It is difficult to place Kiriti Sengupta’s novelette, The Reverse Tree in any one genre. It is a mélange of autobiography, non-conformism, magic realism and spirituality; it gets even more complex, when one of the thematic elements happens to be the transgender issue in India. Verse and prose are juxtaposed in this hybrid fiction that can be fittingly termed a monologue. The narrative moves from light hearted satire to sobriety, to counter narrative and philosophy. The issues of gender and transgender transcend the experimental format and venture into the realm of Indian socio-politics.
The reader is taken on a roller coaster ride of quick paced fragmented narratives in a stream of consciousness mode, meandering through a metafictional, monologic address to the reader, narrative gaps that leaves one gaping, creative writing exercises, the process of translation and a reflection on spirituality based on The Bhagavad Gita. Perhaps the best way to approach the book is to follow the writer, who takes you by hand on a journey through an Indian setting into the labyrinth of childhood, friendships, his medical practice, his reflections on the banyan tree (the reverse tree with aerial roots), the state of affairs with his transgender character Lara, his tenets on (trans) gender issues in India and a metaphorical closure of the journey, with philosophic reflections on The Bhagavad Gita.
The novelette opens with a poem that personifies “the reverse tree.”
my tree is stout,
it refutes the gravitational pullnot always, you know…
my roots run
against the sap!
This allegorical verse summarises the book and its inclination of going against the grain. In the opening section entitled Anti-Clock, Sengupta addresses gender inequality by questioning male dominance in “family trees,” especially when men cannot bear fruit. The rhetorical questions that address the reader in this section pose a serious challenge to Indian patriarchy. The writer opines: “Men are not physiologically enabled to bear the fruits of production, and thus they are the non-yielding entities.”
A poignant and rather bold illustration of the plight of transgender individuals in contemporary India lies in the framed narrative of Lara’s story. In India, gay sex is a punishable offence under Section 377 of the Indian Legislative Code; Sengupta remarks in a tongue in cheek fashion: “India being the spiritual kingdom of the world, is dangerously defying the scriptural implications, as gay sex has been banned by the Supreme Court of India.” The author interrogates the Indian socio-cultural attitude towards LGBT individuals, which is defying the Vedic classification of Purush, Stree and Trittiya Prakriti (The Third Sex – attributed to LGBT individuals, according to authorial interpretation). Sengupta highlights the bias against homosexuals and transgender/transsexual individuals in India and wonders how such a law can possibly exist in the world’s largest democracy. The author is convinced that his work would be termed by the literary fraternity as ‘alternative poetry’, as illustrated by the plucky and thought provoking erotic verse that introduces Lara’s story:
you entered deep into me as did sleep
the moon shined bright
in your seminal light
for many nights … for many nights
The creative light of the moon transforms into the creative energy of the novelist. In Indian Literature, the moon is seen as the comrade of lovers – the controversial connotation here is to lovers as in a homosexual relationship. The moon is also used here as a symbol of sexuality as it tends to affect the human moods in its waxing and waning forms.
The transgendered elements in Sengupta’s translation of Sumita Nandy’s Ichemoti in the poem, “Desirous Water” elicit layers of interpretations: the hermaphrodite entity that is part of all human beings, the Ardhanarishwara form of Shiva (Perhaps this is my alternative interpretation, befitting the alternative narrative within the novella.) or the Vedic “third sex” as interpreted by the writer on a metafictional note:
I‘ve my own equation of love
my he throbs in fire
while my she is coy…I worship the sun
powered by the rays
my she gives her all
as my he turns gay
The final section, “Reversal…Reverse All” introduces the reader to the battlefield of Kurukshetra, where Krishna expounds the philosophy of battle and of life to Arjuna. Several verses of The Gita are quoted and translations provided, with references to various contexts. The most noteworthy factor here is the metafictional element in the role of a translator, who lets the soul of the original poet enter him: “An efficient translator constructs a faithful mirror that reflects the soul of the original literature.” This idea is substantiated by a translation of verse II.22 from The Gita:
As a person puts on new garments while giving up the older ones, similarly the soul accepts new worldly bodies, quitting the old and useless ones.
The novelette closes on a philosophic note, poetising the surreal Reverse Tree to form a virtual circle within the novella:
numerous branches of the root
unite into two soft halves
some creases fine facing the sky
here the sun fails to light
the cloud fails to moisten
nature shelters the root
secures within an encapsulating tough skin
the shoot is long and thick
smoother skin palpating beneath.
no study of the plants, but of humans,
the words of mouth
call upon true reversal
The banyan tree symbolises the human consciousness. The tree, considered to be the tree of life in Hindu scriptures, with its roots in the sky, branches on earth and leaves that are Vedic hymns, forms the quintessence of the book. As the author suggests The Reverse Tree is a metonym for our understanding of mankind. It is left to reader response as to how the reversal is interpreted- whether it is a metaphorical reversal of the human psyche or a recognition of socio-cultural norms that are considered anti-establishment.
From “a non-poet writing poetry,” The Reverse Tree has done well for itself on the poetic front. As a reviewer specialising in poetry, I find that the verses in this hybrid novella excel the prose, which could perhaps be adorned with more stylistic paraphernalia. In this journey through the book, you cannot but admire the panache of the man, who chooses to experiment with this kind of alternative narrative. His editor Don Martin rightly warns the readers in the foreword: “Waiting for a new Kiriti Sengupta book is always a tense time. I never really know what the next work will be, but I will say it is fun to anticipate what might come!” In his future works, would Sengupta venture further into this surrealist non-conformism?
About the reviewer:
Mrs. Usha Kishore is a British poet (born in India), writer and translator, resident on the Isle of Man, where she teaches English at Queen Elizabeth II High School. Usha’s poetry and translations have been internationally published. Her poetry has won prizes in UK Poetry competitions, has been part of international projects and features in the British Primary and Indian Middle School syllabus. The winner of an Arts Council Award and a Manx Heritage Foundation Award, Usha’s debut collection On Manannan’s Isle has been published in January 2014 in the UK. A book of translations from the Sanskrit, Translations of the Divine Woman and a second collection of poetry are forthcoming from India.