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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Call for submissions: The Everyday and Other Tagore

Tagore addressing his tenantsCAFE DISSENSUS

UPDATE: The issue is now available here.

Issue 19:  October 2015: The Everyday and Other Tagore [Last date for submission: 30 September, 2015; Date of publication: October, 2015]

Send submissions to: bhashwati@gmail.com

There is the Rabindranath Tagore we all know – the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, the founder of Visva-Bharati University, the grand literary canon of India, and the towering figure without whom Bengal just can’t do.

And there’s the other Rabindranath Tagore, the one who forms the leitmotif of the activities of a social worker working with children from marginal communities in Delhi. Tagore shows up in their handcrafted embroideries, in the food they make, in their art and craft projects, in the plays they enact, and in the worldview they imbibe, unbeknownst to themselves.

Tagore comes alive in the song an unknown Baul fakir sings in a village in Bangladesh, “Jawkhon porbe na mor payer chinho ei baate,” (When my footprints are no longer seen on this path). The words haunt the listener with the singer-poet’s elegiac visions of a time after he is gone. It’s penned and composed by Tagore, yes, but the fakir makes it his own, with his distinctly carefree, unchained rendition.

In a very urban school in Delhi, a principal strives to give her students a taste of Tagore’s inclusive education paradigm. She doesn’t have the space to provide the open-air classrooms of Visva-Bharati, but she opens the doors of art, literature, music, dance, and drama to her pupils, so they can breathe free beyond the confines of a book’s pages.

In one of his most powerful poems (Patraput, 15), Tagore declares himself an outcast, one who has renounced the bondage of religion and ritual. He likens himself to Bauls and their search for the man of the heart, a quest to find divinity in humanity, not in external or imagined symbols.

This is the other, everyday Tagore – internalized in universes that don’t often feature in scholarly discourses.

This issue of Café Dissensus invites fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or multimedia works on the theme of The Everyday and Other Tagore.

Along with written pieces, we are also open to audio-visual content. If you would like to do a short interview (5-15 minutes), please feel free to send that to us. If you send us the rush copy, we can edit. However, it would be better if you do the editing and send to us.

Your submissions should not exceed 1500 words. If a particular piece deserves more space, we are willing to go beyond the word limit. Please email them to bhashwati@gmail.com. Also, provide a brief 2-3 line bio at the end of your piece. Submissions will be accepted until 30 September, 2015.

Photo courtesy: http://permacultureambassadors.blogspot.ca/

Komal Gandhar by Rabindranath Tagore

DSC02346

I call her Komal Gandhar

in my mind.

She would sit stunned if she learned about it,

“What does it mean?” she’d ask smilingly

That it is unfathomable is its most certain meaning.

The world is about work and vocation,

about different shades of good and bad—

Things that connect her to others.

I watch, sitting by her side

how she infuses her surroundings with a peculiar melody.

She knows not her own self.

At the spot where her Beloved’s altar is placed

an agony-incense burns by His feet.

From there, a shadow of smoke engulfs the eyes,

like clouds enveloping the moon—

masking the smile a little.

Her voice carries a fading strain of melancholy.

She is unaware that it’s the same strain that

binds the strings of her life’s tanpura.

The notes of Bhairavi permeate all her

words and actions.

I cannot conclude why.

That’s the reason I call her Komal Gandhar

It is hard to comprehend why

teardrops glide into the heart

when she lifts her eyes.

Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh

Guest Blog: Anandamayee Majumdar

Anandamayee Majumdar has been translating Rabindranath Tagore’s songs for a while now. Her translations are available on Gitabitan in English, where she and her friend, Rumela Sengupta, have transcreated more than 700 songs of Tagore so far.  Here Anandamayee shares the challenges and rewards of translating Tagore.

Translating Rabindrasangeet

I am deeply honoured and humbled by the fact that Bhaswati asked me to write something about translating Tagore songs, a topic she wanted to post in her own blog. Here I will describe the motivation and experiences that have been relevant to me in my work. I understand that this is nothing more than a personal experience.

Translation of Rabindranath’s songs is an arduous job, and often times a frustrating one. For one, those who are conversant in Bangla, know how difficult it is to educe similar resonance and melody (surely to be missing in a translation) of the song. It is hard enough to create the same aura of just the poem itself, let alone the rhythm or the melody. Therefore to the Tagore fan of Bengal, any transcreation can easily seem like a travesty.

