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.

 

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Dispatch: Love in Hyderabad

First published in Global Graffiti magazine

Bhaswati Ghosh

“…She would always remember Paris as the most beautiful city in the world, not because of what it was or was not in reality, but because it was linked to the memory of her happiest years.”

Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera.

Cities are where history and contemporaneity, spaciousness and congestion, overwhelming wealth and astonishing poverty collide with each other more recklessly than anywhere else. One can live in City A for a long time and despise it and yet get entranced by City B in just a few months. That probably explains why I always remained a passive resident of Delhi, the city of my birth and my home for more than three decades, yet fell in love with Hyderabad, where I lived for less than four months. And the charm was almost instantaneous.

This was also the city where I found love.

Hyderabad welcomed me as a nervous, just-married bride, whose groom happened to work there. The extent of my idea of this southern city until then was summed up in tourist book images—Golconda Fort and Charminar, a rich Muslim ethos and possibly an equally rich cuisine. I knew too that the city was the latest hot-spot on India’s map. But as I would soon realize, this was but a fraction of the fortune that Hyderabad encompassed within its precincts.

The more-than-four-hundred-year-old city didn’t waste any time in bewitching me, in making sure that our bond, even if short-lived, wouldn’t, at least in my memory, be short-term. The charm began with an expanse of calm, placid water that soothed my psyche, left near-parched by Delhi’s unforgivingly dry landscape. The first sight-seeing trip I took with my husband, even as I was still opening up to him, was a launch cruise on Hussain Sagar Lake. The 16th-century blue-green lake’s historic trajectory took it from once being a source of irrigation for the city to the venue that now held the largest monolithic statue in India—Buddha, sculpted out of a single piece of white granite stone. Even though his back was to us, I suspect the Wise One smiled as we stepped onto the launch boat and proceeded toward him. Could he “see” how the mists of scepticism in my heart dissolved—with each unruffled wave we crossed—and were then replaced with the clarity that love brings?

Another stop on this trip was  Birla Mandir, a Hindu temple in the vicinity. As we crossed the road, the temple announced to us its presence from atop Naubath Pahad, a hillock. Boasting an architectural blend of Rajasthani, South Indian and Orissa styles, the temple’s large premises are divided into territories dedicated to different gods of the Hindu pantheon. As we peregrinated from one deity’s court to another, I saw quotations from several holy texts, including those of Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and Sikhs—though Islamic verses and symbols were conspicuously absent. More captivating views were in store. As we landed on the marble-laid main courtyard of the temple, the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad smiled back at us.

For B, my husband, the best part of this trip was yet to come. No sooner had we stepped out of Birla Mandir than a small bust, situated by the side of the temple, drew him. It was the sculpted bust of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, India’s champion for the rights of Dalits—people whom the caste-dominated Hindu society has shunned, humiliated and oppressed for centuries. Ambedkar also played a pivotal role in drafting India’s constitution and instituting in it equal rights for all citizens—irrespective of their caste or religion. B has been greatly influenced by Dr. Ambedkar’s scholarship and upholds his rejection of the Hindu caste system.

The temple, with all its stunning architecture and deities born of human imagination, soon receded from our consciousness. It was ironical yet appropriate for Ambedkar’s image to be placed close to a canon of the Hindu religion—a temple housing many of its popular figures. While Dr. Ambedkar’s egalitarian vision is yet to become a reality for the Dalits of India, it was heartening to know that Hyderabad’s Birla Temple is open to people of all religious faiths and social strata, including Dalits. Just as B found meaning in this visit, I was taken by the numerous street-side stalls selling vermilion, coconut, bangles, sacred red threads and an assortment of curios promising to please the temple gods. I am not too religious, but a profusion of colours and smells never fails to draw me in.

Birla Mandir was the last of our divine excursions. After this trip, I focused on setting myself up in a new house and exploring my new surroundings.

* * * * *

When I first stepped into my husband’s “flat” at “At Home Apartments” in the Kondapur neighbourhood of Hyderabad, it appeared to me to be a spruced-up version of a bachelor pad. There were just two rooms: a large bedroom and a smaller room that doubled as the sitting room and kitchen. Two single-seater sofas and a table completed the furniture in this room. For cooking, we had been provided with a microwave oven and a few utensils.

