Thursday, June 5, 2014

Environmental Decay as Metaphor for Civilizational Decay: Reading Gieve Patel’s Poem '' On Killing a Tree'' on World Environment Day

Today, June 5, is World Environment Day and on this occasion I share this brilliant, almost legendary, poem of one of our most gifted painters, playwrights and Indian English poets, Gieve Patel (b. 1940). I know Gieve Patel, a practicing doctor, only due to this poem, which I had an opportunity to teach to a few class 12th students at a coaching centre in Delhi sometime in 1997-98. I think it was prescribed in English Elective course of CBSE, and the moment I came across the poem, it instantly cast a spell on me. (Perhaps it is also prescribed in class 9th).

The killing of a tree is of course the most obvious part of it, but as you read it along, you find that it actually is talking of lot of other things--friendships, human relationships, family bonds, wisdom, in fact, about all other kinds of social and cultural bonds, so to say. It is not with a bang--'not a simple jab of the knife''--that one can cut the tree off, rather it requires a much deeper instinct to destroy things around, the instinct to wipe out completely, to cut to pieces long and deep associations to kill a tree.

Actually, tree serves as a perfect metaphor for the inter-relatedness, inter-dependence of human society within itself and vi-a-vis the surrounding nature and environment. It thus ultimately acquires a very aggressive stance to underline the purposelessness, nay the impossibility, of doing so because one would be doing that at the cost of finishing the universe itself, so to say. Its 'root is to be pulled out', and that would require the ‘choking out' of the sun and the air themselves: And then it is done. This last line falls so angrily and desperately on our head that one starts to get too restive to manage.

Naturally, a poem can be read at various levels and one is free to have one's own interpretations of the same, but I, for one, can not resist to look at the symbolism of environmental decay used to define civilizational decay, where killing is not only a manual act, but rather more about denying and annihilating the otherness of the other beings, other cultures, other societies. A strange mix of pain, anguish and anger sustains the poem making it a near perfect one. And I sometimes  try to make out the kind of conflict that must have been rankling Gieve, who as a  practicing doctor, knows too well how killing of life and values go against his professional calling which is essentially meant to save the same.

On a personal note, I would like to mention the joy that I had of interacting briefly with Gieve Patel while bringing out noted poet Eunice De Souza's edited anthology Both Sides of Sky: Post Independence Indian Poetry in English, where we used one of his paintings on the cover of the book. The anthology also contains his poems, including this one. Those interested in knowing more about Gieve can look at these and similar links:

Kumar Vikram

Brass - Figure axing a Tree - on a slate base
Image Courtesy:
On Killing a Tree

It takes much time to kill a tree,

Not a simple jab of the knife

Will do it. It has grown
Slowly consuming the earth,
Rising out of it, feeding
Upon its crust, absorbing
Years of sunlight, air, water,
And out of its leperous hide
Sprouting leaves.

So hack and chop
But this alone wont do it.
Not so much pain will do it.
The bleeding bark will heal
And from close to the ground
Will rise curled green twigs,
Miniature boughs
Which if unchecked will expand again
To former size.

The root is to be pulled out -
Out of the anchoring earth;
It is to be roped, tied,
And pulled out - snapped out
Or pulled out entirely,
Out from the earth-cave,
And the strength of the tree exposed,
The source, white and wet,
The most sensitive, hidden
For years inside the earth.

Then the matter
Of scorching and choking
In sun and air,
Browning, hardening,
Twisting, withering,
And then it is done.

Gieve Patel

(From POEMS, published by Nissim Ezekiel, Bombay 1966)