What will be the history of India without the history of its plant life?
By Sumana Roy in The Indian Express for the series India@75, Looking at 100.
(Sumana Roy is a poet and author. This article is part of an ongoing series, in The Indian Express. which began on August 15, by women who have made a mark, across sectors.)
I arrived in India like the way I arrived into language — late. Statistically, India was 27 years old when I came into the world, but to me it seemed that it was as old as language. I thought of it as a child does a parent — that is, I didn’t think of it at all. Every year I heard the same sounds around the time of its birthday (I misunderstood “august occasion” as being related to August 15), about its greatness and how much it still needed to do — I think I equated them with the things children were told on their birthdays.
As I moved swiftly from young adulthood to the world, the Indian state began to lose its shyness. While its citizens took to anti-aging creams, India — “Indian culture” — began to change its birth certificate to imply that it was almost as old as time. Ministers started speaking about a golden age where surgery, flying machines and telecommunication were available much before the inventions in the modern world. That was their ambition — to re-create that India. But I did not encounter any such atavistic urge in relation to the plant world.
I think of the citizens without Aadhaar cards, those without life insurance and crematoriums, those not on the nation’s census rolls — our plant life. In the 75th year of Indian independence, Siliguri, the sub-Himalayan Bengal town from where I am writing this, lost almost all its trees on the national highway (NH 10) that connects Bagdogra, its airport suburb, to Sikkim.
The town’s residents probably hear the sound of the electric saw in their sleep now — the tree genocide, the indiscriminate murder of young and old, of all kinds of plant species. On the same road where these trees gave shade and shelter to humans protesting against the CAA-NRC, for instance, there is nothing. And no protests on their behalf. I do not know of anyone who has been on that road without feeling something collapsing inside them. It’s not a catch in the throat, it’s a scratch on the nervous system that we, in shorthand, are calling life.
Emptiness is harder to imagine than god or ghost — on this road, as in thousands of such places in India today, we are hit by this emptiness; it has the violence of an accident, like a moment before death. I think of Will Matsuda writing about the trees of Hiroshima, the gingko trees: “In Japanese, human survivors of the atom bomb are called hibakusha. These surviving trees have a name as well: hibakujumoku”. What will we call our trees in India, that we killed by becoming the equivalent of atom bombs?
The first page of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s novel Ichhamati begins with a revolutionary formulation of history. Both “history” and “itihasa” derive etymologically from an investment in the human: The story or narrative of a person’s life; from “asti”, meaning “he is”. Bibhutibhushan challenges that: “Take a boat from Morighata or Bajitpur right up to Chanduria ghat, and you shall see the bright red flowers of the poltey and madar trees on either bank, the aquatic foliage of the bonneyburo, the radiance of the yellow flowers of the wild titpalla creeper and the floating leaves of topa-pana; sometimes, along a high bank, you will spy shrubs of uluti-bachda and bainchi in the shadow of ancient banyan and pipal trees, the nesting holes of river-mynahs, and everywhere the pleasing spread of creepers and all manner of greens. …From one century to another many are the unwritten histories of joy and sorrow that lie on their breasts, like the tracery of lines of water in the rains … Their voices, their stories, are the real history of our nation”.
The history of plant life, records of its settlement on land as well as its death and evacuation from these spaces, a census of plants and trees — all these constitute our national history, not only the life of kings, queens and the famous. Bibhutibhushan is writing this in a novel published in 1950, the year India becomes a republic and gives to itself its Constitution, and decades before the formation of the Subaltern Collective.
Seventy-five years later, these words read like a preamble to an imagined India, of what might have been had this understanding of national history been institutionalised. What we have instead is only a generational memory of plants whose names one must memorise but whose life and life cycles we know little about. Bibhutibhushan is documenting plant life with the kind of intimacy that Kalidasa does in Ritusamhara, both aware of the passing of a world that would henceforth be recoverable only second-hand. What will be the history of India without its trees, without the history of its plant life?
Imagining my country as a centenarian, I hope for this kind of history, for “itihasa” to move beyond the human’s story. I hope for fundamental rights for plants and all living forms. I imagine a preamble that begins: “We, the people and plants and animals … of India …”