How to become a tree

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Sumana Roy is more than just a tree-hugger. A shadow-collector who lives in Siliguri, she writes poems, stories and essays, and claims an ancestry to chlorophyll.

Even if you do not believe in vegetal democracy, if you have never imagined that in one of your past lives you were a Sal tree, if you don’t know the meaning of the word dendrophile, you should still read Sumana Roy’s How I Became a Tree (Aleph).

 

The book is impossible to classify. It reads as though a person has been keeping notebooks obsessively for years, reading everything there is to know about trees, and then filtering it through her own body and experiences. It is packed with treasures. Why, for instance, do we rest in forests? What is the relationship between gardens and adultery? Can trees be funny? It is a book that also promises to enlarge your lexicon. You will learn that the Bangla phrase for putting house plants outdoors is rode khawano — feeding them sunlight. And that the Japanese have a word for forest-bathing — shirin-yoku. You will learn that one of the four guardian spirits of the Bodi tree at Barhut is called Sumana.

 

Over the years we have corresponded with each other and I have read with admiration your poems, short stories and essays, and I wanted to ask how come it has taken so long for this first book of yours to be ushered into the world, and will we see a book of poems soon?

It’s been a decade since Anita Roy put twenty one of us together in 21 Under 40 (Zubaan). That was also the time I actually began writing, Tishani. I was submitting my doctoral dissertation and secretly hoping that some of the wisdom, elegance and revolutionary way of seeing the world that I admired in Amit Chaudhuri — the subject of my PhD — would rub on to me. Contagion is a stubborn thing — it comes only when it wants, not to our bidding. So, none of that magic touched my writing.

I’d begun by trying to write a novel — it was triggered by the childish impulse to write about a place where I’d spent most of my life. Siliguri, this small sub-Himalayan town that I’ve seen change from something resembling an affectionate secret to this place that is now too tiny to contain its own ambition, like most such places in India that have been touched by the random energy of capitalism. That novel-like thing was, as you know, long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008 — I’d had the audacity to enter it into the competition because it was open to unpublished manuscripts, but soon after it’d been long-listed I realised that it was a bad piece of writing, maudlin and self-indulgent. So, I abandoned it.

I have spent the last decade being an apprentice — writing poems and essays and fiction, but I’ve also been very nervous about sharing them with the world. I am always full of self-doubt. How I Became a Tree began to grow into a book as the notes on my phone and scribbles on envelopes and notebooks seemed to come together, like dirt does in the presence of a broom-tail. I’d love to have a book of poems published — you'd know, from my emails, that poetry is my favourite home — but I haven’t been lucky with finding a publisher yet, I suppose.

I loved the intertextuality in How I Became A Tree. It feels to me the correct way to approach any obsession — through science and poetry, through memoir and myth. What concrete advice could you offer people who are convinced of human supremacy? If you could instruct them to do one action so that they might understand that they could benefit from listening to trees, what would it be?

My experience seems so personal — and even unique to my weirdness — that I’m scared of turning it into anything generic. Having said that it’s also true that the impulse to look for people who’d exhibited a desire similar to mine, to turn into a tree — the scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose, Rabindranath Tagore, the Buddha, men and women who’d wanted to have romantic and even sexual relationships with trees or think of plant life as progeny, for instance — made me turn to, as you say, science and poetry, philosophy, and, of course, the lived experience. In that sense, the quest to be non-human has had to be routed through what are anthropocentric ways of looking at the world — what else is our science and poetry about?

I suppose the dormant moralist in me could say that growing up in a town where one’s eyes encountered the mountains all the time, I had a sense of my own insignificance very early on. The myth of human supremacy is demolished when one’s life is punctuated by the sense of having no control over one’s surroundings — the basic things we pay almost no attention to, the speed of the wind, the movement of the river, the time it takes for our clothes to dry in the open, the intensity of sunlight on Sundays, or how my feet will leave its mark on wet sand but not on stone. The narratives of human supremacy are only versions of feel-good stories that abet the nagging arc of human labour — that hard work will lead to inventions and also comfort, though we say the latter only in a whisper.

The professional world and its narratives of success are asphyxiating for me. I would like to believe that no tree wants to be the most successful tree in the world. One thing I hope I have learned from trees is the rejection of excesses in the way I lead my life — most people of our socio-economic class have more than what they need. In the plant world, there is no gap between need and want, and, as I say in my book, there is neither gluttony nor anorexia.

You told me that you would have studied mathematics at university had you been allowed to combine it with the humanities. What is it about numbers that excites you?

