Book review: How I Became a Tree

First published in Cafe Dissensus Everyday

Title: How I Became a Tree
Author: Sumana Roy
Publisher: Aleph Book Co.

PrintI was in primary school when I first heard trees talk. On my way to school every day as I sat by the window of our school bus, leaf-laden branches of trees sashayed as the bus zipped past them. I was convinced this was the trees’ way of sending me off to school with a bunch of good wishes. On still, humid days, when my green friends didn’t seem as enthusiastic, I feared about the mood of the day facing me. Though brief, this moment of intimacy with the trees lining the one-way separators on South Delhi roads, was crucial for the emotional subsistence of a lonely child like me. For Sumana Roy, the necessity of this bonding – with plant life, with trees, swaying or still – is so acute that she wishes to morph into one. And sort of does. How I Became a Tree is the story of that astonishing transformation.

But why this overwhelming desire to become a tree? Roy’s discontent with her human form is not so much biological as it is psychogenic. The two corollaries of modern life that disturb her most – excessive noise and speed – are the very things trees counterpoise with defiant ease. Early on in her intuitive journey, the author discovers tree time – a moment distilled in past- and future-less clarity. Trees teach her to let go of her slavish relationship with conceptual (man-made) time and relax in the moment. She notices the impartial kindness of the tree – equal in its dissemination of oxygen, shade, flower, and fruits to the gardener as well as the woodcutter.

The need for association with nature isn’t new. For long, it has been the favoured route for those on a spiritual quest. There are extensive records of sages and philosophers renouncing the material trip to go inside forests and sit by lakes, in search of answers only solitude can retrieve. What makes Roy’s quest deliciously different is her part-lover, part-parent, and part-playmate relationship with trees. She even becomes a tree sleuth – recording their “vocalizations” – “I had, in frustration with industrial noise and human verbosity, mistaken trees as silent creatures. My experiments with the sound recorder had brought about a new realization – that trees shared a natural sound with people.” She engages with trees in other interesting ways – by getting X-rays of tree trunks and by turning dead trees into sculptures. All these experiments grow deeper the roots of Roy’s conviction about the interchangeability of trees and human figures. She begins listening to human voices in relation to their tonal proximity to the sound of leaves in the wind. Her own skin becomes the bark of a tree and she imagines her bones getting rearranged for her to acquire a tree form.

In loving trees, Roy doesn’t forget the shadow world. In fact, by her own admission, her relationship with trees is shaped largely by their shadows. In a chapter curiously titled A Brief History of Shadows, she rues how shadows are unceremoniously left out of history books and archives and, through personal reminiscences and her reading of Roy Sorensen’s Seeing Dark Things: The Philosophy of Shadows, she eloquently makes the case for studying shadows for the things they can reveal. For me, though, her observation of what tree shadows withhold, or rather, erase, is of even more stunning import. “…The shadows of trees obliterate specificity, the colour of bark and leaves and flower and fruit. Just like the shadows of humans do not reflect race, class, or religion.”

As her disenchantment with modern industrial routine grows, the author is compelled to examine the stitches of mythology and scriptures, literature, philosophy, and art – to find threads of the human-tree convertibility phenomenon. Greek and Roman mythology tell her how women turned into trees to escape violence, human violence. Reading these episodes chillingly remind one, as they do Roy, of young Dalit women being raped and then hung from trees in present-day India. But she also finds “sahrydayas” (Sanskrit for soulmate or sharer of the soul) – humans who have shared her own kinship with trees. One of them is the artist Nandalal Bose who, while articulating his thoughts on drawing trees, remarkably compared their features and even personalities to those of humans.

Then there is Rabindranath Tagore – with both his extensive work with trees in Santiniketan and his personal anaclisis to plants. Like most plant lovers, he misses his plant relatives when he’s away on a trip and writes letters to human caretakers to look after them. It is only natural then for the universe of his writing to be populated by plant metaphors. Roy sees in his works illustrations of trees becoming doubles of humans and gardens turning into both accomplices in aiding stolen love and partners in avenging lost love. The chapter, “Studying Nature”, brings to the reader Tagore’s organic vision for spreading the joy of nature among the students of his school-cum-university, Visva-Bharati. The focus of the nature study module isn’t so much on the science of ecology, as Roy discovers, but on fostering an easy kinship with nature from which the industrial machinery threatens to pull the children away. “What his students inherited through his course was a sense of trees as participant, friend, and neighbour, in the ongoing drama of life…,” concludes Roy with endearing empathy.

