Book Review

How I Became a Tree by Sumana Roy

Wafa Hamid

Publisher:  Aleph  

Genre:  Memoir, Non-Fiction, Nature studies

Extent: 236 pp

Price: Rs 599

Now, after the fret of flowering,
I only seek the tree’s heart.
Guns are seedless fruits,
the gardens full of traitor trees.
Now I am free.
Only I know that the tree is Buddha.
And that the Buddha was a tree.             — The Afterlife of Trees and their Lovers by Sumana Roy


In a world increasingly governed by greed and consumerism where the long-held virtues of tolerance, love and harmony are being replaced by violence and hate, Sumana Roy’s new offering How I Became a Tree comes as a moment of release. Part memoir, part literary history and social commentary foregrounded within the framework of nature studies, the slow paced, meandering narrative of the book transports the reader into another world. ‘I was tired of speed,’ Roy writes, echoing the sentiments of many of the readers caught up in the vicious cycle of a millennial urban lifestyle. Roy’s writing, especially her poetry over the past few years has increasingly dealt with the effects of urbanization and a movement away from nature. How I Became a Tree is an organic growth of these fragments of thoughts and musings together in these leaves of the book.

In EP Thompson’s Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism (1967) we are told how time becomes a ‘currency’ in industrialized societies, ‘it is not passed but spent […] all time must be consumed, marketed, put to use; it is offensive for the labour force merely to “pass the time.’’’ This leads to an alienation and dissatisfaction that echoes through every aspect of life. ‘Clock-time has become the hegemonic form of social time not only in the West, but also, through colonialism, imperialism, and various forms of influence, in other parts of the world’ says Jonathan Martineau in Time, Capitalism and Alienation (2015).

Feeling bulldozed by this sense of clock-time the author develops a notion of tree time— ‘a life without worries for the future or regret for the past’. This sense of living is one which moves away from the spectre of violence, dismantling the architecture of space and time to lead to an existence closer to nature, of freedom and coexistence. This need to reinvent time by going back to nature is explored by a host of literary and non-literary texts including but not limited to paintings by Salvador Dali (The Tree Woman and Woman with the Head of Roses),  Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait (Inside a Sunflower) and Anil Karanjai (Hungry generation painting); literature ranging from DH Lawrence’s The Complete Poems to Amit Chaudhuri’s A Strange and Sublime Address and Afternoon Raag, AK Ramanujan’s A Flowering Tree and Other Oral Tales from India, Satyajit Ray’s Aranyer Din Ratri and of course Tagore and his works.

Roy addresses a variety of issues that stem from this alienation present in the modern society. In her section ‘The Woman as Tree’ she explores the culture of rape and sexual violence. In ‘Women as Flowers’ she nuzzles the idea of the male gaze that resides within the arts and culture which engenders a visual equalization between women and flowers as passive objects. Emphasizing the need for self-love and kindness with the economy of hate being replaced by one of empathy in ‘Kindness of Plants’ she explores the vocabulary of silence rather than noise. Roy uses examples from Indian folklore to establish a space that thrives as a hyphenated space between human and nature that wields a transformative potential against oppressive forces.

The book is divided into nine sections, each section beginning with an epigraph as eclectic as the many cross-cultural and inter-textual references the book is interspersed with. At times the writing becomes a little laboured with the author’s obsession to find any book, painting or reference related to trees. However, Roy’s writing is mostly engaging, growing organically from the material at hand rather than constructed. The book is not only about nature writing but also one of self-exploration where the reader accompanies Roy on a journey of self-discovery, growth and realization. The book reads more like a diary which gives it a personal feel, the reader is never rushed and rather converses with the author and possibly trees through the transaction of the text.

How I Became a Tree is a fascinating work that brings together the stories of the marginalized and suppressed subjectivities of trees and humans, finding meaning in the unsaid, cherishing pauses and silence amidst the cacophony we are all surrounded by. It is an ode to nature and its allied human existence in its resilience through love and empathy. As one reaches the final leaves of the book, one is made to yearn ‘Just to change into a tree, grow for ages, not hurt anyone’ (Czeslaw Milosz).