‘Your thorns are the best part of you’

Sumana Roy | Updated on November 29, 2019 Published on November 14, 2019

Two sides: ‘Imagining myself as a flower was perhaps not as difficult’   -  Getty Images/iStockphoto

Most of us know very little about the thorn except its stinging sharpness

It suddenly occurs to me that in the many, many instances where I have imagined myself as a tree, I have never seen myself as one with thorns. I’ve used the word ‘prickly’ for others, and quite obviously not for myself. These thoughts force me to become self-conscious — I immediately try to imagine myself as a shrub with thorns. A few moments later, I am rubbing my arms. I’m not sure whether I feel my hair follicles hardening into spines. A thought follows immediately as an aside: Imagining myself as a flower was perhaps not as difficult. I say this because conditioning has taught us to recognise thorns as the harmful part of the binary: Phool aur kaante, flower and thorn.

What exactly is a thorn? Most of us know very little about the thorn except its dominating characteristic — its stinging sharpness. How are thorns formed? And who are its relatives? I replay high school botany inside my head: Any ‘spinose’ structure, whether thorns, spines, prickles or spinose teeth are hard (or hardened) extensions of buds, leaves, roots or stems. I can also vaguely remember other things — thorns are modifications of shoots, spines of leaves, prickles of epidermis, spinose teeth of leaf margins. This botanical information is not what really interests me. What does is the idea of ‘modification’. That the need to develop protective mechanism must manifest itself in this manner, that to protect oneself one has to inadvertently cause injury to the attacker.

There’s also the severely childish realisation — not all plants or trees have thorns. How do they protect themselves? And, of course, a related thought: Is it imperative that we develop physical and emotional gear to protect ourselves from possible injury, possible hurt, possible attack? And what about those who do not have this skill? It might seem laborious to transplant this to human life, but as someone who borrows the ethics of the plant world by which to live my life, the plant-human analogy seems most natural. I think of calluses, warts, styes, the hardening of skin; I also think of the heart, the human heart, and how life and its creaky joints cause the heart’s muscles to harden, its arteries to clog, and, metaphorically, for the heart to become ‘stony’. These are perhaps the metaphorical equivalents of a process similar to the ‘modifications’ in plants that cause hardness. Perhaps because I don’t want the analogy to be cast away, I hold on to it: why are the plant’s modifications — its defence mechanism — sharp, and not mere accretion and deposition, like they are on human skin?

I cannot go to plants with that question — I do not yet understand their language — and so I go to humans. My first stop is a favourite book by a favourite writer: George Eliot’s Middlemarch. In it is this quote: “Marriage, which has been the bourne of so many narratives is still a great beginning, as it was to Adam and Eve, who kept their honeymoon in Eden, but had their first little one among thorns and thistles of the wilderness.” Eliot is almost echoing the Buddhist binary of heaven and this life (the smoothness of petals to the harsh friction of pebbles) here — positing the garden of Eden with ‘thorns and thistles of the wilderness”. And yet, the married couple choose thorns over the smoothness of Eden. It is a pattern I notice in the few stops my mind chooses arbitrarily. After Eliot is Wordsworth, his poem The Thorn. It is not the Biblical equivalences that I remember from having read it long ago but its opening lines:

“There is a Thorn — it looks so old,

In truth, you’d find it hard to say

How it could ever have been young,

It looks so old and grey.”

I remember them because it states the obvious that we don’t care to notice — that a thorn looks mostly old. I, almost immediately, check my memories of warts and calluses — do they look old too? (Who has seen a baby with calluses, after all?)

There is Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, where he borrows images from the plant world: “Winged seeds”, “decaying leaves”, “azure moss”, “oozy woods”, and so on. But the most lasting image of the poem is undoubtedly one which has to do with thorns: “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” These lines inevitably remind me of the crown of thorns placed on the head of Jesus just before his crucifixion. I feel sad for the thorns — that they should be given such a poor moral score. And so, as I wait for sleep to come, it the opposite of how one imagines thorns, I am relieved to be reminded of Marianne Moore’s poem Roses Only, with its closing line — “Guarding the/infinitesimal pieces of your mind, compelling audience to/the remark that it is better to be forgotten than to be/ remembered too violently,/your thorns are the best part of you.”

As sleep comes, softly, like time, I wonder which part is the ‘best part’ of the one I love — their ‘thorns’. The hand always wants to rest on the heart when in sleep.

Sumana Roy   -  BUSINESS LINE


Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became A Tree; Twitter: @SumanaSiliguri

Published on November 14, 2019
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