Prime Edition

Sumana Roy
Free Verse

Trees: Offspring, Siblings, Lovers

ike all parents for whom what-will-happen-to-my-children-when-I-am-no-more is a private religion practiced every day, I find myself thinking about my green children from time to time. Middle age has brought upon me a newly armed fear of loss, and I find myself unable to plant seasonal flowering plants anymore. Their beauty in spring is lost on me, their flowering into colours a swansong, their thin stems, sometimes drooping with the weight of flowers a sign of their imminent passage from this life. It's a malady, I concede, and yet no cure is near. Worrying seems to be one of those rare things that unite parents of different backgrounds and ideologies, and like a lizard on the wall, I can see how I have succumbed to it without any kind of resistance. Beyond the who-will-water-my-plants-when-I-am-away nagging that now decides the length of family holidays, it is the thought of the death of my plants that has made me become the kind of parent I had once criticised.

In this, I find that I am not alone. The Bengali poet Shakti Chattopadhyay created an entire universe of relationships around trees. Bibhas Roy Chowdhury, another Bengali poet, pays tribute to that love by using one of Shakti Chattopadhyay's most famous poems I can, but why should I go (translated by Jayanta Mahapatra) as the starting point. Roy Chowdhury titles his poem I Can Leave, But Why? (translated by Kiriti Sengupta in Poem Continuous), and here he writes about the fear that many plant-parents have:

"I have planted a few trees

they will survive even after my death.

I'm happy that they will shade the earth

after I leave this world..."

After this is a brief catalogue about the strife and troubles of life, but it is the concluding line that holds in it the difficult temper of the parent-child relationship: "Will those plants survive even after my demise?" We, who wish a thousand year life to our human progeny, knowing the impossibility of "Jiye tu hazaar saal" (May you live a thousand years), find it difficult to wish the same for our plants. The reason behind that is the question of attention: Who will water them when I am no more?

But what if the parent is a tree with human children? A. K. Ramanujan, in Of Mothers, among other things, imagines his mother as a tree:

"I smell upon this twisted

blackbone tree the silk and white

petal of my mother's youth. ...

My cold parchment tongue licks bark

in the mouth when I see her four

still sensible fingers slowly flex

to pick a grain of rice from the kitchen floor."

hat Ramanujan is doing here, as in many of his poems and essays on trees, is to blur the human-plant distinction. The fluidity of this transmutation, that he documents so memorably in his collection of folktales from southern India, especially in the titular tale The Flowering Tree, offers the comfort of familiarity. And of course the fantasy of choice: I can be who I want to be, tree one moment, making my own food, eating sunlight, breathing carbon dioxide, and then turn into a human who likes eating stir fried greens for lunch, washing her own feet instead of waiting for someone to come along with a water can, all this while breathing oxygen of course.

Ramanujan writes about the same plant-human transmutability through metaphor in a poem called Christmas. His aesthetic will not allow him to make that pronouncement, and so the phrase "Christmas tree" does not occur in the poem.

Here in dawn's routine


my eastern window

frames a tree:

Euclid's ghost


ing life for me.



with December,


and shut

as an angle,

a skinny Janus,

my tree is two in one.

The life-death binary provides the scaffolding of the poem, and death, like in many such winter folktales, is only a version of life outside the window, but Ramanujan inflects a cunning phrase right after the first two stanzas here. It is "But where I come from ...". Causing death to a tree to celebrate the birth of a god doesn't seem alright to him perhaps, and hence the comparison of the two trees, one that is not shown to the reader or described, the Christmas tree, the other outside his window, braving December. "My tree is two in one," he says, almost saying that his tree is both the trees, but it is also him. Ramanujan dilly dallies, tries to say the words that will let him be the tree, but he moves like a bird, saying other things, talking about the window again, and the sky it frames, nothing new. All this until the view in the window changes: "a shock of leaf upon Christmas eyes". Like grass and holy basil and leaves of the wood apple tree that are used to worship trees and their imagined incarnations, the "shock of leaf" brings about the transmogrification:

And I am limed

on branches as bare as roots ...

For a moment, I no

longer know

leaf from parrot

or branch from root

nor, for that matter,

that tree

from you or me.

This is the 'birth', then, that Christmas must celebrate – man becoming tree.

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