How I Became a Tree by Sumana Roy is the story of Sumana, who, tired of the violence, greed, hatred, pace of life of the present day ‘human’ life looks for an alternative for which she turns to nature—the life of a tree—to find solace. She recounts her journey with all its doubts and fears, the impact of works of other writers, painters, scholars on her as she moved towards achieving her goal. Why did the thought of living like a tree enter her thoughts? Sumana recounts that perhaps it stemmed from the feeling that she, who was not a slave of ‘human time’, was being bulldozed by time whereas the trees disobeyed all ‘human time’—grew at their own natural pace, and could not be told to hurry up. ‘In envy, in admiration and with ambition, I began to call that pace “Tree Time”.’ Her journey began with her moving out of the ‘neighborhood’ of news because its ‘panting pace’ left her ‘breathless’—whereas the trees lived with complete indifference to the ‘hypnosis of news’. The trees were not ‘consumers’ of news and were totally unconcerned with any occurrence. Analysing what exactly is ‘Tree Time’ Sumana concludes that it denotes living in the present, seizing the moment—no regrets for the past or worries for the future. It is with this realization that she moves forward recording her thoughts and occurrences as they happen—like the tree which lives only in the present.
The present day life with all its trickery, subterfuge, its greed, its selfishness, its noise and violence all disturb her. She refers to it as an ‘epidemic of abundance’, the age of ‘excess’—the need for extravagant show of wealth—acquiring things far beyond needs—and therefore wants to get away from it all. What better then than to become a tree? Trees ate as much as they required, there was no greed or gluttony, there was no gap between what they were and what they wanted to be, had no wars, and gave oxygen, flowers, fruits, fragrance and shade,
selflessly and without discrimination to one and all.
Through extensive study of the works of various national and international painters, writers, poets, mystics, philosophers, scientists, botanists, tales of ancient Gods And Goddesses and folklore, Sumana Roy has been able to draw upon how other spheres of work and artists who were fascinated by plants and trees have dealt with them in their works. She refers to Salvador Dali’s painting ‘The Tree Woman’ which is a female body branched like a tree, to paintings of Frida Kahlo, writings of Banaphool (pseudonym of Balai Chand Mukhopadhyay). She also recounts myths of ancient Greece and Rome where the common theme was the transformation of a human or divine character into a plant or animal. Appollo’s love for Daphne and her turning into a tree to avoid his attentions, the blooming of a flower ‘the very colour of blood and like the very flowers borne by the pomegranate’, where Adonis died of an injury, are some of the tales related by her.
Sumana also raises and examines a whole lot of issues relating to relationships between humans and trees. Would she be able to use her cellphone; can you fall in love with a tree; can you marry a tree; can you have sex with a tree; would she miss her sex life; would loving more than one tree be adulterous? Trees are not loyal because they do not have memory to remember but she being a very possessive lover, would she be able to adjust to the lack of loyalty and adulterous behaviour of trees? While dealing with all these issues she again draws from the work of a wide range of artists. She draws extensively from authors like D.H. Lawrence, Rabindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Kahlil Gibran and a host of others. Folklore and myths also provide a great insight to these issues.
Sumana discusses each aspect of the tree and draws parallels between humans and trees, be it flowers, leaves, branches, roots, shadows of trees as well as death of trees. For example while looking at leaves she wonders why so many leaves are heart shaped, or why dry fruit like walnuts are shaped like the brain or why vegetables like beans and bhindi resemble the human kidney and ladies fingers. ‘Whereas mystics like Jacob Boehme saw the signature of God’ in the similarities, Sumana saw it very differently—‘how wonderful it is—that I, with my heart and brain and kidneys, am composed of plant parts already.’
Sumana also turns to scientists like Jagdish Chandra Bose and spiritual figures like the Buddha to gain greater knowledge of the life and significance of trees as seen by these great people. She sees in the teachings of the Buddha asking men to live without greed and desire and everything that caused suffering, a life without vanity and obsession for control as actually living the life of a tree. From all she reads of the Buddha and the Bodhi Tree she grows certain that the Buddha was a tree—an evergreen tree. In the words of K.G. Senadeera, ‘A Bhikku who enters the courtyard of a Bodhi tree should venerate the tree … as if he was in the presence of Buddha himself.’
Sumana goes on to talk about the death of trees and the rebirth of trees. She recalls the tales in Ovid’s Metamorphoses where humans transformed into trees. It was this that had originally fanned her desire to be a tree. She also wonders whether a human dying to be reborn as a tree was to escape the cruelty of this life. Was it a safe enough shelter for the dead who wanted to remain alive in some way?
Sumana Roy’s journey to becoming a tree is fascinating, sometimes frightening, thought provoking and quite unique. She covers a huge canvas of works on trees and her ‘journey’ woven through all these is really intriguing.
Indu Liberhan did her postgraduation in English Literature from Delhi University (Miranda house) and then taught for a few months in Lady Sriram College before joining the civil services in 1972. She did an M Phil in Public Administration from Punjab University. After a varied career in Government, she retired from the Ministry of Defence as Secretary Defence Finance.