I need to clarify that so far as records go, there have been two kinds of translations, serving two different purposes. Both are worthy of effort, in my opinion. One, in which the transcreator tries to weld the lyrical threads of the song into her work, creating a poetic essence of the song. The other kind of translation, is that which matches the beats and measures of the original poem. The aim of the latter, is to be able to read it, as well as sing to it.

I personally think, simply to be able to educe similar emotions as the original song can be tremendously difficult, with translated work. One can only try one’s best, and not be too complacent about it. Yet, the translator at some point finds her own wings. Nobody else can tell her what to do. Since similar to creation, transcreation too can become a work of art and ingenuity. Therefore, no two paths could be the same. And so, there could be different ways to transcreate the same song by two different people.

When I first came outside Bengal to the US, I was posed with a problem of sharing Rabindranath’s songs with my friends, who were not conversant in Bengali. I had to translate a few songs to my friends at University of Connecticut in 2001, so we could share them and sing them together. I found that these translations when shared, resonated with the English speaking community — specifically, with those that had spiritual awareness in their lives. Later I was also asked to translate some of Rabindranath’s famous operas, Chitrangada and Shaapmochon by a dance academy for their own performance. These were aimed at the participants and the audience, who were mostly non-conversant in Bangla. Later, I was quelling out my own stress of traveling long distances every week, by translating Tagore songs; also, I was determined not to let my long hours of travel turn out to be entirely futile.

The desire to organize and stockpile these translations, or transcreations as we call them, came from my friend Rumela Sengupta, my soul-mate and dear friend from college, who was also transcreating Tagore songs as a way to connect to her spiritual core. We shared a similar passion for Rabindranath and his songs, and had often hummed them together back in our youth. Rumela created a blog in 2009, that she named ‘Gitabitan in English’, at http://gitabitan-en.blogspot.com. An artist among other things, she brought into it a flair of her own. True to her spirit, she gave it the space and beauty it needed for making this a home cum pleasurable workplace for us, to funnel our emotions and creative passions, to heal our inner selves, to connect to others who loved Rabindranath, and to somehow reach out to those who needed him through our transcreations.

After this blog was born, the contributions became more motivated, and more regular. We began to choose songs to transcreate on a certain day, based on our needs and emotions of that day. Then again we also tried to be context sensitive, to be able to produce some work that would be seasonable and synchronous to the time of year or any concurrent collective occasion. This makes the work more relevant in some sense. We also tried to respond to the specific requests that were sometimes made of us, of transcreating certain lyrics.

We realized that others who had a chance to view the blog often left important comments, and that it would need a separate space of discussion. Rumela set up a discussion forum in Facebook, called Thoughts of Tagore where the transcreations were immediately posted. Friends Suman Dasgupta, Soumya Sankar Basu and Arindam Sengupta and others, often gave us razor-sharp and profound critique that we needed to craft these transcreations into the molds they would eventually become. Their feedback often times, honed the meaning, freshened the imagery, or bore out the essence with crispness. These individuals are our much coveted co-creators.

Since Rumela set up the blog, we have transcreated more than 700 songs. Since Rabindranath’s Gitabitan — his entire collection of songs, encompasses more than 2200 songs, we have a long way to go, to make the entire garden of songs available in English.

Whenever an urge to express arises, I seek one of his songs that seem to guide my emotions, my results of immediate soul-searching. This is all a very personal story to some extent. The good thing is, Tagore-songs import messages that are so universal, I need not bother that they have lost their aura in the present day. So the real challenge is to reach out through a contemporary, universally agreed upon diction, one that spans continents and cultures.

To put this into context of the work that is ‘out there’, we have read the works of many other translators to date, most noteworthy, maybe are Arnolde Bake, Khitish Roy, Ludwig Wittgenstein, William Radice, Ketaki Kushari Dyson, Amiya Chakravarty, and others. We have often been referred to their work, by the pundits we have asked for feedback along our way. We have read most of the existing work of these trendsetters with great passion.

