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A close-up photo of the leaves and branches on a tree during the daytime.

Photo by George Hodan on Public Domain Pictures

Familiar Stranger

Sumana Roy— 

It seems so natural, in dreams and folk tales, that humans should be reborn as trees. On a bus to nowhere, I sat next to a man who had dressed like a TV version of a sage in red robes, a dhoti and a bandanalike piece of cloth with which he had gathered his locks of matted hair into a bundle on the top of his head.

He began speaking to me.

“I recognize a soulmate when I see one,” he said.

I wasn’t sure whether he was speaking to me, and so I ignored him.

“You and I were neighbours once,” he continued.

I turned to look at him. No, he did not look like someone whose face I had ever spotted in a neighbouring window.

“You must be making a mistake,” I said.

“Not in this life,” he smiled, raising his hands above his head to indicate something.

I didn’t answer. But that was no relief. For he wasn’t finished.

“We were neighbours in Baikanthapur Forest. Don’t you remember anything at all? You were a sal tree. And so was I.” The man waited for a response but I wasn’t going to oblige him, and as soon as I could I got off the bus. But his words had found their mark.

I was tempted to contemplate my past life as a sal tree. To want to be a tree was one thing; to be told that I’d already lived that life was another. Over the next few days, I moved between looking at the sal-wood furniture in the house and reading anxiously about trees and their mechanisms of rebirth. The Rig Veda has a hymn to Agni, the fire god, which the dead man can overhear: “May your eye go to the sun, your life’s breath to the wind, Go to the sky or to earth, as is your nature; or go to the waters, if that is your fate. Take root in the plants with your limbs.” Ellison Banks Findly in her book, Plant Lives: Borderline Beings in Indian Traditions, tells us that when Jaratkarava Artabhaga asks Yajnavalkya in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, about what happens to a human after his death, he explains it thus: among other things, “hairs of the body to the herbs (osadhi), hairs on the head to the trees (vanaspati) . . . ” This repeated analogy between human hair and plant life in the Vedas and Upanishads took me back to the number of times I compared the autumnal fall of leaves to my hair fall. (It had come to me through my amateurish etymology— “rukkho,” the word for dry skin or hair seemed to me a relative of “rookh,” the Hindi word for tree.) The Aitareya Upanishad describes the cosmic personas one from whose hair come plants and trees. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad tells us that a dead person’s hair was to be distributed among plants. Even pubic hair becomes a part of this train of logic—it turns into kusa, grass. And just as we believe that hair is not hurt when it is cut, so too with grass, which the Vedic thinkers tell us, must be placed on the spot where the axe will strike a tree so that it is not hurt. This idea of being part of a great recycling chain where I could be several things seemed like a fun idea at first. Banks Findly’s words came as comfort and indulgence: “The Upanishadic view of the great person cycling through the cosmos and emerging from plants as food for those on earth is reflected in a passage from the Mahabharata.” She then quotes from a telling passage in the epic where Dhaumya says this to Yudhishthira: “When the creatures were first created, they suffered great hunger, and in his compassion for them the Sun acted like a father. Going his northern course he absorbed with his rays the saps of heat; then, on returning to his southern course, the Sun impregnated the earth. Thereupon, when he had become the fields, the Lord of the Herbs collected the heat from heaven, and, with the water, engendered the herbs. Thus the Sun, having gone unto earth, and ejaculated by the fervors of the moon, is born as the herbs of the six flowers, which are sacrificial, and thus is he born as the food of the living ones on earth.”

Even the gods and their enemies have experienced this cycle of rebirth. Banks Findly tells us about Vritra, Indra’s enemy, who is turned into a plant after violence is inflicted upon him— “a broken reed,” “a tree whose branches have been lopped off by an axe,” “the dead Vritra is compared to violated plants.” The demons in the Ramayana fall down ”deformed and deprived of their lives, (lying) on the ground like trees whose roots have been severed.”

Hans-Peter Schmidt, in a fine essay on the origin of non-violence, quotes from the Satapatha Brahmana to make an important point about the idea of rebirth that was common at the time: “Whatever food a man consumes in this world, that (food), in return, consumes him in yonder world.” Schmidt gives the example of “a woodcutter who once cut a tree is now a tree being cut by a woodcutter who was once the first tree being cut” and “a man who once ate a plant is now a plant being eaten by a man who once was the first plant being eaten.” And hence the short prayer by woodcutters before they put their axe to a tree or even grass cutters, as this quote from the Satapatha Brahmana illustrates:

“O earth, that affordest the place for making offerings to the

gods! May I not injure the root of thy plant!”… Whilst he takes

up (the earth dug up by the sword), he thus addresses her: “May I

not injure the roots of thy plants!”

From How I Became a Tree by Sumana Roy. Published by Yale University Press in 2021 and in paperback in 2022. Reproduced with permission.

Sumana Roy is associate professor of English and creative writing at Ashoka University in Haryana, India. She is the author of Missing: A NovelOut of Syllabus: Poems, and My Mother’s Lover and Other Stories.

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