Diary: Sumana Roy, Forest Education (Part Two)

Krishna explaining the importance of trees to gopas,” Datia, Central India, mid-eighteenth century CE (Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Delhi). “The birth of trees is auspicious as it contributes to the well-being of all creatures. Just as no needy person returns disappointed from the benevolent, so is the case with a person who approaches a tree for shelter,” Bhagavata Purana X.22

Read Part One of this post here!
There is something about the forest that makes it analogous to a dream. When Satya, the protagonist of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Aranyak, encounters the forest on moonlit nights, there is immediate alchemy. “There is one day I shall never forget … As I stood beneath the moonlit skies on that still silent night, I felt that I had chanced upon an unknown fairy kingdom. No mortal would come here to work … I had not done well to enter without permission.” People like to think of the forest as a patched green quilt, but I know that the color of the forest is blue. On a moonlit night it is this that rises to the surface. And it is this that makes it a relative of the sky, not a mirror image but a kinship, the way one parent is related to another, not by blood but by relation and responsibility.

There is something about the forest coming alive under a full moon. One of Rabindranath Tagore’s most popular songs is about this sense of the exhilaration of a moonlit night—“Jochhna raatey shawbai gyachhey bon-ay,” Everyone’s gone to the forest on this full-moon night. Satya writes, “And each time, I have felt that while I was in Bengal I had not known that moonlight could be so exquisite, that it could evoke such fear and detachment.” Is this why we go to the forest then? To pamper the finest strain of melancholy, to tune the refined sadness inside us? Is the moonlit forest an emotion then?

I taught Thoreau’s Walden to my students, and every few days one of us wondered—can there be a solitary tree in a forest? Is a solitary tree a lonely tree? And if one is not lonely, where is companionship to be found in a forest?

Along with solitude is the education in silence. Like the whispering sibilants that make relatives of “solitude” and “silence,” the Bangla words for each also tell of a similar story of dependence—"nirjawn,” without people, uninhabited, and “nistawbdho,” without a sound. Both require training—Satya, like all of us, has been educated in the opposite, sound and noise, and their source, people and crowds. “Imagine a peculiar silence enveloping the entire forest land. A silence that may not be imagined until you have experienced it.”

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My disenchantment with the ambition industry and the violence of professional success had brought me here. My hopelessly romantic need to live like a tree, with other trees in a forest, had guided me to this imagined communitarianism where self-containment and a related self-contentment were the abiding ethic. There was physical hardship, yes, but there was little psychological warfare. As Satya and Tranströmer tell us, that is exactly the gift of the forest—only here can you get lost. In David Wagoner’s poem, “Lost,” the forest turns into an active participant in the lost-and-found game.
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you Are not lost.

The lost and found symmetry of our lives, constructed as it is by a vigilant bureaucracy, is subverted by the forest. “Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself / In dark woods, the right road lost.” That is Dante, in Robert Pinsky’s translation. This begs the question that I’ve tried to answer all my life: Is there a “right road” inside a forest? If Bibhutibhushan’s Bihari man were to die in the forest, would it be death at all? Or another version of getting lost? I’ve felt it sometimes, the sense of being shadowed or followed, while walking alone in a forest, knowing one is alone and yet not completely alone.
“Tell me, don’t you mind living here all by yourself? You don’t go anywhere, you do nothing … do you like it? Don’t you find it monotonous, dull?”
Jaipal stared at me in some surprise as he replied, “Why should I mind it, Huzoor? I’m quite well. I don’t mind it at all.”

This uneasiness of Satya, the social creature, in discovering a fellow human in the forest, one who is indifferent to the varying tempers of neighborhood that make up the world, is a slightly ironic and limited world view. For a forest being, difference might not be a demand of the nature of his life at all. I doubt the bird looks for a different colored sky every morning or the tree a different hued sunlight.

The forest as a “state of mind” is perhaps the religion of every dendrophile, a cult of people who feel changed and converted by spending time in a forest. There is a lovely word for it in Japanese: “shinrin-yoku,” forest bathing, or being bathed by a forest; its meaning is so terribly poetic that even mentioning the word seems like a moment changing experience. Is Krishna’s romantic playfulness, his wisdom, his extraordinary powers of empathy, his sense of comradeship, and even his insightful statecraft a product of his forest childhood? We are, in spite of our lack of education about the anthropological origins of various institutionalized religions, intuitively aware of the difference in the temperament and teachings of forest religions versus, say, desert religions. The little boy being nurtured by the forest is a tale with many versions—sometimes that boy is Tarzan, sometimes Mowgli, at other times Krishna. I cannot help noticing that all of these are boys growing up without their biological parents. The forest as parent in one’s childhood turns to the teacher. In the Sukna Forest at the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas, I felt wondrously happy and calmed but also guilty, this for years, for I felt like an interloper who was disturbing the forest during its sleeping hours. A waking forest would be a calamity, I was certain. Moving in the forest was like playing with a parent’s body as he or she slept—I moved around secretively, hoping not to be caught in the middle of some mischief.

I wondered why there were no stories of little girls getting lost in forests—perhaps this was how the gendered nature of reading first became conscious to me. Satya notices women moving through the forest but doesn’t know what to make of them—“Now, I suddenly remembered the old woman—she was a symbol of the civilization of the forest: for generations, her ancestors have been living in the forest … I was ready to sacrifice up to a year of my salary to find out what the old woman might have been thinking of.” The woman of the forest is a figure so enchanting and so imbued with mystery and eroticism that when it invades the urban imagination, it becomes the equivalent of a tiger to the hunter’s imagination—the woman must be tamed.


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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