Kitaab Review: How I Became a Tree by Sumana Roy

Title: How I Became a Tree

Author: Sumana Roy

Publisher: Aleph Book Company

Pages: 236

Price: Rs 599

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Review by Apala Bhowmick


The book, part memoir part non-fiction, paints an intimate picture of the author’s relationship with plant life – she spies a papaya tree swaying in the storm from her bedroom window and looks down at her fingers to realize how her own body mimics the movement of the leaves in the wind when a gust of air blows her hair onto her face. After an earthquake that shakes her house to its foundations, her legs tremble all day in nervous despair anticipating the painful effects such tremors might possibly have on plants. Teeming with references to a spectrum of texts ranging from O Henry’s The Last Leaf to Sorensen’s Seeing Dark Things: The Philosophy of Shadows, she nimbly avoids the trap of opaque academic discourse. Her voice, instead, is compassionate, sensitive, and she manages to engender an exposition situated perfectly at the twilight zone between Philosophy and Botany, approached through a rapturous route densely populated by fascinating literary and historical texts.

She quotes extensively from D. H. Lawrence’s works dealing with trees, as also from poems by Nitoo Das and Subodh Gupta. She delves dexterously into various diary entries by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay from the late 1920s as well as into his novels Aranyak and Pather Panchali, to investigate the connection between forest life and creativity, and to uncover the mythic origins of the notion of the forest as a place for spiritual serenity and supernatural magic. She wittily interjects that “‘losing oneself’ is a terribly romantic, even elitist idea,” and confesses to having been a “happy victim” of an actual such instance inside a forest herself even in this day and time, which she categorizes as the “post GPS” age.

Sumana Roy
Sumana Roy (Taken with Lumia Selfie)

The author feels a “hopelessly romantic need to live like a tree.” This need propels her to contemplate taking Child Care and Maternity Leave to nurture her “green children” in need, and goes as far as drafting an application letter requesting the same be sanctioned to her. She passionately interrogates the mercenary, capitalistic logic behind considering only human offspring as the legitimate progeny of the human race, and asks apropos the “bloodless nonhuman” plants that might be the issues of her choice, “[w]as it the capitalist temperament of our times that prevented people from seeing trees as children, since they are incapable of serving as pension schemes for their parents?”

In the chapter, “The Buddha and the Bodhi Tree,” Roy puts forward her own theses with regards to the teachings of Buddhism: the Bodhi tree is itself an embodiment of the Gautama Buddha and, further, what Buddhism really teaches one through its habits of renunciation and disciplining the mind, primarily, and the body, is how to transform into a tree. She applauds “the rejection of excess in trees,” and declares, “It is only plant life that is neither a glutton nor ascetic, neither greedy nor anorexic. A tree does not – cannot – survive on the polarities of extremes.” After her extensive excursions at Bodh Gaya, and after perusing several texts (for instance, the Kalingabodhi Jataka, the Vinaya Pitaka, and B. D. Kyokai’s The Teaching of Buddha), she is thrilled to discover from her conversations with a Thai monk, that one of the four guardian spirits of the Bodhi tree at Barhut shares the same name with her, Sumana.

A number of botanical motifs have inhabited the artefacts produced by human civilization throughout history, and Roy mentions one such – the motif of the leaf – which makes its presence felt often in the designing of jewellery. Her mother possesses a pair of earrings – an anniversary gift from her father – that appear to her father to be the shape of three leaves conjoined at a single point, but her mother feels that it resembles the three eyes of the goddess Kali. Here, she deftly combines patterns in nature with common sociological symbols to yield a curious analogy.

It would be a mistake, however, to believe that the writer’s love for plant life is devoid of its own nuances and paradoxes. At one point, she struggles to reconcile her affection for flora with her fondness for wood furniture, which she tells us is her favourite kind, and which, she is fully aware, are culled from the bodily parts of dead trees. When she visits Jagadish Chandra Bose’s house in Darjeeling, she is struck by a morbid thought while gazing into his fireplace – she imagines Bose “burnt those he loved (logs of wood)” in that very grate she is now standing before. Next, upon encountering an ornately carved wooden door, the designs on the wood reminiscent of fifteenth and sixteenth century temples in India, she wonders whether Bose ever paused to ponder upon the pain these intricate depictions might have caused the dead trees, the chisel chipping away systematically at the wooden flesh.

