How I Became a Tree
Author - Sumana Roy
Publisher - Aleph, Rs 599
Author Sumana Roy through her book, How I Became a Tree, draws our attention towards things and issues which we would otherwise overlook, as she makes us realise the pertinence of trees, writes AVANTIKA BOSE
Sumana Roy writes from Siliguri, a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal.
Her poems and essays have appeared in Granta, Guernica, Drunken Boat, the Prairie Schooner, and other journals.
Her newly released How I Became a Tree is a non-fiction book. It highlights the fact that how we are so indifferent towards trees even though they’re all around us and are very essential for us and our environment. Roy is fascinated by trees. She uses them as an escape from the violence, hatred, noise that surround us — she finds solace in them. She tries to tell us through this book how leaves and trees are always marginalised whether in art, culture or in jewellery. She very subtly through her book draws our attention towards things that we would otherwise consider inconsequential.
Roy talks about how she wants to live in tree time; she further explains this by saying that in the crazy rat race of who will be on the top or complete a task before everyone else, we are alive but aren’t living. We go about our lives but we are only breathing, we don’t take out the time to enjoy what’s around us. living in tree time explains the author isn’t about being lazy. Trees work all day. However, there’s a perfect balance between work and inactivity in their lives. The book doesn’t fall short in humour either; for instance, she makes fun of the concept where women are expected to change their surname’s to that of their husband’s after marriage. She questions that if she married a tree would she then be called Sumana Tree or would the tree be called Tree RoyIJ
The amount of research done for this book is highly commendable. It shows her genuine love for this subject. After I finished reading this book, I now look that trees in a very different manner. I notice them and appreciate them. The marker of a good book is that it makes you question things, and this book by Sumana Roy definitely did that for me.
In a tell-all interview with us, Sumana Roy answers a few questions based on the book and a few personal as well.
At what stage in your life did you get fascinated by the concept of turning into a tree and to live in ‘tree time’IJ
It was, at first, my silly understanding of the emotional economy of plant life that made me want to live like a tree. Triggered by the necessity to withdraw from a world which seemed to run only to the energy of reciprocity — where philanthropy is accorded a kind of halo, because it seems to be a rare aberrant in this world order — I was groping for a way of life which would allow me to rationalise one-sidedness, living and loving without expectations.
It was infantile, my equating the giving of oxygen, fruits and flowers, with a kind of one-sided relationship. But I stuck on to it, almost giving myself no choice to move out of this illogical equivalence. It was also around this time that the disaffection for speed and mainstream narratives of success began to grow into an intolerable chant in my head. I was also disturbed by the halo around humanism. Why should we aspire to be humanIJ I wanted to be a tree. And I wasn’t the only one who wanted to do so.
What motivated you to write this non-fiction bookIJ And how long did it take you to complete itIJ
How I Became a Tree didn’t really begin as a book. I found myself making notes on my phone and on the backs of envelopes. I had also begun reading about plants in a more concerted way — looking at poems, stories, essays in a way I hadn’t ever done before, looking at plants and trees in them the way we are trained and conditioned to look out only for human protagonists in them.
The writing, as it now exists in the book, might have taken a couple of years.
You have emphasised in your book, “We humans have identified with trees”; specially regarding the comparison of female bodies with trees. However, this is not a comparison that a lot of us, including myself, have ever thought about. Could you throw some light on how you formed this conceptIJ
I was looking for humans, living and dead, who’d been struck by this identification between themselves and trees. Whether it was the Buddha or the botanist Jagadish Bose or Rabindranath Tagore or the men and women in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, to give a few random examples, they had all identified with or wanted to be transformed into trees.
The tree being struck by lightning has been compared to sexual violence or rape in your book. What is it about this act that made you look at it in such a mannerIJ
This was my analogy — the probability of a tree being struck by lightning is far less than the probability of a woman being raped or molested if she were to be by herself at midnight photographing such a tree.
Who are the people who inspire you the mostIJ
People who are indifferent to mainstream notions of success and do what they want to do, irrespective of noise or attention, are those who inspire me.
In your opinion how are trees an essential part of us and our surroundingsIJ
Everything is a part of our surroundings. So are trees.
Do you feel that growing up in Siliguri which is a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal can be a major reason that you developed this interest in treesIJ Do you feel that had you been raised in a metropolitan city, the idea of turning into a tree wouldn’t have crossed your mindIJ
Since this must remain in the realm of speculation, I can only say that though our writing — and the people we are — is undoubtedly affected by our geographies, this book could have been written anywhere. For this is not an advocacy of any Back-to-Nature kind of springboard diving. It’s about a kind of turning away from the loudspeakers of modern life.
In your book, you say that “inequality seemed necessary to keep marriages happy or at least stable”. Could you elaborateIJ
I think there are no ‘equal’ relationships in the world. All relationships are unequal. They are unequal in different ways. Equality is a utopia.
The idea that a woman needs makeup to look beautiful or the concept of fairness, that you’re pretty only if you have a fair complexion — these concepts still plague our society to a large extent. How do you think we can overcome these shallow notions of beautyIJ
A tree is judged by the taste of the fruits it produces, a plant by the beauty of its flowers, humans by the shape of a nose or the colour of the skin, an animal for the quality of its fur, and so on. I am no social doctor and I wish I knew what could be done to cure us of these fixations. An education in emotions might help perhapsIJ An affectionate tutoring that there is beauty in everything.
Having an offspring is something that society views as highly important. But we read or see cases where children abandon their parents or ill-treat them. Then why do people go under stress when you tell them that we don’t want kids, what do you think is the root cause of this naivetyIJ
Since we are on it, let me continue with the metaphor. Trees are valued for the flowers and fruits and other things they give us. Relationships, too, seem to survive only on exchange. A child as insurance policies for old age is folk wisdom that I’ve been hearing for years and years. It’s a cycle of nurturing that we have become conditioned to, I suppose. Anyone who doesn’t subscribe to this readymade scheme is seen as a foolish aberrant.
What is the most recent project you are working onIJ
I am always working on a poem that I’m not being able to get right.