Sumana Roy’s How I Became a Tree is an exuberant celebration of the significance of nature, particularly trees, in our lives. A profound, sensitive and thought-provoking book, it chronicles the author’s meditations on her ties with trees – ties that run deep, with its roots, branches and trunks in literature and arts.
Roy’s association with trees evolves through ages and acquires a life of its own. So much so that the author begins to see, towards the end, that she is ready to be a tree – abundant, asymmetrical and life-giving. In her “thought experiments”, her skin becomes bark, her assemblage of fingers turn into twigs. She decides to be an Ashoka, the a-shoka, the sorrowless tree.
Roy’s quest for an alternative way of being – her idea of becoming a tree – emanates from her aversion to the hate, insincerity and greed of her own kind. It also has to do with her fatigue with speed and her fascination with the “relaxed rhythms” of trees, her desire to be able to live to “tree time”. “My need to become a tree, then, was a need to return to slow life,” Roy writes. The overriding thought, however, is the selflessness of trees, the way they give freely of themselves.
There is so much that we owe to trees. And yet they ask from us so little. Like trees, Roy writes, she always wants no more than she needs. At the heart of this genre-bending book, which blends literature, philosophy and botany, is the various ways trees are entwined with our lives.
Living like a tree
Delving into trees and their parts – trunks, leaves, fruits – Roy interweaves different strands of feminism, family life, sexuality, domestic violence, patriarchy, sexual harassment, honour killing, crime against women, and the madness of modern life. Today, in the rough-and-tumble places called cities, man has forgotten his vital link with nature, racing against time for often barren pursuits.
Roy’s book reminds us of this link. She evokes her ecstatic encounters, understanding and appreciation of stories, poetry, films, mythology around trees, including books written on trees or others that have used trees, plants, gardens or flowers as powerful subjects or props. Reading the book, it’s difficult not to think of trees as living entities and, even, as distinct individuals.
Roy analyses her life, her compassion and extreme love, bordering on obsession, for trees and plant life, and lays bare a few secrets of her personal life for her readers. She tries to be the interface between the readers and the world of trees, using her thought experiment to draw a parallel between human life and the life of a tree.
In a chapter titled “Women as Flowers”, Roy writes: “But what pleases men most in this analogy is the passivity of the flower and the woman.” Quoting Mary Beard, she says: “Passivity must, therefore, be the woman’s ultimate seduction ploy.”
Using parables, Roy argues that there is no greed in trees. They consume according to their need, unlike humans. She concludes that as society, our thrust remains only on the visible: A broken leg gets an employee medical leave, but not a broken heart.
Quoting Bertolt Brecht, she writes: “You can’t write poems about trees when the woods are full of policemen.” Roy tries to counter the argument: Her desire to become a tree was an act of escapism from the human cruelty. She was generally tired of the world – the tricks, the treachery, the pressure to keep afloat.
The book is filled with the author’s childhood memories, fascinating anecdotes related to trees and incidents that will reverberate with each one of us. For example, Roy describes how the most pretty girl in her school is chosen by the class teacher to play the role of Sue in a theatrical adaptation of O Henry’s The Last Leaf. During the performance, though, the last leaf falls in a major goof-up.
Quoting Margaret Atwood from Surfacing, she writes: “I lean against a tree, I am a tree leaning.” Roy talks about the tree-huggers in Garhwal in the Himalayas and in Melbourne where people treat trees as humans by hugging them from being felled, to writing letters to them, confiding their secrets and insecurities.
Roy draws parallels between dead trees and human corpses while photographing trees. From DH Lawrence to Satyajit Ray, she dwells a great deal on the works of towering artists over the years. Frida Kahlo, for example, had once said, “I paint flowers so they will not die”.
When it comes to regeneration, the author would rather leave behind a tree than a tombstone. There are many stories from myths and arts that describe the dilemmas of women who turned into trees after honour killing or to escape sexual violence.
For example, the mythological story about Daphne and Apollo, who were hit by cupid, one with the arrow to drive the love away and another to cause it and escape him. Daphne prayed and turned into a tree.
But it’s not confined to women alone. When Adonis died of injury, a flower bloomed there the very colour of blood. There is a mention of trees that are significant in each religion, and trees that were drawn by artists like Van Gogh and Gustav Klimt.
Roy discusses Tagore’s love for trees and plants through his writing and two other books in particular – Trees of Santiniketan by Satyendra Kumar Basu, and Uttarayan-er-Bagaan-o-Gachhpala (The Garden and Trees of Uttarayan) by Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, which is about the gardens and trees in the five houses where Tagore spent most of his time during his final years. Through little incidents, the book describes his compassion for plants.
Roy also mentions one particular ethic that is passed down from Rabindranath to his son and caretakers – to balance the mix in a manner that ensured plenty of flowering plants in the garden the year round.
There is also a true story of a woman named Emma McCabe, who loved a tree. The tree satisfied her emotional and sexual needs and she wanted to marry it. There is, too, a mythological tale of a childless man who consummated his love with a tree and became a father.
Among the other stories that Roy recounts is AK Ramanujan’s A Flowering Tree, a story about a woman who turns into a tree, full of flowers, to help her poor mother and sister earn a living. She gets married to a prince who discovers her secret and urges her to become a tree to sleep together on the flowers. Later, her sister-in-law makes the same request and never brings her back to human life.
There are tales from Satyajit Ray’s films – Pikoo and Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest). Pikoo is about a little boy who is bribed with colour pencils and given the task of drawing every flower in the garden every time his mother’s lover comes to meet her.
In Aranyer Din Ratri, based on Sunil Gangopadhyay’s novella, a tribal woman, Duli, becomes the victim of the combined lust of three city-bred young men who go on holiday to a forest. It’s only as they leave the forest that peace and balance are restored.
In three of Tagore’s novellas revolving around marital infidelity, the garden has been used as a prop. Charulata in The Broken Nest, the sisters Sharmila and Urmimala in Two Sisters, and Neeraja in The Arbour are all childless mothers, and parallels are drawn with flowers and gardens. These touching stories are also about loneliness and despair. In these stories, Roy tries to find a personal parallel.
There is mention too of Bengali writer Syed Mustafa Siraz’s stories. On the last page of one of his books, which belonged to Roy’s mother-in-law, she finds her hand-written note: “I can’t walk anymore. I can’t go to people. People come to me. I have become a tree.”
Reading this book, I was also reminded of Tree of Life, Terrence Mallick’s luminous film in which the central characters search for the true meaning of life in the modern world. How I Became A Tree is a valuable addition to books that explore our world in a completely new way.
How I Became A Tree, Sumana Roy, Aleph Book Company.
Shireen Quadri is a marketing and communications professional who has worked with several publishing houses. She is founder and publisher, The Punch Magazine. On Twitter and Instagram, her handle is @shireenquadri.