The spacious bedroom more than made up for any inadequacy of the sitting room-kitchen. The best part of this room was a large window right behind our bed. The view beyond this window—tracts of cultivated fields stretching into a limitless horizon, a few buffaloes grazing the land, the tent of a farmer who worked on his field, a small Hindu temple—magnetically allured me. Our flat was on the fifth floor, the top-most in the building, and because of its strategic proximity to the green expanse, it offered a rare panoramic view of open space—increasingly a rarity in Indian cities. Living on the top floor came with another reward—we were closest to the terrace above, where we would spend hours—lured, awed by and photographing winged wonders.

I would soon learn that one didn’t have to run to the terrace to enjoy bird-watching in Hyderabad. They were everywhere and in amazing diversity. Every morning, upon waking, we just had to look out of our window, and there they were—bee-eaters, parakeets, sparrows, doves, kingfishers, the ubiquitous crows and other unknown tribes. Seeing them hopping from one tree branch to another, collecting meals, chirping or just flying around for the sake of it, ensured that we never had anything other than good mornings.

During my years growing up in Delhi, the visibility of smaller birds like sparrows had gradually dwindled. In Delhi’s frightfully shrinking avian habitat, the survival of small members became increasingly threatened. So when I saw birds of different breeds and sizes happily grazing the Hyderabad skies together, my heart was aflutter.

What added to the joy was the existence of a small swamp a few meters away from our apartment. I strongly suspect this marshy patch brought me closer to B, as it revealed the wide-eyed-wondering bird-lover in him. We would routinely stop at this spot to watch egrets and herons, red-wattled lapwings and little cormorants making good use of the prized cool patch in the midst of newly-constructed skyscrapers that surrounded the marsh. Excited by our daily finds of new birds, we soon headed to a place that would make our wonder graduate to speechless amazement—the Hyderabad Zoo, definitely among the best in India and rivalling the likes of Australia’s Taronga Zoo.

The thrill of these discoveries notwithstanding, at home we still didn’t have a proper kitchen. And food still remained a primary necessity. Since the microwave wasn’t useful for much beyond making instant noodles, we had to scout for food sources outside. For our very first dinner as newlyweds, B took me to Hot Rottis, a small eatery perched on top of a shop in the nearby marketplace. The place offered a mix of south Indian and north Indian (mostly the latter) homemade food and no bells and whistles. For 45 rupees (less than a US dollar), you could have rice, lentils, two types of vegetables, yogurt, pickles, salad, a dessert, and, of course, the name of the shop—hot rottis—freshly made Indian whole-wheat flat breads. This joint catered well to serve the dietary needs of young people from North India, mostly IT professionals who were a long way away from home—geographically as well as in terms of food culture.

Hyderabad turned out to be a food heaven, not unlike the eastern Indian city of Kolkata. Like the latter, what makes Hyderabad a food lover’s delight is not just the mind-boggling heterogeneity of foods available, but the high affordability quotient—one could enjoy well-cooked, hearty meals with no substantial loss to one’s pocket. So while Hot Rottis and its rival Drumsticks sustained our daily dinner needs, a veritable culinary carousel would see the two of us hopping from one restaurant to another throughout the city.

For us, the best flavours were the ones that were exclusive to Hyderabad, no less associative than imposing structures such as Golconda Fort or Charminar. Two of these were desserts: the first double ka meethha—a pudding of bread, milk nuts and saffron. We found it on the menu of most restaurants, some that weren’t even serving food from any part of India. The other very Hyderabadi dessert, khubaani ka meethha, made B its life-patron with the very first tasting. Dried apricots concentrated into thick, syrupy sweetness, give the dessert the ambrosia of halwa and the lightness of fruit. A perfect dessert to share after all those meal mountains we had internalized, rather literally.

However, the greatest edible reward from Hyderabad was haleem—the signature dish that sweeps over the city’s collective tongue during the fasting month of the Muslim festival of Ramadan. Haleem is one of the many items served during iftaar—the breaking of the daily fast during Ramadan. The dish, however, tastes every bit as good even if one doesn’t fast before digging into it.

