Book Excerpt: From Sumana Roy’s ‘How I Became a Tree’
By Sumana Roy
My conditioning in romantic love had given me a long list of criteria I expected any lover of mine to satisfy.
However, these would need to be recalibrated when it came to trees. Any notions of space and self-reliance that seemed to mark successful modern relationships were completely useless in the tree-human romantic relationship. So was reciprocity, the need that soured so many human relationships. How was one to think of reciprocity in a creature that neither spoke nor was influenced by human languages? The Bengali film-maker Srijeet Mukherjee, for instance, tried to solve this problem by giving the tree in his film Nirbaak human characteristics: sap becomes semen in an act of onanism by the tree, this propelled by the sight of a woman resting in its shade.
That is passion, but there’s also romance.
And the epistolary quotient of love relationships? I’ve loved writing letters to my lover—they contained the most secretive part of me, one that I was ashamed to otherwise see manifest. In letters I was able to love unconscious of any gaze. This was also true of secret meetings, hide-and-seek, keeping and missing appointments. There are spaces that indulge this. But how was one to meet a tree who would not move out of its home? I compared it cruelly with relationships with the differently-abled and regretted it immediately. But curiosity was natural—I had seen the fixity of location affecting relationships between people. How could it not for plants? There was the other matter about privacy. Romantic love demands a tent if not a house. Imagine a tree inside a tent. End of Love Story. There is also the knock on the door, literal and metaphorical, that initiates or causes a temporary pause to the lovers’ actions and conversations. How can one visit a tree without needing to knock on the door? This uncertainty, the ambiguity between being welcome and being rebuffed, will always mark the life of a tree-human relationship. There is the chorus of I-want-my-space all around me—how am I to know whether I’m being intrusive?
Possessiveness was the other worry. I have been a possessive lover. Plant life, by its very biological nature, does not understand monogamy. Loyalty is an alien concept, adultery an everyday thing. How would I adjust to this new world after years—centuries?—of social conditioning? There were also different kinds of love—a farmer’s love is not the same as a tourist’s. The farmer’s is also a gatekeeper’s life, sometimes like a spouse’s. In my relationship with strange and familiar trees, I was both. I now realize that this allowed me to love them like a tree, loving one and the many, the gardener and the admiring passer-by. Waking up beside a lover must count as one of the most rewarding experiences of being in a relationship. The person still asleep might receive an unexpected—unexpected because sleep is free of expectations—kiss on the eyelids, the closed eyes. How was one to inaugurate such a day with a tree? Films had invented a rather cute stand-in for this—kissing flower buds that open into flowers. But a kiss demands reciprocity. There is nothing more cruel than a one-sided kiss. You look for the ‘face’ of the tree, hoping it will turn towards you like a human lover. But it has no ‘face’. Since love is based on exchange, you might wait for the tree’s saliva, some evidence that would ratify the pantomime of lust. Here there is none.
The other kind of reciprocity has to do with the exchange of gifts between lovers—the conventional flowers and chocolates, books and soft toys. What is one to gift a tree? Certainly not soft toys or flowers or trees, for there are none, only educational toys like clay and plastic fruits in a nursery classroom. The use of real flowers to express love would be a thing of irony—plucking flowers off a tree and presenting them to it might be a bit like chopping off a woman’s fingers and then gift-wrapping them as an anniversary gift. The opposite option, of plucking flowers off a neighbouring tree of a different species and presenting them to the lover-tree, could be analogical to sending a strange woman’s hair stored inside a pendant to a lover? How would you prove your innocence—loyalty—then? Lovers are known to swear on each other as a mark of their honesty to each other, they sometimes swear on god, on the sun and the moon, on mothers and their ambition and success, but who has ever heard a lover swear on a tree or flower or fruit?
I once asked a male friend whether he’d like to have a tree as a mate. He replied with a joke, using the laboured example of a wife’s nagging. Trees have no memory, not of pain, neither of pleasure. It is this that makes them tabula rasas—they are lovers like no other. History here was unchangeably one-sided—the lover remembers the tree, the tree doesn’t remember her at all. Conditioned as we are to memory—of birthdays, good days, bad days—being a great seismograph in relationships, it would be both exciting and frustrating to return to a new lover every evening, an old lover with whom one must begin anew with every meeting. And I suddenly found myself becoming completely accepting of this, I who never forget to remind my husband about his forgetfulness about birthdays and anniversaries.
Kahlil Gibran’s advisory lines from ‘On Marriage’ ends with an illustration of a good marriage from the plant world: ‘And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.’ The natural process in which trees ‘marry’ each other is called ‘inosculation’—called ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ trees, the two trees grow adjacent to each other until their branches conjoin. I’ve seen trees being married to each other in full-bodied Hindu ceremonies, with grand feasts and wedding guests representing the groom and the bride. A piece of red cloth, often considered to be sacred to Hindus, is used to wrap the trunks of the two trees in an embrace. I discovered several such married trees on National Highway 31 on my way to work—in my inescapably anthropomorphized mind, it seemed like a cinematic freeze of the most romantic kind, two lovers in an eternal embrace, but when months passed and the embrace grew tighter as new branches grew into each other, I began to hear that modern phrase every time I saw them: ‘I need some space’. Ellison Banks Findly gives examples from the Vrikshayurveda where a ‘Shyama creeper nearing the blossoming of flowers, closely clinging to a tree looks like a damsel’ and Kalidasa’s Abhigyan Shakuntalam where Shakuntala chances upon the married couple of jasmine vines and a mango tree.
In a Naga folk tale, a young princess grows up as a friend to a peepul tree until she falls in love with it. When her father organizes a swayamvar for her to choose a husband from princes from neighbouring kingdoms, she refuses. She has set her eyes on a young man who does not wear the royal robes. The princess’s maid follows the man who hurriedly disappears into the jungle. The next day the princess discovers the truth about the man and the tree: he was a Naga prince who had been trapped by an evil magician inside the peepul tree. Versions of this tale—of a beautiful woman falling in love with a tree only to discover a human lover trapped inside it—exist in almost all cultures.
At the other end of the spectrum is the folk tale about women turning into trees. The most well-known of these is the one the poet A. K. Ramanujan collected and translated as ‘A Flowering Tree’. An old woman has two daughters in a kingdom where the king has a daughter and a son of marriageable age. The old woman is poor and works hard for a living. And so the youngest daughter, eager to help supplement the family income, tells her sister about the rituals of turning into a tree. There is scepticism at first but it soon turns out to be a real thing: the younger sister turns into a tree, the older one plucks her beautiful flowers, pours water on her from a pitcher and the girl is restored to her human form again. This, of course, takes place without their mother’s knowledge. They make lovely garlands out of these flowers and sell them to the queen. The prince, who is completely taken by the unearthly beauty of these flowers, follows the flower-selling girls to their house and spies on the process of transformation. He then manages to convince his father to arrange his marriage with the girl.
A few days into the marriage, the prince wants his wife to turn into a tree so that they can sleep together on the flowers. She refuses, then pleads, but he won’t see reason. And so begins this nightly ritual. The flowering girl’s sister-in-law, who has spied on them, tricks the tree-woman into accompanying her group of friends on an outing. Once there, she is compelled by them to turn into a tree. She warns them not to hurt her or cause her branches and flowers any harm, but the sister-in-law and her friends are so delighted at this game that they plunder her body and leave without restoring her to her human self. The tree-woman becomes a ‘thing’ and is washed ashore into a different kingdom where she fortunately finds care. After a series of events, her husband, living a hermit’s life, searching for her everywhere, is now united with the ‘thing’ and finally, after the bandaging of bruised and wounded leaves and branches, the tree becomes a woman again.
Ramanujan, explaining the tale through a gendered lens, writes, ‘It becomes almost a sexual ritual, a display of her spectacular talent to turn him on, so that they can sleep together on the flowers from her body…when she is returned to her human state, she too is left ravaged, mutilated. It is a progressive series of violations till she finally ends up being a “thing”… When is a woman safe in such a society? She is most vulnerable when she is a tree. She can neither speak nor move. She is most open to injury when she is most attractive, when she is exercising her gift of flowering… She can be made whole only by becoming the tree again, becoming vulnerable again, and trusting her husband to graft and heal her broken branches.’
Excerpted by: Bhaswati Ghosh
Excerpted with the permission of Aleph Book Company from the book How I Became a Tree by Sumana Roy.
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One Response to “Book Excerpt: From Sumana Roy’s ‘How I Became a Tree’”
Reading the excerpt reminded me of the recent blog by Ikebana expert Ilse Beunen from Sweden who was on a visit to see the gardens in Kanazawa. There the gardeners take such care of trees that they actually nurse a dying or sick tree to life. Strange that Sumana Roy’s narrative touches at some point with reality. The gendering of a tree is symbolic and creates the sense of oppression and frustration that a silent sufferer endures. But the subject of sexual life of a man an a woman, altered by religious / social pressures when they become and wife is a vast unexplored field. Not adequately explored. It becomes a place of the greatest oppression at times.