Excerpt: ‘How I Became a Tree’ by Sumana Roy
The Woman as Tree
That I was not the first person to think of a woman as a tree was a relief. D. H. Lawrence helped me look at my body as a tree—his poem, ‘Figs’, liberated my breasts and vagina from their femaleness.
The fig is a very secretive fruit.
As you see it standing growing, you feel at once it is symbolic: And it seems male.
But when you come to know it better, you agree with the Romans, it is female.
The Italians vulgarly say, it stands for the female part; the fig-fruit:
The fissure, the yoni,
The wonderful moist conductivity towards the centre…
Every fruit has its secret.
…That’s how it should be, the female should always be a secret.
The tree-as-woman genre of art is now almost a cliché, but a few striking paintings continue to stay with me. Anil Karanjai, in a Hungry Generation painting from the 1990s, draws a forest—inside it is a clearing, resembling a woman’s vagina. There’s Salvador Dalí’s The Tree Woman, a female body branched like a tree, and the Woman with a Head of Roses; there’s also Frida Kahlo, she who said ‘I paint flowers so they will not die’, imagining herself as a tree in her paintings—her face, a self-portrait, surrounded by sunflower petals in Self-Portrait Inside a Sunflower.
Banaphool, the pseudonym of the Bengali writer Balai Chand Mukhopadhyay, that name meaning ‘flowers of the forest’ holding in it an ambition similar to mine, has a story titled ‘The Tree’. It’s an old favourite, and it is completely different in character from other woman-as-tree imaginings because it does not have the dreaminess of liberation that I romantically associate with turning into a tree. The tree’s bark was boiled, its leaves ground into a paste or fried or munched, its twigs used to clean teeth, all of these for medicinal purposes. Everyone was pleased with it, but no one actually cared for it.
Suddenly, a different sort of person came up to it one day.
He gazed, enraptured, at the tree. He didn’t peel off its bark, didn’t pluck its leaves, didn’t snap its wings. Only looked on, captivated.
‘How beautiful these leaves are,’ he said. ‘How lovely their lines.
How pretty these clumps of flowers—a constellation of stars has descended from the blue skies to this green space… Wonderful…’
Having gazed to his heart’s content, he left.
He was a man in search of a muse, not medicine.
The neem tree wanted to run away with him. But it couldn’t. Its
roots had dug too deep into the earth. It stood behind the house
in a heap of garbage.
In that house, the housewife, so adept at domestic chores, was in
the same situation.
I know that I want to be neither—not muse, not medicine. Why did I want to be a tree then?
But I was not alone. Annette Giesecke, talking about Ovid’s Metamorphoses in her book The Mythology of Plants: Botanical Lore from Ancient Greece and Rome writes: ‘The reader encounters a vast, seemingly eclectic assemblage of Greek and Roman myths tenuously united only by the motif of transformation, generally of a human or divine being into an animal or plant.’ I discovered a grandparent in Ovid.
Take the ‘story’ of Daphne, for instance. Apollo fell in love with Daphne, Peneus’s daughter—Apollo had taunted Cupid for playing around with a bow and arrow, and Cupid, to take revenge, took out two arrows from his quiver: ‘the one to drive love away, the other to cause it’. ‘Straightaway was Apollo filled with love, while Daphne, now shunning the very idea of a lover, instead rejoiced in the forest’s haunts… Many men sought her hand, but spurning her suitors, she wandered instead through the pathless forests. Unfettered by a husband, she cared not at all for marriage or love or wedded life.’ Apollo wooed her with affectionate words, and when that didn’t work, he told her about his power, about his father Jupiter, about how medicine was his invention, and how past, present and future are revealed through him. But Daphne was scared, and so she ran away from him. Flight turned her even more beautiful in Apollo’s eyes. She ran and Apollo pursued her, she ran until she could run no longer. And then she prayed: ‘Open your jaws, oh Earth, and annihilate those looks of mine that cause me such injury.’ This is Giesecke’s narration of the episode: ‘Scarcely did she finish her prayer when a heavy sluggishness overtook her limbs, and her soft chest became enclosed by bark. Her hair grew into leaves, her arms into branches. Her foot, but recently so swift, clung heavily to the earth with roots unyielding, and her face was supplanted by a treetop. Her radiance alone remained intact. Yet even like this Phoebus loved her, and touching the trunk with his right hand, felt her heart still trembling beneath the freshly grown bark. “Though you cannot be my wife,” spoke the god to her, “you will be my sacred tree. My hair will always be adorned with your leaves, sweet laurel, as will my cithara and quiver.”’
The fear of sexual violence had propelled poor Daphne’s desire to turn into a tree. As I read other mythological tales of women turning into trees—of the beautiful and child-like Proserpina, for instance, desired by Saturn’s son Pluto who carried her into the underworld, the kingdom of Hades, where she remained in mourning, only to return every six months to her mother, which was when spring arrived on earth, all this because she had tasted the ruby fruit, pomegranate, while in Hades—I began to grow uneasy. That it wasn’t women alone who had turned into plants to escape violence did not make me feel any better of course—when Hyacinthus, the handsome Spartan youth with whom Apollo had fallen in love, died, the hyacinth flower sprang from his blood; or when Adonis, for whom Venus even stayed away from the heavens, so much was she enamoured of his beauty, died of injury—‘a flower bloomed there, the very colour of blood and like the flowers borne by the pomegranate that conceals its seeds beneath a tough rind’, a poppy anemone or the Greek ‘windflower’ that is terribly vulnerable to the cutting movement of the wind.
