Turn a New Leaf

An elusive, beguiling book on what trees can teach humans

Written by Purabi Panwar | Published:March 18, 2017 6:07 am
How I Became a Tree by Sumana Roy,  Sumana Roy,  Sumana Roy writer, How I Became a Tree, latest news, book review How I Became a Tree by Sumana Roy

Name: How I Became a Tree
Author: Sumana Roy
Publisher: Aleph
Page: 236 pages
Price: Rs 599

As one reads How I Became a Tree by Sumana Roy, one is drawn into a complex relationship between human beings and nature, especially trees and plants. In a free-flowing narrative, Roy talks about her own feelings for trees and why she would like to metamorphose into one. To start with, it is a longing to get out of “this deadlined world” and “live according to ‘tree time’.” That, Roy feels, is living and enjoying the present moment, “a life without worries for the future or regret for the past”.

Ideally, that would be the kind of life to lead, if worldly preoccupations did not come in the way. Trees and plants appeal to Roy as they are far removed from the consumerist set-up we live in. “In plant economics, need and want are one and the same thing, unlike in the human world where wants had the character of a capitalist bulldozer whose actions could be justified through the prettified word ‘desire’.”

Various aspects of the life of trees and plants are taken up in different chapters. Their kindness to those who care for them as well as others who hurt them or cut them down, the perception of the woman as a tree, the silent solace that trees often offer to sensitive people seeking them, are some of the aspects of the human-tree relationship that are explored. Roy substantiates her remarks with quotes from writers, observations made by painters and the like. Despite the abstract and, to some extent, elusive nature of the theme, Roy’s handling and well-rounded approach gives the book a certain degree of credibility, retaining the readers’ attention.

Roy delves into literary works to highlight the close relationship between nature, in this case mainly trees, and man. O Henry’s story The Last Leaf is taken up along with the author’s recollection of a school concert where it was staged as a play, and her impression of the event. Roy also talks about Manuel Lima who wrote that the tree is “one of the most popular, captivating, and widespread visual archetypes” (The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge). Of course, Rabindranath Tagore and his tree poems as well as his tree-related fiction are discussed in detail and the author concludes that in his works there is “an interspecies fluidity, where one could move between human and tree bodies.”

As one reads the book, one realises that the relationship between man and trees is a complex one, not always satisfying and fulfilling. One cannot expect reciprocity from a tree, nor would it respond to possessiveness. In the words of the author, “This uncertainty, the ambiguity between being welcome and being rebuffed, will always mark the life of a tree-human relationship.”

Yet Roy wants to be a tree, wanting no more than what she needed, trying to “…live to tree time, rejecting speed and excess.” Is it worth the trouble, one wonders. The answer depends on what one’s views on life are and what one expects from life. That apart, this book, apart from being well-researched and quite readable, sensitises the reader to the close relationship between man and nature and suggests ways to nurture it. A few chapters like ‘Having Sex with a Tree’ border on eccentricity. But on the whole, How I Became a Tree, which mixes a number of genres — memoir, literary history, nature studies, spiritual philosophy and botanical studies — does make the reader sit up and think.

Purabi Panwar is a writer and translator in Delhi

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