For a tree lover in the pursuance of her treehood, the journey cannot be complete without entering a forest. Part VII of How I Became a Tree, titled “Lost in the Forest” was a personal delight for me. I have experienced several lost-in-the-forest moments myself, richer in the losing every time. Roy’s own love affair with the forest bears this out with succulent relish. She argues how the very act of walking inside the forest has to be an act of total surrender – one must intentionally lose oneself when surrounded by the “paralyzing restfulness” of a forest. She returns to Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s forest-centred novel Aranyak to unearth the mystery of man’s tense relationship with the forest. It is at once a place for finding repose as it is a resource to be exploited. Staying inside a forest all by herself enables Roy to experience the commune of trees, their shunning of individual prominence. In this, she recognizes her own treeness, given her indifference to fame and its exhibitionism.

Roy finds more soul sharers – as a plant parent in the polymath scientist, Jagadish Chandra Bose – who conducted numerous experiments to prove plants can feel and communicate; in the Buddha whose persona is essentially inseparable from the Bodhi tree under which he’s believed to have found enlightenment; and in poets, philosophers, and photographers who saw embedded in the barks and branches of trees reflections of their own self. And that is how Roy eventually turns into a tree. She imagines herself to be the Ashoka tree – A-shoka, sorrowless, as she segments the tree name.

On a personal note, Roy has taught me to love plant life in a deeper, more joyous way. Shortly before I wrote this, my partner took out a leafy indoor plant to the patio to feed it sunlight (as Roy would put it). The delicate plant died from the sudden shock. I have mourned the loss of plants before, but this was post How I Became a Tree, and I bawled my lungs out. Then, once the tears let up, I remembered I had once snipped a part of the plant and placed it in a jar of water, where it grew roots. I brought that part out of the jar and planted it in the pot that now carried the dead roots. It was almost as if someone had nudged me to do this – to bring the plant back to life.

That’s when I realized Sumana Roy isn’t merely a tree; she’s a plant whisperer.

How I Became a Tree is available on Amazon India.

 

In search of home and homeland: Seeking Palestine

Seeking Palestine: New Palestinian Writing on Exile and Home
Penny Johnson, Raja Shehadeh, editors
Olive Branch Press

Your mother’s face once sustained you. Now you have to strain your memory to trace its outline. The place you were born in you can’t return to, even if it were so you could die there. Y130225-seeking-palestineou can only be a nomad, an exile, or a refugee–never at home. Seeking Palestine, an anthology of nonfiction narratives gathers all these voices as it tries to make sense of the largely map-less Palestinian identity.

Susan Abulhawa chases this elusive piece in “Memories in an Un-Palestinian Story, in a Can of Tuna”. In her personal essay, the author best known for her novel, ‘Mornings in Jenin’ captures the breadth of a Palestinian’s nomadic condemnation. Her words–funny and shocking and tragic–tell how she was ping-ponged across geographies as a young girl. Thus, despite growing up in the US for most of her life, she says, “…I have come to understand that it (my life) represents the most basic truth about what it means to be Palestinian–dispossessed, disinherited and exiled.”

“Exile” is the permanent address many have been left with since the Israel-Palestine conflict began with the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. And so as poet and translator Sharif L. Elmusa etches in an essay combining his poetry and prose with river-like flow, not only their presence but even the absences of Palestinians are portable. To lug this presence/absence around, a Palestinian pays steep baggage fees. “I can only go inside myself / into the maze of the hippocampus / which is like going inside a pyramid / and finding the robbers had carted away / the belongings.// What will I shed this round / to complete my portable absence?”

Read the rest of the review at Armed with Amor.