While I was revisiting these myths in books and artwork, the morning newspaper brought stories of women who had been raped and murdered, left to die, their bodies chopped and fed to animals, the corpses beheaded and thrown into rivers, ‘honour killings’ where women were killed by their own family members, fathers, brothers and uncles, then planted into the earth or hanged from trees. My timid escapism and my growing nervousness, this inability to accept the world ‘as it is’ made me look at these tales in a new, perhaps even strange, way. The girl who had been named ‘Nirbhaya’ by a permanently excitable Indian media crept into my consciousness repeatedly as I navigated through these stories of transformation, of weakened women who had chosen or been turned into plants to escape sexual violence.
Was it merely a coincidence that Echo was a woman, a creature capable of only repeating line endings, a person without a voice of her own? And was it also only a coincidence that Narcissus, vain Narcissus, was a boy? Echo, who falls in love with the handsome Narcissus and pursues him unabashedly, only to have him hear his own words— ‘Someone is here?’ ‘Someone is here’—in her voice. When nothing comes of that desire, poor Echo covers her face with leaves and retreats into caves until her body wastes away and all that remains is a voice, a sound. Narcissus pays no attention to any of his suitors, not Echo, not his many admirers, both men and women. Rejection of love, for some reason, is looked upon as a terrible insult, and so one of these men gets Nemesis to approve his prayer: ‘Let him experience the same sort of love as I: let him not possess the object of his desire!’ And so Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection in a pool. The image in the water can, of course, only repeat Narcissus’s gestures and actions—images have no souls after all. Narcissus experiences one-sided love in the cruellest way. Like Echo, he withers away, and even after death, when he is carried into the underworld, he cannot help admiring himself in the waters of the Styx. His sisters and their companions weep for him, Echo exaggerates the sound of that weeping with her repetitions. When they come to take his body for the pyre, they find none. ‘In its place they found a flower, white petals circling a saffron-yellow centre’, the flower narcissus.
What did these tales of transformation mean in an age of cosmetic surgery, makeovers and body surgeries? Why had the people who went through these transformations never exhibited the urge to be a tree or even a flower like narcissus? What had changed so remarkably between Ovid and Lara Croft that the urge to become plant like had been replaced by the urge to look like machines? And yet, there was no culture whose folklore did not have at least one tale where a girl, harassed, killed, or volitionally, had not turned into a tree. There was a version of the Pomegranate Queen tale in every collection I read. In the one collected by the poet and translator A. K. Ramanujan, a stubborn and adamant younger daughter is killed by an angry father because of her refusal to get married. After her body is chopped into pieces and buried in the garden, she emerges as a beautiful pomegranate tree and plays the loveliest music on her veena. Indra, the king of gods, is utterly charmed, and they eventually get married. Not all women-to-tree stories ended with such loaned happiness.
Very few understood that much of my ambition—need—to become a tree was located in the weaknesses of my body. When questioned, I searched for examples. Sometimes I told them about Vansh Pradip Singh, a ruler of the kingdom of Sawar in northern India in the early twentieth century. ‘If you cut the smallest branch of a tree it is just as if you cut my finger’, he is said to have told his subjects. Ellison Banks Findly, writing about the plant-as-person equivalence in her book, Plant Lives: Borderline Beings in Indian Traditions, quotes from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: ‘As is a mighty tree so indeed is a man.’ Thus a person’s hairs are the tree’s leaves and his skin the outer bark; and when blood flows from skin, it is as sap flowing from a tree’s bark, for ‘when a man is wounded blood flows as sap from a tree that is struck’. A person’s flesh is the tree’s inner bark, his nerves tough like the tree’s inner fibres, his bones the wood inside, and his marrow the interior pith. She also quotes this branch of verse from Ramanujan’s Speaking of Siva:
The root is the mouth
of the tree: pour water there
at the bottom
and, look, it sprouts green
at the top.
I sometimes wonder why so many leaves are heart shaped. In poems or moments as short-lived as poems themselves, I have seen the heart move, walk, the entire being turned into this organ that controls life. When I chance upon heart-shaped leaves—and there are too many to name, from the betel leaf to the raspberry—I have the sense of my insides turned out for me to see. I will never know why the walnut resembles the human brain, beans the kidney, bhindis human fingers, and so on. There must be—I want to believe—some relation, even if it is only imaginary. Unlike Jacob Boehme, the German Christian mystic who saw the signature of God in this similarity of shapes and designs, I like to think of this differently—how wonderful it is, I told myself, that I, with my heart and brain and kidneys, am composed of plant parts already.
About the Author
Sumana Roy is associate professor of English and creative writing at Ashoka University in Haryana, India. She is the author of Missing: A Novel, Out of Syllabus: Poems, and My Mother’s Lover and Other Stories.