The world of trees is often under-considered as a way of finding a mirror to the way life functions on the earth. The natural food chain implies a kind of superiority that drives narratives we are most familiar with. Plant or tree life is then restricted to the domains of science or find mention mostly in fantasised, even fetishised versions of traditional literature.
There are exceptions, like Peter Wohlleben’s recent The Hidden Life of Trees — a magnificent, odd, social exploration of the world of trees. Wohlleben in his book claims that trees have a society and personalities of their own, which assigns them a sort of humanity. But do we want to do that, considering humanity isn’t doing any better? It is perhaps, more important to tilt the bridge other way, so that something rolls into our conscience and we may learn a thing or two about, and of trees. Sumana Roy’s first book, How I Became a Tree (Aleph Book Company), is perhaps, that tilt in the bridge.
Roy’s book is a curious creation in itself, not least for the fact that it is also her first book. Most intriguingly, it is a headbutt to genre writing, for it involves memoir, meditation, theory, philosophy as well as some ground reportage — a truly mixed bag. “I find ready-made genres uninteresting. I am interested in the fluidity between genres – so How I Became A Tree is memoir and essay and reportage and meditation and more. I’d like to believe that there are others like me who are not bothered by the lack of solidified categories in my book. I didn’t think of it consciously during the writing process,” she says.
The flow of ideas overtakes and almost overpowers the format of the writing. A page of light literary criticism could be followed by the memory of journey somewhere in her past. What supplies the spokes to this rambling wheel of thought, is Roy’s persistence in zeroing in on her subject, which you could say, is broadly the form; which is also why, though the prose is simple, flowing, and accessible, it requires a certain intensity of reading. A fleeting read of Roy’s book would be a wasted effort.
Divided into nine parts, and free of any narrative baggage, How I Became A Tree could also be read from anywhere in between. Roy, who writes from Siliguri, meditates on various ideas, ideas that have shaped her own response to trees, and the way she sees them manifest in art and culture.
In the chapter ‘Portrait of a Tree’ she writes:
“If I were a tree – and I hoped and believed I was turning into one – would a painter lover feel the urge, or even the need, to turn me into something else, or someone else?”
The book does shy away from issues like the misogynistic co-relation between women and the world of trees, or the way art often appropriates them, denuding them of life, to compensate for artificial beauty. Roy believes the stillness of life, in itself, is something, and the trees perhaps know it best. This makes one wonder if such a book can be considered from the mega-cities, where that quiet is just not available? “I was in Mumbai recently, and kept pointing out aged trees to my friend – how the municipal corporation had preserved the structure and ‘history’ of these trees without chopping off their branches arbitrarily. I might have been able to write the book from Mumbai, who knows. The book came from my reflections on and understanding of the character of modern life – in this is the reason for my migration from the social to plant life,” she says.
Roy channels a number of resources in the book to meditate on the possibilities. From the art of Nandalal Bose and Subodh Gupta, to the poems of Nitoo Das and the writings of DH Lawrence to a more scientific exploration like that of Manuel Lima’s The Book of Trees, there are pearls being unstrung on each page. And that in itself makes it difficult to follow at times. The thing about Roy’s book is that its importance lies in the reader’s ability to meditate with her. She is not talking down, but merely inviting you to share space on her mat. It is a deeply personal work, one that requires an equally personal reading. That in itself, would be a challenge to most. Which begs the question, how does such a book even exist given the publishing trends in India. “I am fortunate to have had the support of David Davidar, who responded enthusiastically within three days of the submission of my manuscript, and who made me rewrite the conclusion of the book. I must also mention Aienla Ozukum who cared for this book as one does an infant,” she says.
But couldn’t a first book be more universal, or general, unlike the way this one is? “I am happy that How I Became A Tree is my first book. Its subject is one that is closest to my heart, and it also allowed me to question our conditioning in a handful of genres. I am deeply interested in how the literature of our times responds to our politics instead of using the same gunny bag of the ready-made genres over and over again. The literary imagination cannot just be limited to conjuring up fantastic content — it must invent new genres too, don’t you think?” she adds.
Roy’s book is wonderful meditation that mixes genres or writing. She writes in the chapter, ‘Wild Men and Lost Girls’:
..the forest , which we now know cannot be the site of our permanent residence, in an interval, between acts of responsibility and consequence. The stag party night out before the wedding, piled with taboos and restrictions meant to be broken – that is the liberation of forest life. Not be a Roman in Rome but be a Jungli in a Jungle.”
This is Indian literature’s stag party to the forest of thought. You are invited, if you can brave the thickness of thought.