Jacket illustration by Elisa Talentino for Sumana Roy’s How I Became a Tree
On his first visit to such a large congregation of trees, my three-and-a-half-year-old nephew asked about the name of the place we were in. This is how the conversation went:
“What is the name of this place?”
“It’s called a forest.”
“That means we can rest here.”
It takes a child to prise open obvious etymologies of words and expose us to the sharp edges of our chairs. I had never thought of a forest as “for rest.”
Inside every forest is a little boy lost. We had come to find our little boys.
“In the middle of the forest there’s an unexpected clearing that can only be found by those who have gotten lost.” That line is by Tomas Tranströmer. Truth be told, we had come to the forest to get lost. “Lost” has two different meanings: one in the forest, and another in civilization. The forest seems to inevitably exist as one half of a binary. On the other side is a library or museum, a university or gymnasium—trees versus books as educators. Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, one of my favorite writers in Bangla, writing in the first half of the twentieth century, recognized this binary and moved between it, in his life as well as his writing. Spending six years between 1924 and 1930 in the forests and uncultivated land of Bihar’s Bhagalpur district where he was employed as the assistant manager of an estate, Bibhutibhushan grew needy in sharing his experience of being in the forest with those who had been deprived of it. A diary entry of February 12, 1928—he was a sincere diarist and the full-bodied entries are characterized by a delicious curiosity about the secretive world of plants and the sky—makes us aware of this desire to write about the forest: “I will write something about the life in the jungle—rigorous and dynamic, radiant with courage—images of an outcast life. About riding in this lonely forest, losing one’s way in the dark paths, living a solitary life in a little shelter …” In Bibhutibhushan I recognize myself. I recognize a relative who had set out to get lost in a forest.
Why have hermits and thinkers gone to the forest to surrender to its stillness?
That there is a connection between forest life and creativity, whether spiritual or intellectual, is no longer questioned. “The forests await the little boy who will become the artist,” writes Bibhutibhushan in his diary. What is it about the forest air that no artist has bothered to investigate and no entrepreneur bothered to bottle and sell?
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Bibhutibhushan’s autobiographical novel Aranyak takes its title from the Aranyakas, the Books of the Forests in the Vedas. As the translator Rimli Bhattacharya reminds us in a prefatory note, “In Indian literary texts, the period spent in the forest constitutes the locale of numerous aranya parvas (forest episodes) as either exile, voluntary or enforced, a temporary sojourn, or interlude as also the space to which householders finally retire.”
For me this was the real mystery about forest life. How had humans turned the forest into both nest and cage, pampering and punishment? The well-educated Calcutta-bred Bengali man in Aranyak had been able to discover himself only by living in the forest; in the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, the hero Rama, accompanied by his wife and brother, goes to the forest for his exile, as do the five Pandava brothers and their wife Draupadi, this state of living called “vanvas” (van: forest; vas: living); young male students spent more than a decade of their lives learning statecraft and warfare, language, logic and philosophy from their gurus in the teacher’s tapovan, forest hermitage; then there was the Vanaprastha, when people who had crossed the age of fifty were expected to lead a semi-retired life in the forest …
(Forest as dream, forest as refuge: stay tuned for Part Two of Sumana Roy for Book Post!)
Sumana Roy is associate professor of English and creative writing at Ashoka University in Haryana, India. Our post today is drawn from her new book, How I Became a Tree, from Yale University Press. She is also the author of Missing: A Novel, Out of Syllabus: Poems, and My Mother’s Lover and Other Stories.
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