Retracing Dandakaranya

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First published in Indigo Lit
For Titti

I search for your footmarks
In the arid, rocky terrain. The
Agility of your feet eludes mine.

The jungle notes you left behind
Shriek with trauma. Of green groves
Uprooted from rivers, thrown amid
Stones and cacti. Yet I sleep restfully. The
Shrapnel that ripped apart your
Nights doesn’t touch me.

Half a century later, the cracking
Earth has smothered the laughter
Of the Adivasi girls you met. The
Mountain still burns the same. With their
Heaves. And the lava of their rage as mining
Corporations show them their two-penny index.

The desert retains some of
Your tears– corroded, insoluble.
Those refugee girls you taught? They
Must be doing well by now. So I tell myself.

But look, how like them, like you,
I’m still looking for home. The
Albatross refuses to take flight.

Balika Ashram — Abu Hasan Shahriar

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Translation: Bhaswati Ghosh

– 6 –

Open page forty-nine of the heart:
This is a river of sorrow; it flows from the mountain of hurt

Now go to page one hundred and thirty-two of the eyes:
This is the story of a bicycle; a boy’s pakkhiraaj horse

Turn to page ninety-two of the chin:
This is a monsoon poem; painted in the watercolour of her first kiss

Pause on page one hundred and sixty-nine of her hair:
A night ballad, this is where Chandrabatis bloom

Let’s move on to the end then:
This is a moth-eaten chapter, never to be retrieved.

Image: Painting by Rabindranath Tagore, source: https://www.pinterest.com/DoraGrant3/art-east-indian/

Remembering U. R. Ananthamurthy

URAM-portrait@800The year, 1997. Me, a freshly-pressed journalism graduate, itching to join the Indian print media. A dream that wouldn’t come to fruition. But I would get to scribble a few odd stories as a freelance writer. Ratnottama Sengupta, Times of India’s arts editor, would assign me stories on culture and literature–a “soft” beat I happily lapped up.

One of those stories was on Sahitya Akademi’s translation awards. U.R. Ananthamurthy was the Akademi’s chairperson at that time. What follows next is as hazy as the darkness of that early (or was it late) winter evening that swept the outside once the award ceremony was over. But not without light following it.

I don’t remember if it was part of my brief to interview him following the awards or if that was something I wanted to do. Nor do I remember how that interview was set up–did I ask him personally on the awards evening? Did I make a phone call to fix the appointment?

All I remember is I got some time to speak to him the next morning–he invited me to join him for breakfast at IIC–the awards venue and also his place of stay in Delhi. As I sat across him at the breakfast table, URA had enlisted his latest admirer. Given his stature, his manner of speaking–soft, respectful, involved–moved me at once. A light breakfast fare–idlys, coconut chutney, small uttapams, diced papaya–lay in the small table between us. He insisted I have some, despite my polite resistance. Introductions and breakfast over, we moved to his room for the interview. I had no recorder with me so longhand note-taking would have to do.

My knowledge of translations then was as limited as my knowledge of languages is now. As indicated above, my memory of our conversation is blurry. I do remember, however, the lambent beam of light streaming in through the window and the lush cover of green beyond it. When URA started speaking, his words seemed engulfed in a similar beam–gentle, yet radiant with insights and committed interest.

I remember him lamenting the fact that a lot of translation of Indian language works have to happen through a link language like English or Hindi. He wished there were more direct translations–from Kannada to Bengali, Marathi to Kashmiri and so on. His eyes lit up when he shared his vision of a day when school-going children in one region would learn a language from another region. And I wondered why wasn’t this happening already? Why could I not learn Malayalam or Assamese in school? And even then I understood, this wouldn’t just be about learning a new language, but also about making friends with a new culture and its people, if only through the solitary medium of books.

At the end of our conversation, I touched his feet (a mark of deference I  extend with considered discretion). He smiled and said, “We need more bright people like you.Thank you so much.” Even though I didn’t believe that about myself, the warmth and sincerity of his tone, the genuine spark of hope in his eyes made those words credible to me.

So long then, Sir.

 
Image source: http://kvsas.by2coffeefilms.com/blog