Sumana Roy

Going unnoticed is one of the happy thrills of being small. The adjectives arrive in four letter words: tiny, puny, the like. When one is being affectionate, even kind, you are called ‘petite’. At one time or the other, depending on the size of the shoes I was wearing, I have been called all of these. Even when I was far too young to know that smallness was a lack I’d have to bear with faultless guilt all my life, I knew intuitively that being tiny rarely brought dividends. The fables about physical smallness always came in patronising tones: the rat was small alright, but it could save the lion from a hunter’s net on a difficult day. Largesizedness was protection enough, but if you were small, you’d need to fine tune some survival skill. A child who stands at the head of a size-graded line in his school assembly instinctively knows a thing or two about the survival of the largest.

Reading Jagadish Bose’s letters to Rabindranath Tagore on a bus that would take me from Siliguri to Jalpaiguri on a rainy day in June, I was advised by my co-passenger, who later identified himself as a retired police officer, to read Swami Vivekananda’s books instead of the ‘confused’ scientist’s work. 

‘Look at the people in the bus,’ he said, waiting for me to lift my eyes from the book to survey my co-passengers. ‘Can you not see the lack of culture on their faces, in their clothes, in their words?’

I kept quiet. The last thing I needed was a sore throat from an argument with a stranger, right before a two hour lecture in college. 

When he didn’t get the kind of response that he had perhaps anticipated, he took no time to show his annoyance. ‘This is the problem with your generation – you all are interested in all the wrong things. How will it do this country any good if you read about a dead scientist and that too someone who spent his time trying to listen to plants talk?’

I did not respond again. My destination was still fifteen minutes away. I only cleared my throat.

The man wouldn’t give up. ‘Did you know what Swami Vivekananda said?’

I shook my head. 

‘The Sudras will take over the world. All the lower castes, the lower classes – they will rule over us.’

I was not surprised that he had included me in his group. This was old playground strategy – you are me. What actually took me by surprise was the analogy he offered next. 

‘Have you ever worked in a garden? Haven’t you noticed how a gardener has to work hard to get a plant to flower while the weeds grow without his indulgence or care? That is how these people grow. Like weeds. And you don’t even notice.’ 

A few minutes later I got down from the bus. Facebook had prepared me not to fight with strangers, people who argue with their backs to you. I was relieved to be left to myself. 

But this clearly wasn’t my day. Days of relentless rain had left its mark on the footway that I took to walk to my workplace. I slipped on a mossy stone and fell down. 

I limped for the rest of the day, with my walking and with explanations to colleagues about how I had taken a fall, that question still possessing the miraculous child’s tensile strength to induce laughter. What had ‘actually’ caused the fall? a few of them asked. 

‘Moss,’ I said, shifting the blame to the southernmost point I could think of. 

‘This is the thing about weeds – they will be the end of us!’ This came from one of my colleagues – I was surprised by her tone, the disgust in it floating to the surface. 

For the rest of the three hours that I spent as invigilator in the examination hall, the word came back to me several times. Was it merely a coincidence that two people had used it to make their disgust about contemporary socio-political conditions? The Bangla word for ‘weeds’ is ‘aagachha’ – in that it is a near antonym of ‘gachh’, which is plant or tree. ‘Gachh’, the plant or tree, is of course the canonised figure in the homo gardener’s consciousness. Anything that impedes its growth is an enemy. 

Not having read Vivekananda with great perseverance, I had no reason to believe in the stranger’s attribution of the Sudras-taking-over-the-world quote to the religious thinker. (In that too, Facebook had been a good tutor: in that blue-and-white world, every third quote was attributed to Rumi or Einstein, after all.) The human-as-plant rhetoric that otherwise brought me joy and empathy filled me with terror, of the kind I had seen a crow exhibit before a squall. The ‘aagachha’ trope was used to justify the maltreatment of refugees by the older settled population in northern Bengal where I lived – whether it was the Bangladeshis, the Nepalese or Bhutanese from across borders. In the popular consciousness, they were pollutants, they multiplied like weeds, and like weeds, they could conquer geography – and subsequently history – and cause the extinction of the ‘native’, both plants and humans. 

I lived in a part of town which was neighbored by settler colonies, primarily first and second generation immigrants from Bangladesh and Nepal. I was aware of the anxiety people from these neighbourhoods created in the minds of the upper class. Perhaps it was this that caused the generation of the Vivekananda quote in their minds? When I mentioned this to my mother, she reminded me of how this wasn’t a new nomenclature, that it had existed even three decades ago, when my parents had first moved to this sub-Himalayan town, that she had first heard these strange names for plants from the first gardener my parents had employed for their little garden: ‘lawaris poudhey’, ‘bastard plants'; 'infiltrators', 'orphans'. 

