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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

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. Continue reading

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The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Sumana Roy

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.

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Excerpts: How I Became a Tree by Sumana Roy

treePORTRAIT OF A  TREE

Like many, I too once desired a painter as lover.The alchemy of love— adolescence pampers the notion of love as chemistry—would rid me of my imperfections and his portrait of me would make me beautiful to him and to myself.When I began drawing leaves I began to wonder whether such an impulse would attend this love. If I were a tree— and I hoped and believed I was turning into one—would a painter lover feel the urge, or even the need, to  turn  me  into  something else, someone  else?  For  what  is  beauty  and  perfection  in  trees? I turned to the man I had married. He had been an amateur painter once. Only three drawings survived from that period in his life: two were portraits of women,copied,as he explained to me,from a magazine that was common in Bengali households: Soviet Nari. He had been taken by the beauty of two women in those hormone-rushed teenage years and thought this the only way to create a relationship with them. The other painting still hangs on a wall in our living room. In it is a tree trunk with many branches. From a distance it might look like a many-handed goddess, as it first did to me when I visited this house for the first time one winter afternoon more than two decades ago. This rectangular canvas has less tree and more shadows in it. One must guess the shape of the branches above from the shadows scattered on the ground. It has the likeness of a game. Before we got married, in one of those moments in which we tried to act like the adults we wanted to be in the future, I asked him about the painting. I did not consider it special, but it was his way of looking at something I loved, and I wanted to be made aware of how he looked at it. It was one of the most difficult portraits he had drawn, he said, and when I asked him  why, his answer made me look at the painting in a completely different way. It had taken him days to get the correct proportion of shadows of the branches of the tree. From those shadows a viewer could guess the time of the day, perhaps even the season. But it wasn’t that which interested me. In my future husband’s gaze at the tree I wanted to find a clue to his way of looking at the world. He might as well have been looking at a woman, and in that gaze I wanted to find an estimate of his world view. All I wanted to know was whether he thought the tree an equal. And so his use of the word ‘portrait’ came as a happy surprise to me. For who had ever heard of tree portraits? Weren’t they reserved for men?

***

Excerpted from ‘How I Became a Tree’ written by Sumana Roy, published by Aleph Book Company.

***

Increasingly disturbed by the violence, hate, insincerity, greed and selfishness of her kind, the author is drawn to the idea of becoming a tree. ‘I was tired of speed’, she writes, ‘I wanted to live to tree time.’ Besides wanting to emulate the spacious, relaxed rhythm of trees, she is drawn to their non-violent ways of being, how they tread lightly upon the earth, their ability to cope with loneliness and pain, the unselfishness with which they give freely of themselves and much more. She gives us new readings of the works of writers, painters, photographers and poets (Rabindranath Tagore and D. H. Lawrence among them) to show how trees and plants have always fascinated us. She studies the work of remarkable scientists like Jagadish Chandra Bose and key spiritual figures like the Buddha to gain even deeper insights into the world of trees. She writes of those who have wondered what it would be like to have sex with a tree, looks into why people marry trees, explores the death and rebirth of trees, and tells us why a tree was thought by forest-dwellers to be equal to ten sons.

Mixing memoir, literary history, nature studies, spiritual philosophies, and botanical research, How I Became a Tree is a book that will prompt readers to think of themselves, and the natural world that they are an intrinsic part of, in fresh ways.

About the Author: 

Taken with Lumia Selfie

Sumana Roy writes from Siliguri, a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal. Her first book, How I Became a Tree, a work of non-fiction, is published in India in February 2017. Her poems and essays have appeared in GrantaGuernicaDrunken Boat, the Prairie SchoonerCaravan, and other journals.

Her website: http://sumanaroy.in/

 

 


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New Release: How I Became a Tree by Sumana Roy

treeIn this remarkable and often unsettling book, author Sumana Roy gives us a new vision of what it means to be human in the natural world in How I Became a Tree, published by Aleph Book Company.

Increasingly disturbed by the violence, hate, insincerity, greed and selfishness of her kind, the author is drawn to the idea of becoming a tree. ‘I was tired of speed’, she writes, ‘I wanted to live to tree time.’ Besides wanting to emulate the spacious, relaxed rhythm of trees, she is drawn to their non-violent ways of being, how they tread lightly upon the earth, their ability to cope with loneliness and pain, the unselfishness with which they give freely of themselves and much more. She gives us new readings of the works of writers, painters, photographers and poets (Rabindranath Tagore and D. H. Lawrence among them) to show how trees and plants have always fascinated us. She studies the work of remarkable scientists like Jagadish Chandra Bose and key spiritual figures like the Buddha to gain even deeper insights into the world of trees. She writes of those who have wondered what it would be like to have sex with a tree, looks into why people marry trees, explores the death and rebirth of trees, and tells us why a tree was thought by forest-dwellers to be equal to ten sons.

Mixing memoir, literary history, nature studies, spiritual philosophies, and botanical research, How I Became a Tree is a book that will prompt readers to think of themselves, and the natural world that they are an intrinsic part of, in fresh ways.

About the Author:

Sumana Roy writes from Siliguri, a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal.