop mouthfuls of roshogollah. Unfortunately, like the unlucky dreamer in the folktale who unwittingly smashes his pot of milk that would have ensured his fortune through a barter of exchanges, Naima loses control and crashes the vehicle that might have made her fantasies comes true. Fortunately, she jumps out in time and is unhurt. Her sister, who witnesses the accident, fetches their parents.
Perkins imbues her villagers with dignity, and none so much as the father, who accepts what happens without a single word of reproach. He proclaims the rickshaw still works. Their financial situation worsens as no one wants to be driven in a battered vehicle. The mother offers a gold bangle as barter to get the rickshaw repaired. Naima, who felt too dejected to participate in the alpana competition, is stricken with remorse that her mother has to sacrifice her gold bangle – the one she wore as a bride. Her father tries to cheer her up by asking her to spruce up the alpanas her mother and sister have created. The strokes Mithali uses to paint the character of the father are wonderfully effective. I found myself comparing him to Malala Yousafzai’s father who valued his daughter and nurtured her to become a heroine.
Naima comes up with another idea to fix the crisis, one that reveals her daring nature. Will she become the heroine to her family? Perkins keeps us in suspense as we turn the pages, routing for this wonderful girl who yearns to help her family.
Jamie Hogan, the artist, has illustrated alpanas to help us visualize this type of artwork. Perkins’s mother, an expert in the field, has verified their authenticity. The black and white drawings of various scenes from the novel are in the folk tradition, and the sketches have a childlike quality to them. I only wish color had been used to decorate the motifs of alpanas throughout the book, since the artwork would then have been more vibrant and appealing to young readers.
Perkins educates the reader about changes that have occurred in rural Bangladesh like women breaking into traditional male jobs and the establishment of microfinancing, which enables women to take a small loan from a bank to start a business. Though village life is depicted as tough, she demonstrates that poverty does not mean a dearth of dignity and love. Naima’s family is rich in affection and her friendship with Saleem is precious. Finally, villagers enjoy their festivals like International Mother Language Day and their alpanas that beautify their homes and uplift their hearts.