At another point in the book, she reflects upon a series of arbour sculpture installations by Axel Erlandson as part of The Willowman Project, and confesses that the idea of transforming what had once been living beings (sycamore trees) into sculptures by grafting them in myriad ways and, in the process, doing them the same manner of violence done to distorted human bodies in a circus performance, makes her deeply uncomfortable. The trees in Erlandson’s series have, we come to know, been appropriately titled “Circus Trees.” On the discoveries of Jagadish Chandra Bose, she enquires whether he was more of a “plant psychologist” than a physiologist, and is amply amused by the nomenclature of his Morograph, an instrument to measure the “last words” of a plant, which she believes, is a name derived from the bangla word for death, “moro.”

Defying all kinds of well-meant advice from family, and casually aimed jibes from all and sundry, the author valiantly goes to live inside a forest for some time where she learns, gradually, to adjust her biological pace to cohere with that of the trees. She lets the crafting of the book come to her at this pace, which she defines as “tree time.” She, finally, has the sense of metamorphosing into a tree when a bird perches atop her left shoulder one sunset during her stay inside the forest, and she tells us she’d choose to be an Ashoka tree, “the a-shoka, the sorrowless tree,” if she were allowed the liberty to choose a tree for herself at this point.

The book contains chapters devoted to meticulous analyses of several short stories and poems by Tagore that employ botanical metaphors, and contains also, a reference to an excerpt from Margaret Atwood’s novel Surfacing where, by dint of leaning against a tree, the subject finds themselves having metamorphosed into “a tree leaning.” Roy then goes on to cite the example of Melbourne where the civic authorities assigned some of its trees email addresses in a unique social experiment, and found that “people began writing emails to their favourite trees, confiding secrets and insecurities, asking for counsel and compassion. The trees … became people.”

It is interesting to situate this book within the rest of Sumana Roy’s ouvre, which is abundant in works of poetry and essays that have been informed by her deep, complex engagement with arboreal life forms. She writes of love as a “leafless tree … Green // … a whisper-soft spring leaf you rolled into my // ear. Green … a vein asking for traffic below chin” in her poem “Green”. In the poem “Tree Porn”, she writes, “‘Tree porn is so vegan.’ You prepare the line like // a meal // … The tree doesn’t need mystery, becoming log is // pornography,” and in “Root Vegetables”, she opines, “The dew on green each morning is // politically correct, // being equalist, and only a gesture.” Her poem, “The Afterlife of Trees and Their Lovers”, published by Granta in 2015, many figures and motifs occur that return in a more fleshed out manner in her book. The poem is divided into three parts – the first, titled “Jagadish Chandra Bose’s house, Mayapuri, Darjeeling,” the second part named, “Shakti Chattopadhyay’s house, Baharu, South 24 Parganas,” and the third, called “Bodhi Tree, Bodh Gaya.” Here, similar to what she writes in How I Became a Tree, she contends, “Siddhartha came to a solitary tree, to // escape desire // … Only I know that the tree is Buddha. // And that Buddha was a tree.”

In an ideal world, the best way to read Sumana Roy’s book would be to lock oneself up in a room, with sufficient rations to last, preferably with large windows overlooking plenty of greenery, and consume the pages at light speed, straight, for as many days as it takes for one to reach the end of the book. Who knows? Possibly, if you’re lucky, and when you’re somewhere close to the end, you might notice the tiniest stomata perforating your skin, and take pleasure in feeling your limbs harden into something resembling close to tree branches. The strands of your hair, too, might suddenly blossom into glorious, green leaves, one by one. And you, like the narrator of the book, might now find yourself ready, at long last, to become a tree “in the thinning margins of [the] forest in Baikunthapur.” Once you’ve read How I Became a Tree, you shall never be able to look at plants the same way again. If you’re anything like me, you will endear yourself to a potted plant at the soonest, and begin tending to it like a child, or a best friend, or a long-lost cousin, the two of you finally reunited after long years of a difficult separation.

The reviewer is currently pursuing her masters in English Literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She is a poet and a writer, and has published in places like 3Elements Review and The Light Ekphrastic Literary Journal. She is also the editor of correspondence at the Coldnoon Journal which is published from India.