NABINA DAS | 15 AUGUST, 2017
The very essence of human desire is the longing for the impossible.
Around the world, idioms and metaphors have served to entertain this idea. Whether to become an Icarus, the human-voiced seven brothers champaka and sister Parul ("shaat bhai champa-parul bon") in Bengali folklore, a Midas, a Devi, or even the Devil, or at times, just the Other -- the list could go on.
Sumana Roy's "How I Became a Tree" is a text of such desire. The very word "became", which suggests the actualization of desire, is really a projection, the writer's deepest genuflection unto a life elsewhere. In that, this nonfiction book is a prayer and observation combined, for a love that is self-absorbed. Hence many portions give the feel of the esoteric, albeit in their apt nuances.
The book, a treatise to self and nature, is a well-researched document for our times. Where in several places the writing appears meditative, I also read it as a struggle, a head-on debate with philosophy, as to how we perceive the individual's position in society vis a vis one's desire to change or re-construct the self. It is a problem, if a benign one here, that Roy grapples with.
Christopher Caudwell writes in Illusion and Reality:
"The struggle of man and Nature is a material movement which in the field of thought takes the form of the subject-object relation, the oldest problem of philosophy. It becomes insoluble problem only because the division of society into classes, by separating the class which generates ideology from society’s active struggle with Nature, reflects this cleavage into ideology as a separation of subject from object whereby they become mutually exclusive opposites."
One may not have to delve into the details of the class struggle here, but even so, Roy's book is a testimony to a conglomeration of philosophies and folk wisdom to attain what Caudwell calls "truth".
In page 5 of the book, Roy articulates the quest for this truth in simple lines:
Once upon a time, I was certain, men and trees moved to the same rhythm, lived their lives to the same time. To gain an understanding of this concept that, of course, existed only in my imagination, I began planting saplings to mark births and beginnings.
Roy draws from fiction, philosophy, folk lore, and her own inner knowledge to articulate the 'fantasy' of relating the hyper-urbanized human condition to its deeper wishes. In this, she doesn't cater to nativism at all, rather, makes a well-informed case for a better look at our own environment, social and natural.
She refers to the groundbreaking work of scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose:
Bose is speaking for plant lovers like me when he says, 'If the plant could have been made thus to keep its own diary, then the whole of its history might have been recovered.' It must have been at his pent up frustration that led Jagadish Bose to name his collection of essays Awbyakto, meaning the 'unsaid' in Bangla. (p 133)
At times How I Became a Tree reads as lucid as a dream one would cling to even in awakening. Yet at times it reads as indecipherable as an archaic prayer. There is a lot packed in this book which need reading and re-reading.
The personal reflections are at once refreshing:
Because all of us can't climb trees the shadows of trees fall to the ground was one of the things that occurred to me at the time. I hadn't learned to climb trees then and this was the closest that I could get to the experience--by stamping on the shadows of branches I could simulate climbing" (p 68).
and at times an idiom that perhaps only the writer would understand and for which readers would need an explanation:
I had no illusions about the expansive ambitions that the forest shared with the city: both were fuelled by the greed for terrotorialization, both were superb encroachers whhen left to their own, and both needed easy converts. And so the need for parasites in the worlds of both the forest and the city.
But it was the differences that had brought me to the forest. Do forests have nationalities? (p 155)
Roy recognizes the need for solace amid all urban angst and voices the paradoxes one might have to confront on really transforming radically:
Touch is the identifying marker of our times. It has been canonized by the lover and policeman alike.
Would I be able to work a phone if I turned into a tree? (p 27)
This irony, this delicate anxiety rings throughout the book. Roy's allegiance to poetry and art and nature stories comes alive through her anecdotal observations. Rabindranath Tagore is a major influence for her:
Among all of Tagore's work on this person-as-plant-fantasy, my favourite is the short story called 'Bawlai'. The narrator begins by giving us the example of people who exhibit characteristics that are not human -- some take after animals, some show similarities with music. Bawlai, the narrator's nephew, behaved like a tree. (p 101)
These little snapshots of a world of humans and trees, shadows and footfalls, desires and distances are what constitutes the narrative of the book. Often it is exhilarating, at times a little boggling in details. But not for one moment, the central focus dithers. It is almost universal that all of us who have 'known' trees have drawn a fairly large number of trees as youngsters, egged on by our parents and teachers, as Roy suggests. The "facelessness" of trees, by that stretch, is either a boon or a bane. It teaches us to love trees or to go away from them in this urban humdrum.
One curious connection I make with Roy's book is the circularity of birth and death which holds the narrative together. The Assamese folklore of Tejimola comes to mind as a tale of birth, death and redemption when Roy writes, "Ellison Banks... draws up a random list of people turning to trees after their death." (p 214)
Tejimola, the folk heroine, had repeatedly returned from her many deaths in the shape of a vine, a flower, a vegetable, etc.
There is hope and haplessness both in such "rebirths", as mentioned in Budhhist and Jain literature. But the pain of such 'becoming' is often deep and scarring, points out Roy:
In the Uttaradhyayana, a person recollects his torturous life as a tree, of a life of perennial anxiety, of being torn and broken, of the pains on his body. In the Tattvartha Sutra, another recounts his life as a salmali tree--'as a tree I have been felled, slit, sawn into planks, and stripped of the bark by carpenters with axes, hatchets, etc., an infinite number of times.' (p 215)
How I Became a Tree is a compelling read. It baffles as well as energizes. While the conceptual range is scintillating, the textual details can get a little heavy at times. But in all, the book is what a poet would describe as 'remembrance'. Better said in a poets words too:
You should lie down now and remember the forest,
for it is disappearing--
no, the truth is it is gone now
and so what details you can bring back
might have a kind of life. (excerpted from "The Forest"; Susan Stewart)
Title: How I became a tree
Author: Sumana Roy
Publisher: Aleph Book Company