 

I went to university in a small provincial town in Bengal. Here, as in most of India, the boundaries between the Sciences and Humanities are watertight, almost like a kind of segregation of the sexes in the past. My love for numbers is a private — even secret — love; the only other person who knew about this is a friend who was insistent that I test out the formulations I’d discovered in my late teens or early twenties.

I like to think of mathematics as a language where you’re not allowed the choice of two answers. To simplify — one plus one must always make two. In that sense, there is no space for the role of metaphor here, metaphor as we understand it traditionally. I can say this only in retrospect, of course, — for, who knows where our passion and affection come from? — that this erasing of difference between the literal and metaphorical is one of the most attractive things about numbers for me.

I am aware of the dangers of such a collapse between the literal and figurative, but mathematics, with its language that seems to parody a way of looking at the world, allows me a home in its hive. I think of the relations between numbers in a way that I’ve never been able to do about words. (And when I’m in a quasi-mystical mood — as I often am when hungry — I like to spot secrets about the working of the universe in the relations between numbers. My friend says that my natural affinity for semiotics and spotting patterns in texts, both visual and literary, might come from the same place.)

I dislike the fetishisation of certain numbers, though. The first one on that list is 1 — first boy, first day in school, first love, first job, and so on.

Walls have been in the news a lot recently, courtesy Mr. Trump. You've been photographing walls in Northern Bengal for a long time. Why? And can you perhaps provide an alternative way of looking at a wall? Not as divider but as something more optimistic?

 

Walls are ordinary objects for me. Yes, they are one of the most troubling metaphors in our politics, but this is not the reason for my interest in them. Whether it’s the Great Wall of China or the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem — just to cite two easy examples — walls have been around for as long as one can think of, whether literal or figurative, as in the holy books, the miracle and morality plays, our devotionals that constantly invoke the boundaries between the visible and invisible in metaphors of veils and walls. And, prosaic as it might sound, they are as necessary as floors and ceilings.

Words seem to gain an aura when scrawled on walls. The more arbitrary the spot, the more the mystique. | Sumana Roy

 

'Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.’ It’s a strange affliction, to be the something that doesn't love a wall but also someone who loves walls. Unlike my other interests, this is one I can put a date to — it came to me from the time I got to Facebook and discovered this category called ‘Wall Photos’. I used to travel to a neighbouring town, Jalpaiguri, every day — I taught in a college there. I found myself looking at the walls on my way and marvelling not only at the found art in them but also how they were living histories in a way that institutionalised historiography had ignored.

Walls are not just barriers. They can also be canvases. | Sumana Roy

The patterns on the concrete walls, the committed drawing on bamboo walls, the posters of African and Russian circus groups on tin walls in a tiny village on the Indo-Bangladesh border, the drawing of important Bengali men of letters on school walls and their defacement by schoolchildren and the rain — there is great humour and wit in the wall graffiti here, much of it unintended.

After our recent cyclone in Chennai we lost over 1 lakh trees. I think even people who weren’t tree-inclined felt the loss of green cover. I walked around the streets of my neighbourhood amongst these grand felled beings, and there was something destructive and beautiful about the scene. What is the correct way of preparing the ground after an event like this? How do we make way for new life after this kind of destruction?

 

I wish I knew. I like what you say about ‘destructive and beautiful’ – I had similar feelings when I visited Puri after the cyclone. The aged uprooted trees had a kind of Burkean sublimity that wouldn't have been there had been a human or animal corpse lying on the road. It wasn't only about our natural fear and disgust with the show of blood, I suppose. Neither was it a matter of scale. After the first few moments of this aesthetic investment, my immediate urge was to plant these trees back into the earth, their old home. How do we make way for a new life? By doing exactly what we were doing the day before the calamity, I think — living and letting others around us live.

What do you think the person who cut the last palm tree in Easter Island was thinking? (I know that there is controversy around this issue, and that we cannot be sure whether the islanders really are guilty of ecocide or whether there were other reasons that caused their demise, but let's speculate that they were tardy about tree-keeping for the purpose of an environmental lesson (I know you object to moralising).

So, okay, as an imaginative exercise, what could be going through a person's head as they cut down the last tree in their universe?

 

My imagination fails me, Tishani. I remember the silly things we said in school. My friend, Lakbir, was fond of using this line — "I wouldn’t look at him even if he were the last man on the planet". Imagine that coming true. The last man, the last dog, the last tree. Scary, really scary. Well, even the last bar of chocolate seems apocalyptic at times, on the level of pure imagination. Anything that has the finality and temperament of an ending is scary — I think of relationships and I am filled with fear. Cutting the last tree would be the tragicomic fable from Kalidasa — about the man sitting on the branch of a tree and cutting it — come true.

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