Distressed at having to leave her home in the small town of Darbhanga in Bihar for the village of her soon-to-be husband, on the other side of the border, in Nepal, 14-year-old Meena sobs uncontrollably. It is the 1970s and Nepal seems unimaginably far to the young bride. “Eleven hours. Another town. Another country.”

She fears the distance from everything that is familiar, she fears loneliness, and she fears time. Her mother, Kaveri, having made a similar journey – only, in the opposite direction – scolds her: “What are you crying for? Even Lord Rama travelled to Nepal to find a suitable consort for himself in Goddess Sita. And what a consort she turned out to be. One look at her in the gardens of Janakpur and Rama was smitten. What a love story!”

“No love story there,” Meena said with a sniff. “Eventually, Rama threw Sita out of his palace, and Sita nicely killed herself.”

A tale of three generations of women

Smriti Ravindra’s debut novel The Woman who Climbed Trees does many things. It tells the stories of three generations of women – Kaveri, the mother, Meena, the daughter, and Preeti, the granddaughter. Entwined with these are stories of marriage, of queer love, of longing and loss, of mothers and daughters. It also traces the political (and mythic) history of Nepal, addressing questions of ethnicity, oppression, and corruption. Smoothly traversing almost five decades, embedding folklore and mythology into its structure, the narrative shares Meena’s unease about leaving home and asks, insistently, what home and homeland mean to women and what happens when they are denied both.

Early in the novel, when a barber’s wife, the ritually designated person for the task, is applying wedding mehendi on Meena’s palms, she tells her that while men have permanent homes, a mother they have never been sundered from, and an immutable motherland, the same are only impermanent dreams for women. “Nothing she is born to does she belong to, and she must dream and prepare for the life that is permanent only after she has left the womb that housed her and the house that protected her like a womb.” The many generations of women Ravindra writes into her novel, all fall into this dissonant pattern of displacement. Often not recognised as immigrants (since they are “only” wives and not individuals with any intrinsic worth), thus delegitimising the grief of separation from home, they are never quite allowed to set roots in any place.

It takes a deft hand and immense reserves of empathy to portray mental illness, particularly women’s mental illness, without allowing the character to slide into crowd-pleasing versions of hysteria. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway in her attic room, experiencing near-constant anxiety, was an obvious precursor, as was the mother with undiagnosed post-partum depression in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”. Closer home, Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom remains an incredibly evocative account of a mother’s experience of and her family’s negotiation with madness. Pinto’s Em is a beedi-smoking, cussword-spewing woman who is heartbreakingly easy to love, not just for her children but also for her reader. Meena, similarly, finds her freedom in expletives and rude, lewd gestures, directed particularly at her husband, Manmohan, the cause of her forced departure from home and all her consequent trauma.

Altered state of being

What Vijay Mishra says of trauma and the rupture of the self when writing about the Indian diaspora, that “the diasporic imaginary is a condition of an impossible mourning that transforms mourning into melancholia”, is eerily accurate for Meena. Her melancholia stems from loss, of home and of love, of the mother and the last tenuous connections with her homeland that break with the death of the mother, of the unborn children she did not know she wanted. Her “madness” first manifests itself as temporal dissonance, a removal from space and time, a suspension of reality. In this altered state of being, she finds the sort of control that is continually denied her by her husband and the very structures of marriage. The mad women who climb trees, or those who plant them, or those who are taken away from them, all have in common the obviously undesirable trait of asserting their selves, their voices, their sexuality.

South Asian cultures, steeped as they are in patriarchy, need the telling of more feminist stories. Smriti Ravindra accomplishes this almost effortlessly. Her women are not all strident feminists. They are flawed and often complicit in the oppressions of patriarchy. There is the stern mother-in-law who works endless hours and has had all affection wrung out of her. There is the sister-in-law, unhappy in marriage but unwilling to choose love outside of it, as also the officer’s wife whose history is so like Meena’s and yet, because they are divided by ethnicity, politics, and the optics of identity, she can bring nothing but hostility to their interaction. However, these are all women who are aware of the disbalance in their lives, of the ways in which they are reduced. The narrative carves out a space for women’s subversions, starting with the small one of Meena’s sisters keeping their menstrual cycles a secret to avoid the multiple taboos that descend on women’s bodies and on the ways they are allowed to take up space. It also creates the possibility of a women’s culture, one framed by shared experiences and often, similar trauma.

In Kathmandu, Meena discovers the temple of Rani Pokhri, and the tragic legend of grieving mothers united by their sorrow. In Darbhanga, back on one of her infrequent visits, she finds herself in a women’s community- old women, young women, children, all brought together, unsurprisingly, not inside the home, which remains an unstintingly gendered space, but up on the terrace. A deliciously liminal space, the terrace, open to the elements, yet allowing for the sharing of secrets, the telling of stories, the living of full lives, it foreshadows the utopic community the narrative proposes as part metaphor, part dream, part promise of liberation.

Imaginative structure

It is crucial to acknowledge that not just the story but also the structure of the novel is a thing of beauty, a tapestry that weaves together folklore, history, and politics, with no awkward, unpolished edges. In Meena’s husband’s village, there was an old woman who would paint walls, her loss of sight barely an inconvenience to her artist’s vision. This woman, Sukumariya, tells Manmohan the history of the settlement of their part of Nepal – the flatlands, fertile and lush. She paints as she tells her stories, inscribing the history of her people on the walls of their village. Like Sukumariya, there are other, seemingly minor characters, who re-create the history of Nepal, its aspirations, and its conflicts.

A young revolutionary, trying to inspire his friends to join protests against the monarchy, echoes Manmohan’s own concerns about the ethnic question of Nepal – the divide between the Pahadis and the Madhesis – flatlanders like Manmohan, looked down upon for their outsider origins, seen as lesser, and as deserving lesser. Preeti’s fascination with and her subsequent cynicism about the royal family echo the push and pull that necessarily exists between monarchic pasts that collide with the democratic present. The text also deep dives into the economic problems of the country, consequent largely on the corruptions of those in power. The irony of the marginalised sliding into the role of the oppressor when it comes to gender relations, is not going to be lost on the reader.

The book begins with the story of a woman who climbed trees. Married to a widower with two children, the woman brings love and light into the lives of her new family. She does, however, transgress all the strict, unspoken rules that govern the lives of women when she leaves her marital bed every night to go climb a tree and spend the night up in its branches. A woman who breaks rules must be a witch, her husband concludes. The village concurs, as do her children. They do to her what is always done to witches – they punish her with death.

Smriti Ravindra spends the next 400 pages telling stories of women who break rules, who work in the fields and drive a hard bargain, who will not be shamed for desiring other women, who refuse marriage, who run away from home, periodically, who steal from their husbands what is owed to them, who live secret lives outside their identity as wives or mothers, who love Bollywood films and cannot understand why Sridevi, the shape-shifting, near-immortal snake-woman in the 1980’s blockbuster Nagina, who could teleport, time-travel, read minds, disappear at will, and could best the most evil villains, would choose to do nothing but sweet-talk and dance for her husband. These women who break rules, who ask for more than what is given to them, might all be witches. Or, they might just be the truth, stunningly simple in its universality, that even with chains weighing them down, women have been and will keep climbing trees.

The Woman Who Climbed Trees, Smriti Ravindra, HarperCollins India.