Ratan Singh was a second generation immigrant from Chapra district in Bihar. His words for weeds came to us in Hindi, and because my Hindi was insufficient at that age, I grew up thinking of those words as Hindi names for these plants. Third language Hindi learning in schools does not acquaint us with words like ‘lawaris’. So for years I would think a fern's Hindi name to be lawaris, its daak naam, pet name as it were. I cannot say exactly when it happened, but it was perhaps Ratan's calling the Wandering Jew plant an 'aatankbaadi', a terrorist, that made me wonder for the first time about the authenticity of the Hindi names of weeds that had come to me from Ratan.

Yes, this wasn’t new, and when I looked back to it with my mother, I began to wonder whether it might have been Ratan's name calling for weeds then that might have influenced what I would plant when I first became a gardener. I was, of course, too young and untrained to think of weeding as a political act then, in spite of my mother’s use of the term to describe Hitler and the holocaust to me. It was lookism, an innocent conditioning, I have to confess, that had trained my eyes to see that I didn’t have the metaphorical beauty of flowers. This awareness made me indifferent to the prelapsarian wedding between beauty and flowers. While Ratan Singh spent all his energy on getting roses and hibiscuses and marigolds and pansies to grow in our garden, I spent mine on nursing what he uprooted and threw away – the weeds. I planted them in the tiny pots and vials that my mother discarded, those that had contained cosmetic cream, lotions and medicines. Most of them grew well there though there were some who did not take well to my pampering. My mother scolded me using the same rhetoric that Ratan employed: ‘Look at you. No matter how well I look after you, you are always unwell. And look at the maid’s children. Maya doesn’t even give them a proper bath, but look at their good health’. In that my mother wasn’t alone. Most of my friends’ mothers held the same belief. 

So when my mother reminded me of the rhetoric that Ratan used to talk about weeds, I looked back at my choices in gardening, of choosing the neglected weeds over ‘real’ plants in my garden, and also to my long career of identification with them. The last had lately been abetted by a book – Manjul Bajaj’s Elbie’s Quest

Who was Elbie and why did I identify with her? These are the opening lines of this ‘fantastic tale’: 

Elbie Tree was a Little Big Tree. No one thought anything of it, except Elbie. It bothered Elbie endlessly.

‘Am I little then or am I big?’ she asked herself every time she had a minute to spare from brewing and serving Companionship Brew at the Soul Kitchen.

It wasn’t being petite or ‘little big’ alone that indulged this identification. There were others – primary among them was our rejection of noise: ‘Noise spoilt the Companionship Brew. ... Elbie knew that a Brewer of Brews needed to keep the rooms of her heart quiet and empty, sensitive to the silence inside sounds ...’. The universe was full of large things, big ideas, giant sized footprints; being small was such a pain, even a crime. Manjul Bajaj, in this extraordinary fable, writes about an often ignored politics – on being small. Small is, of course, a comparatist’s gaze, and Elbie, like many others who are made to feel small, lives her life by judging her size against other’s shadows. She looks at ‘The Grove of The Lofty Trees’, for instance, the ‘most handsome trees in kingdom come, each of them casting shadows of immeasurable length’ and she feels ‘so tiny in comparison’. 

O Elbie The Tree
You’re such a pygmy
Tiniest of the tinies
When it comes to trees
You’re o so small
You’re barely there at all 

Elbie worries in verse, like many poets are wont to do, and it’s a backslapping gesture from Bajaj to her fellow writers. What endears this book to me is Bajaj’s casual deployment of words and categories that we use without qualification. This is a book meant for young adults, and its publisher lists this as ‘Junior Adventures’ – Bajaj takes this opportunity to educate her young readers about how no word is really innocent – not ‘small’, not ‘tiniest of the tinies’, and certainly not ‘pygmy’. 

Meanwhile, Rangeeli Duniya, Elbie’s Colourful World, is in danger: ‘The myth said that in the long ago Rangeeli Duniya had been created and ruled by the One True Seer and it had been full of laughter and light. Then Roshni Rani, the Princess of light and the One True Seer’s daughter, had fought over something with Noor, her twin brother, and in anger Roshni had gouged out Noor’s eyes and left him sightless. Now he was called Benoor Badshah and was the king of all things dark. The One True Seer had left the skies in grief at seeing his two children fight and Rangeeli Duniya had become the battleground for the forces of light and dark’. 

The inhabitants of Rangeeli Duniya can sense trouble coming, but Elbie continues to be obsessed ‘about her size’:

Who gives a fig
Whether I’m little or big?
Does it matter at all
If I’m short or tall
Or just medium sized me
Elbie the Little Big Tree.