I recently came across a US citizen named John Thorpe visiting Bangladesh, his work brings him to a culturally thriving milieu in the neighborhoods of Rajshahi University. In his fifties now, he has been translating Rabindrasangeet for fifteen years, his aim is to be able to sing them. He sings in both the original Bengali version and in his version of English, with a deep, majestic voice. I noticed his choice of words was quite fresh and contemporary. The fact that he tried to preserve the original cadence, did not cause havoc to the poetic essence. Fascinated by his efforts, I tried following this route on my own. I had previously been urged by quite a few individuals to try this out, but had refrained. I had not found the correct motivation at that point. But now, listening to John sing, it felt right. The path was frustrating, rewarding and effort-some at the same time. One may work on one or many more transcreations a day if this challenge of rhyming or singing to the transcreation, is not present. But with the challenge of allowing the rhythm to flow naturally just as the original, and to let the poetic essence exude just as well, the choice of expressions need such a lot of experimentation, that it often takes a while to finish the process. It is a frontier that is still fresh for me, and I feel both the butterflies and the exhilaration of an explorer.

I am aware of my own lacking conditions, and therefore, my passion for attaining a hold on English literature has grown over time. I confess that I am no English writer, or even a student of literature for that matter. Literary limitations do bother me a lot. I hold, therefore a great value for those specific constructive critique and comments that seem sincere and heartfelt, from the readers of this blog — they have molded my work. I also have been privileged to come across some enlightened writers (in English), who have a lovely command over the English language, and who I take to deeply, mainly because they write from the heart and have an effeminate style.

I believe that if we can let an inspiration wash over us, we can heal ourselves, and that could light up any creation. Without inspiration, without the flame that kindles our desire into action, anything that we do becomes dull. This has happened to many of my own transcreations. On the other hand, sometimes I just happen to sit down and start. This often results into a primary draft which does not appeal at all. But over time, that draft serves as the stepping stone, a skeleton of the work. By and by, I try to chisel out the extraneous, the unimportant, and preserve only the substance that feels right. Language itself is so fluid and magnetic. If one is not intrigued by its beauty, if it is not delectable, as well as spiritual, one can not create a worthy translation, because Rabindranath is both about profound spiritual beauty and consummate expression. As a transcreator, one has the obligation as well as the freedom to take the song (the poem and the melody together), and make it one’s own. It should not be a feeble attempt at making it available in another language, it should be borne out of one’s own heart.

I try to borrow idioms and ideas from everyday life sometimes. I do try and keep a mental note of new phrases, and idioms, and striking nuances of speech, that may come handy and could be used later for some future work.

Editing plays a major role in crafting out these transcreations. I usually edit a lot of times even after a post has appeared on the blog… until I feel that I have given it my best. Even then, it is good to come back to that post after a while, when you can read it as a third person, without attachment.

My interest is also an inherited one. I have had the exposure to Tagore’s songs since I was a child. The learning and practice of Tagore’s songs, poems and opera have been made natural for me by my family. My grandfather Subodh Majumdar was one of the first people in Bengal to self-teach Tagore songs, and to distribute them to his family and country. Renowned singers have taken their music lessons and inspirations from this unusually gifted man. In his thirties, he was making critical discussions on the notations of  Rabindrasangeet with the venerable notation-maker and musician (grandson of Tagore’s brother) Dinendranath Tagore in Santiniketan. Subodh Majumdar was also taking sitar lessons with maestro Ustaad Vilayat Khan at Sangeet Academy in Kolkata. At his own home in Khulna, he was teaching the sitar, Khol, Pakhwaj, violin, harmonium, tabla, flute and Esraj to his seven children.

Rabindrasangeet (among other songs) filled the breath of the house. My father Subrata Majumdar who was also extremely multifaceted,  had transcreated Tagore songs and poems in his twenties. Some of these got published in the family magazine. When I first came across these translated songs and poems, they read so well, I can still recall my elation at reading those soulful, crisp passages. My parents, my aunts also happen to be musicians and teachers in Tagore songs in their own rights. I am much indebted to my family, who have made Rabindranath my companion and friend, since I was a child. Therefore, transcreating Tagore was just one of the things that I can trace back to my family, like many other things.

For me, this is the story of how these transcreations came about, what I think about them, and what works for me. I think that pathway also describes the motivations and frustrations met along the way, for this work.