Title: How I Became a Tree

Author: Sumana Roy

Publisher: Aleph Book Company

Pages: 236

Price: Rs 599

To buy: http://www.amazon.in/How-Became-Tree-Sumana-Roy/dp/9382277447

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.

Advertisements

By Aminah Sheikh

Sumana Roy photo

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

If I knew the answer to that I probably wouldn’t be able to write. It’s a question as difficult to answer as “Why do you love me so much?” I came very late to writing, and because this was after my divorce from standardised academic writing, I decided, almost moodily, that the reason for this would be cathartic. Soon after, fortunately, I realised that writing wasn’t therapeutic in the way I’d heard it was. Or at least that it wasn’t a painkiller. I write to make sense of my relationship with the world, I suppose.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

My most recent book is my first. It’s called How I Became a Tree (Aleph Book Company). It’s a work of non-fiction, something between the essay, memoir, and meditation, and it’s a reflection on what constitutes the difference between human and non-human experience. I look at people like myself, writers, artists, filmmakers, scientists, lovers, thinkers, who felt the desire to become a tree. What does it mean to live to what I call “tree time”? Or what is so special about sitting under a tree, or to live in a forest or make love to a tree? Is it true that the childless or childfree feel closer to plant life? My book gives a home to such speculations and investigations.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

This is a really difficult question. As an apprentice one is evolving and looking for a home – or homes – in genres. I find that I am repulsed by genres that have solidified into something readymade. I like the fluidity between genres, so that one can never say whether this is fiction or nonfiction, a poem or a found text. I gravitate towards the shorter forms, the poem, the essay, the novella. In subject matter too, the more neo-bureaucratic models of seriousness bore me. There are very few things I know about myself, but this I certainly do – I find the seemingly non-serious immensely interesting (my interest in plant life comes from that space too) and everything that is declared to be conventionally useless occupies my thought and attention.

Who are your favourite authors?

Amit Chaudhuri opened up the possibility of unusual – unconventional – ways of seeing the world. His novels challenged the way I’d allowed myself to become conditioned to the 19th-century novel and the various hand-me-down versions that have become the only way we understand the novel today. His essays, with their unique voice and the fluidity of movement between the personal and the political or aesthetic, allowed people like me to write a book such as the one I’ve written, with its meanderings and digressions and halts at different kinds of philosophies and their interactions with life. Not to forget that he is one of the best prose stylists in the English language. I was recently introduced to James Salter and I like the prose in a couple of his books. George Eliot’s prose style remains a go-to from my university days. I rarely read fiction now. I read a lot of poetry in Bangla – Shakti Chattopadhyay, Jibanananda Das, Rabindranath Tagore, the usual suspects, but also a lot of young poets in the little magazines.

What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.

I find it difficult to reproduce – report? – the neighbourhood of everyday sounds that I meet every day: the shrill announcement of the pressure cooker, the whirr of the ceiling fan, vegetables scalding in burning oil, the sound of wet sand screeching from a slipper brushing against the floor, the creaking of a door, a growling stomach, the sound of leaves in the wind, and so on. It’s not onomatopoeia that I’m aiming for. I’d like these sounds to be the poem, without the crutch of adjectives. I’ve failed.