When the eagles come with news about the terror that is about to strike the world, we are again made aware about how the world’s most powerful rulers are master psychologists who play on our weaknesses. Benoor Badshah, the cruel force, ‘has been slyly recruiting small plants and animals from within Rangeeli Duniya to his side’. Waffa the Wise has sent for Elbie, he has a ‘special job’ for her, but poor Elbie can only think of this as an opportunity to grow tall. 

‘Little Tree, you would do well to remember that everything tall is not wonderful and everything wonderful is not tall,’ an eagle said at last to Elbie, after a few long drawn out minutes of silence had passed. 

Elbie, permanently lacking in confidence, wonders what task Waffa could have for her. 

I’m a simple brewer of tea
What could they want of me?
What could they want after all
from a tree neither tiny nor tall?

Then a telegram like letter arrives for ‘Ms. Elbie Tree/ Brewer, Versifier, Seeker’ – ‘Be Prepared to Travel Light’. When Elbie and her trusted companion, Aluf, reach Waffa, he tells them about the origin of the world: ‘The plants came first. They are the older and wiser of Rangeeli Duniya’s creatures. Even a small blade of grass can be very, very intelligent. They know how to keep close to the ground, how to stay in tune with all the elements in nature and how to support other life’. Time and again, Bajaj brings in this narrative of redemption, linking it with being close to the earth, with a literal embracing of the soil like no other living being does. Waffa’s words have their effect on Elbie: ‘She had always believed in the smartness of plants, though they were on the whole slower and shyer and they mostly stood quietly doing their business of breathing in bad air and making it clean again and growing food for everyone to eat while the animals went gadding around roaring and howling and shrieking, killing and being killed in shows of flashiness’. 

Bajaj questions all the ideas we associate with bigness, largeness, greatness and loftiness: ‘There was something suspicious going on in that Grove for all the trees had suddenly grown unnaturally lofty and didn’t allow anyone else into The Grove’. Elbie is entrusted with the task of entering that space because ‘the Grove has an anti-tree force field which doesn’t allow anything other than a tree to alight on its surface’. There are problems everywhere, but the most difficult one is inside Elbie’s head – it is the problem that faces every fan. ‘How was someone as small as her expected to go amidst such large trees and seek an audience with them?’ And so comes Aluf’s counselling: ‘You’re too much in awe of them. ... Will they be able to see you? Will they laugh at you for being so tiny? Will they welcome you as one of their own or deride you as an imposter in their midst?’ 

When Elbie reaches The Grove of the Lofty Trees at last, she finds herself having conversations with Oak the Bloke, Brittle Birch, Earnest Elm, all of them with their peculiarities. 

‘We’re like conscientious objectors!’ said Oak.

‘We’re like freedom fighters,’ added Elm.

‘You can simply call us The Mountain Misfits if you like. We’re the dropouts! The rebels against the entire stinking system,’ drawled Birch. 

‘Who are you fighting?’ asked Elbie.

‘The Grove is run by a group of six mammoth trees called The Tyranny. Everyone marches to their orders. No one is allowed to think or act for themselves,’ answered Earnest Elm. 

‘Oh I see. So are you trying to overthrow the group of six commanders who run the Grove then?’ Elbie asked.

‘Not quite. There is no point challenging the High Command alone. We have been through many vicious felling cycles in the last thousand years. One group of leaders is felled only to be replaced by another set of tyrants worse than the last. We’re questioning the entire Doctrine of Tallness. Our whole chequered history. Why one tree must tower over another, why the programs against our own kind were carried out in the past, why and for what reason was the War Against All Things Small declared in the first place,’ said Oak the Bloke. 

‘It’s a long story,’ said Earnest Elm. ‘... Growing tall became our only concern. We sacrificed our individuality and independence to a series of increasingly more dominating trees in return for growing taller. Now some of us are fighting to restore the old values of free thinking and gentle living.’ 

... ‘You see Birch was very young when the Programs started. He really believed wholeheartedly in the Doctrine of Tallness. We all did in a way. We believed in was our moral duty to grow taller and taller. Become our highest possible selves as it were,’ said Oak the Bloke. 

‘But isn’t it?’ exclaimed Elbie. ‘Back in Rangeeli Duniya when I would watch The Grove from the distance I used to imagine that one day I too would achieve such great heights. What can be more wonderful than to be your highest possible self?’

‘Nothing comes without a price young Elbie. Birch is so bitter because he was manipulated by the generals into betraying his entire family. During the Weeding Out Programs entire species were felled and thrown into the Death Sea because they failed to make the Tallness Criterion. The Programs are the most shameful part of our tortured history. One by one, first the flowering and fruit trees were throttled for their frivolity. Then the willows, birches and larches were hunted down and systematically killed for failing to grow taller,’ replied Oak the Bloke. 

