Rooting disinterest

Sumana Roy | Updated on July 20, 2018 Published on July 20, 2018

The human vocabulary of outrage and denunciation is strangely biased towards the massacre of its own kind. The slaughter of trees often goes unnoticed and unpunished

What exactly is plant blindness and how are we afflicted by it? If I were to ask you to tell me the colour of the sari your host was wearing at a party last night, chances are you’ll be able to tell me that correctly, and also more — the teal cushions, the dinner plate with Chinese script-like etchings, and so on. Now, if I were to ask you to tell me the name or the kind of plant or tree in the corner near the dining table, would you be able to do that? Or the kind of flowers on the centre table? You try hard to remember but you can’t — you’ve seen it, but it hasn’t really registered in your memory. They exist in that amorphous space that we think of as plant life, like photos of malnourished children did in the space called Africa inside our memory once.

To know the botanical names of plants and trees isn’t the aim, but it is true that naming creates commitment. That is why we call our loved ones by nicknames. Everywhere, in print and social media, I’ve been reading about the 15,000 trees in Delhi that the government wants killed to enable the creation of infrastructure, part of its relay race that it imaginatively calls development. Though we live in the age of numbers — of a democracy that is decided by numbers and popularity that is dependent on the number of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ and ‘stars’ — it is debilitating to reduce the trees to a number like that. It passes through our memory in the same way that headlines such as “12 more children killed in Syria” do now. Our conscience, both individual and collective, has become immune to the march of numbers.

Why don’t we condemn such routine murders of trees by elected bodies with the same rage and intolerance as we do when countries fight wars? Why does our vocabulary of condemnation of tree killers not include words such as the holocaust, for instance? Why will these elected bodies and institutions not be taken to court and tried for mass slaughter, like they would be were they to murder citizens? Should our polity not be redefined to include the human and the non-human (a weird binary!)? Should the right to live apply only to a State’s human citizens?

Along with our vocabulary, our academic disciplines, too, need to change. Where are our historians, and where are the chapters in textbooks that give us a history of plant slaughter and the heinous crimes against plant life? Such histories of dominance and subordination were instrumental in helping movements of the marginalised, of gender, race and caste. Where are our slogan writers who condense a history of indifference into an effective and lively slogan like ‘Black Lives Matter’? ‘Plant Lives Matter’ as much, but do we care? Where are legislators like Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Undarico Pinto who will fight for the rights of plants? We vote for parties that promise us economic gain or those who stand against communalism — both of these benefit only humans. Why are there no political parties in India that have the rights and lives of plants on their election manifesto? Can we push for legislation that punishes people and institutions for killing trees much the same way we have laws to punish people guilty of homicide? But before the laws, there’s our conscience — do we hold a person cutting a tree as guilty as one killing a man?

I’ve read, with empathy and interest, posts and articles about the utility and beauty of the trees of Delhi — praise for their leaves and flowers and fruits in particular. Nowhere have I read about the roots, parts of which will remain buried after the trees are sawed and taken to factories. Our imagination has not egged us to think of the area as a graveyard. A few years ago I watched a documentary that equated the roots of trees with human brains. I was looking for equivalences between plants and humans, and was thrilled to discover this, even though it meant that a human was a plant doing a headstand or vice versa. The memory of watching that documentary and the conclusions drawn in it have come back to me as I’ve followed the people’s movement against tree felling. Roots as brains — a large area with buried plant skulls in it is the equivalent of a mass graveyard. If only institutions drugged by capitalist notions of development had imagination, they — and their operators — might have been scared and scarred by the thought of erecting their cathedrals on graveyards. We use roots as metaphor and, in our idioms, most often to indicate depth. Reading about roots since watching the documentary has almost convinced me of the intelligence in communication that is now attributed to them by scientists. I now want to know whether it would be wrong for me to imagine something catastrophic to humans on their behalf — The Revenge of the Roots.



Sumana Roy, author of How I Became a Tree, writes from Siliguri;

Twitter: @SumanaSiliguri

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Published on July 20, 2018
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