We discovered haleem on our way back from Golconda—the fort of many forts that makes one marvel at its grandeur: the stories of devotion, literally carved on its walls. Ram Das, a certain Hindu official at the court of the Muslim king Tana Shah, was imprisoned in Golconda Fort for misusing funds to build a Rama temple. Even in his despair, Ram Das’ devotion didn’t diminish. His carvings of Hindu deities Rama, Lakshman and Hanuman still remain on the walls of his prison.

Having traversed the fort’s enormous breadth and after climbing up and down its steep terrain on an appreciably warm day, it was relaxing to sit inside a taxi for the ride back home. Mid-way through our journey, B asked the driver if he knew where good haleem was served. “Sure, saab, I will take you there,” said the driver. Soon, we were in front of Pista House, arguably, the best haleem makers in the city. The two boxes of pounded wheat and mutton, stewed into a smooth paste, smothered with ghee and topped with fine ginger juliennes easily rank among the best things I’ve ever eaten. Haleem was also just what the doctor would have ordered after a long day of trekking through a fascinating yet inexorable fort.

In spite of the breathtaking sights, natural bounty and the scrumptious food, Hyderabad had its own contradictions. It seemed a place where the new nudged in to make its way beside the old.

The city appeared safe enough for young, single women to move around. At the same time, most women dressed conservatively. And while there was a steady inflow of IT-employed youth from other, more cosmopolitan cities, Hyderabad’s own youth remained reticent to profess love in the open. What else could explain the recurring clandestine rendezvous across the city? Cupid seemed to be on overdrive here, what with young couples snuggling up to each other the moment they found a moment. Or a suitable crevice.

We first spotted them in the lush, verdant botanical gardens, rich in flora of a flourishing variety, inviting birds of various stripes and songs. As well as hearts floating on air, above bodies swaying on the grass. The ingenuity and dedication of these wild young hearts was commendable. Inside bushes, behind a big tree, tucked away in alcoves, they bloomed as resplendently as the dahlias and daisies in the garden.

We also saw them at Durgam Cheruvu or the Secret Lake, a lake-forest spread over sixty-three acres. The lake remains deceptively true to its name. None of it is visible from the outside, and one has to walk a fair distance to enter the lake area. Inside, it’s a magical world, complete with pristine waters, hills and rocky formations, and recently installed art in the form of sculptures and rock art.

Just a few minutes before, B and I had been on a very urban road, and then, suddenly, we shared this space with the most enchanting butterflies; humming birds donning stunning yellow, electric blue hues, bulbuls; red-breasted lemon hibiscus; a blushing purple-pink gulmohar variety and other spell-inducing flowers; and even fruits like the pomegranate and the custard apple. As we wound our way through the rocks, we spotted many a dark, damp spots, sheltering insects, moss, the odd creeper. And the snuggled duos.

Climbing up, all the way to the top, we discovered the most stunning view of the green-gray lake. We also found hiking trails that scared me and thrilled B. Just when he had finally convinced me to climb down one, we saw a couple sitting right next to its base, behind the curtain of tree branches. We quietly retreated.

In Hyderabad, love abounded. As the Buddha’s compassion, as the co-existence of a structure of Brahminical Hinduism and its greatest critic, as the pigeons coo-cooing inside the magnificent ramparts of Charminar and the burqa-clad women buying flowers and bangles outside it, as the haleem slathered with ghee, as the apricots transformed into sugary sin, and as love birds, peeking, sometimes glaring, from crevices, hills, open markets. How could I have remained love-less here? In less than four months, I had been smitten. By B. And by Hyderabad.

Text and photos ©Bhaswati Ghosh

 

Dispatch: Love in Hyderabad

This personal essay first appeared in Global Graffiti magazine’s “Cities” issue.

“…She would always remember Paris as the most beautiful city in the world, not because of what it was or was not in reality, but because it was linked to the memory of her happiest years.”

Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera.

Cities are where history and contemporaneity, spaciousness and congestion, overwhelming wealth and astonishing poverty collide with each other more recklessly than anywhere else. One can live in City A for a long time and despise it and yet get entranced by City B in just a few months. That probably explains why I always remained a passive resident of Delhi, the city of my birth and my home for more than three decades, yet fell in love with Hyderabad, where I lived for less than four months. And the charm was almost instantaneous.

This was also the city where I found love.

Read the rest at Global Graffiti