Elbie learns about other sad things, the Death Sea for instance, which is a ‘gigantic marsh, full of rotting dead trees. All dissidents are thrown into it. And it is said that the Tyranny uses its waters to irrigate the Geego farms’. Now, what is a ‘geego farm’?  The geego is a ‘horrible, tasteless fruit grown over hectares and hectares of meadows by the Tyranny. It is fed to all the troops to make them grow faster’. It also ‘causes hallucinations and delusions of grandeur’. The ‘manure’ for the Geego farms comes from the ‘artistic-mystic types’, who became ‘fodder to the requirements of’ the ‘larger destiny’. The rest of this fantastic book, where a battle rages between Roshni Rani, the keeper of light and good, and the Benoor Badshah, the dark and evil force, is about how Elbie manages to fight the ‘Tallness Dogma’. 

Elbie’s Quest was published in 2013. Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel, The Signature of All Things, was published in the same year. Gilbert’s novel traces the life of Alma Whittaker, daughter of Henry Whittaker, a wealthy botanical explorer and businessman who begins a new life with his Dutch wife in Philadelphia. Alma’s mother, daughter of a renowned family of botanists in Holland, gives her the best kind of homeschooling, so that the prodigy knows seven languages and mathematics and the sciences and ancient philosophy by the time she is sixteen. Like Elbie the Little Big Tree, Alma is aware of one particular lack in herself: she is a victim of lookism. She is not pretty, and this lack is exaggerated all the more when her parents adopt Prudence, an extraordinarily beautiful orphan girl. Growing up with a library filled with the best books on botany, a mother who belonged to the van Devender family, ‘who had been custodians of the Hortus botanical gardens in Amsterdam for many generations’, feeding on scientific and philosophic discussions at the dining table, Alma realises, especially after her mother’s death, that her career – and her life – lay in botany. But the nineteenth century sciences are a male preserve. Alma, in spite of her awareness of her talent for botany, realises the limits and limitations of being a female scientist. By accident, as it were, she lands upon mosses – ‘Nobody had made a career out of it. Who would have wanted to? Mosses were not orchids, not cedars of Lebanon. They were not big or beautiful or showy. Now was moss something medicinal and lucrative ...’. 

It couldn’t be mere coincidence that two women writers, writing from two different continents, had chosen to write about ‘tiny’ plants, Elbie and the mosses. Is it also mere coincidence that Elbie is a female tree and Alma Whittaker, who invests her life in the study of mosses, a female botanist? Eighty five years ago, Virginia Woolf, talking about women’s writing, had remarked on the ‘detailed’ nature of its prose, about its rejection of grandiose subjects, of kings and rulers, about the need to write about those we did not see sitting on thrones. Alice Walker, who had criticised Woolf for excluding women of colour from her generalisations, had, in the title of her study, provided a lead: In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. Gardens, yes. Manjul Bajaj and Elizabeth Gilbert, writing all these years after Woolf and Alice Walker, had taken up plant life to launch their counter-narratives against the traditional definitions of success, wealth, talent and meritocracy. 

Alma ‘felt herself growing breathless. This was the entire world. This was bigger than a world. This was the firmament of the universe, as seen through one of William Herschel’s mighty telescopes. ... Alma’s world and the moss world had been knitted together this whole time, lying on top of each other, crawling over each other. But one of these worlds was loud and large and fast, where the other was quiet and tiny and slow – and only one of these worlds seemed immeasurable. Alma sank her fingers into the shallow green fur and felt a surge of joyful anticipation. This could belong to her! No botanist before her had ever committed himself uniquely to the study of this undervalued phylum, but Alma could do it. She had the time for it, as well as the patience. ... Recognizing all this, Alma’s existence at once felt bigger and much, much smaller – but a pleasant sort of smaller. The world had scaled itself down into endless inches of possibility. Her life could be lived in generous miniature.’

It is this miniature world of the moss that leads Alma Whittaker to propound her own hypothesis about the origin of the world, about competition between species, one that she calls ‘A Theory of Competitive Alteration’. This she does alone, before Charles Darwin, though it is Darwin, whom she acknowledges as a better (and a cleverer) writer than her, who declares it first to the world. Manjul Bajaj and Elizabeth Gilbert reject this dogmatic belief in the survival of the fittest, the richest, the largest, the prettiest, the cleverest, and the strongest. 

In their world, fortunately, there is no god of small things. Because god would be too tall for this miniature world. And perhaps too grand a representative of the Darwinian best in what our first gardener, Ratan Singh, had called the world of ‘chhotolok gachh’, Dalit plants. 

Sumana Roy writes from Siliguri, a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal, India, and is at