Of nymphs and flowering trees
By Lora Tomas
20 March 2015
Female rites of passage – Ramanujan’s Kannada tales and Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
She has written her story on branches
and sewn them together darkly with leaves
a forest crowns her head
grows in her hair
her voice thickly builds…
She has left her body somewhere else.
– From Trina Nileena Banerjee’s ‘The Witch Rain’
Trina Nileena Banerjee’s witch rain is pouring down on an impervious city, rapping in primitive staccatos and tap dancing on its roofs. This electrifying rain is also a dispossessed, disembodied woman, her body sylvan and numb, her voice a cluster of murmurs. But this witch-rain-woman floods and inundates the city with bits and pieces, droplets of her memory. She wants to collect these pieces; she yearns to recollect.
Banerjee’s poem resembles the imagery and themes of two older storytellers who, despite their vastly differing contexts, make some timeless comments on the nature of womanhood, sexuality and fecundity: A K Ramanujan and Ovid.
In 1997, Penguin Books India published an edition of 77 Kannada stories entitled A Flowering Tree and Other Oral Tales from India (compiled by Stuart Blackburn and Alan Dundes), which Ramanujan had collected from across his home state of Karnataka over two decades. An accomplished poet, scholar, translator and folklorist, Ramanujan died in 1993 without ever finalising the essay ‘A Flowering Tree: A Woman’s Tale’, a lecture draft appended at the end on what could be considered the most intriguing story in this volume.
‘A Flowering Tree’ unfolds like this. The younger of two sisters – whose bodies have just begun to undergo the changes of puberty – decides, of her own accord, to morph into a flowering tree. She wants to help her poor mother financially by exploiting the potential capital of her body, by selling flower garlands. To activate the metamorphosis she will need assistance. Her sister has to spill a bucketful of water over her head while she, Buddha-like, sits in meditation and chants. Once her body has become a flowering tree, the sister plucks her flowers, taking extra care not to damage the stamens, petals or leaves. To revert back to human form requires another pail of water, another splashing.
For a short time everything runs smoothly; the nearby court can’t get enough garlands and buys basketfuls every day. But one day the prince is so taken with the flowers’ redolence that he follows the seller back to her home. Unseen, he witnesses the transformation and is both shocked and compulsively attracted to the flowering girl.
Back at the palace he throws a tantrum. The girls’ mother – who apparently knows nothing of what the sisters have been up to – doesn’t need much royal persuasion to give her younger daughter in marriage to the love-struck prince. After all, her daughters are a burden to her, being…well, girls.
On their first night together the prince is neither interested in her bridal modesty (a result of fear and reservation) nor her ordinary self. He wants some fetish love: she should transform into the flowering tree, he’ll watch and then they can make love on the blanket of flowers. No, no, she protests; she is neither a goddess nor a witch, so tries to evade his suggestions. But he is unrelenting – if not for me, then for whom? The emotional blackmail works. Defeated, she tells him what to do and how to detach the flowers carefully. Their sexual extravaganza lasts for days; that is, until the prince’s younger sister stumbles upon the profusion of crushed flowers below the honeymooners’ window and turns acutely jealous of the showiness and squander. Spying on her flowering sister-in-law and gaping at her efflorescent body adds resoluteness to her new emotion.
One day, she invites her teenage girlfriends to join her in the orchard: they’ll have fun, they’ll swing and they’ll “make a spectacle” of her sister-in-law for their private entertainment. The girls are savage in their play. They achingly want to partake in the flowering girl’s alchemy, become initiates like her. When she pretends that she cannot turn herself into a tree for them she is once again cornered by guilt: “Do you do that only for your lovers?” the girls ask. So she lets them damage her in their recklessness: first they only half transform her into a tree, then they break her branches and shoots.
When their Saturnalia reaches the high-water mark, it starts pouring oceans. The sky cracks with the zigzag stitches of lightning; resounding thunder vibrates through the soaked ground. The flowering girl-tree can’t turn human again. She is maimed, a “wounded carcass” with no hands or feet, left naked in the deluge. Muddy whirlpools build up around her, take her for a swirl and spit her out into a ditch.
The following morning, some cotton wagon drivers notice “a half-human thing groaning in the gutter”, “a shapeless mass, a body.” But her face is still beautiful, and the men talk dirty. One of them finally picks her up and loads her onto his cart. In the next town, he lays her onto a crumbling pavilion, ruin onto ruin.
After a futile search for his wife, the repentant and devastated prince (slowly growing out of his callousness) leaves the palace to wander the world aimlessly. Meanwhile, the thing-girl somehow manages to reach the town of her elder sister-in-law, whose servants notice the creature’s unusual resemblance to the girl they knew. They bring her home and dress her wounds, “But they could not make her whole”.
Here we dive into another river of stories – the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses, penned two millennia ago. This long poem strings together rewritten and parodied Greek and Roman myths that have bodily transmutation at their centre. It is a treasure trove of wacky and violent tales recording human and divine lapses in decorum (to put it mildly). Several share some imagery with Ramanujan’s tale, though Ovid’s metaphors of girls turning into trees have them becoming wooden, stiff, voiceless, rather than emphasising their lush, life-giving abilities.
The first, in Book I, takes place in the new world that has just emerged out of the great flood that Jupiter had sent to wipe the erring humankind of the Iron Age (the Greek equivalent of the Kaliyuga) off the face of the earth. The story is about a young nymph called Daphne, who transforms into a laurel tree to avoid being raped by Apollo. The new world, it seems, is not so new after all.
Daphne is a wild, free-born creature who dresses in the skins of animals she kills herself. She is also a zealous man-hater, sworn never to marry. Though her father insists on grandchildren, she thinks that marriages “smacked of crime”. Here, Ovid might be implying the commercial side of marriage, where a girl’s virginity is exchanged for her lifelong economic security, or the stability of her clan. Daphne is condemned by her body that is too beautiful to remain intact. In other words, she cannot possibly avoid being raped; she can only delay it.
Pierced by the vengeful Cupid’s determined arrow (because Apollo had once told Cupid that arrows and bows are not for chubby-cheeked boys, but real men like himself), Apollo pursues Daphne with dogged perseverance. While his pleading and boasting might have swayed another kind of girl (one who doesn’t skin wild beasts and wear them, perhaps), Daphne is unmoved.
So flee she must. In the animated description of the wind playing with her clothes and silken mane as she is running from the god in heat, Ovid provides a subtle provocation. When he writes that her beauty is enhanced by her flight, he sees her through the sex-crazed gaze of Apollo, not through the lens of her own panic and rush (which are dealt with a few lines later). However aestheticised, this scene (Daphne knows) is a prelude to rape. Breathless and bewildered, she quickly evokes her father – the river god Peneus – urging him to “destroy this beauty that pleases too well!” He acts immediately, and a feeling of woodenness spreads throughout her body, completely immobilising her; in the tiniest fraction of a second Daphne has become a tree. But her loveliness still shines through her palpitating leaves, and Apollo wraps himself around her graceful trunk like a poison ivy, wetting her sleek bark with kisses.
Another girl, Dryope, is introduced in a story in Book IX. The tale is narrated by Iole, the protagonist’s half-sister, who has seen everything unravel in front of her eyes but was unable to stop it. Dryope is raped by Apollo – a relapser by now – who is in the form of a serpent. Nine months later she gives birth to a son. Nevertheless, a man named Andraemon marries her. This, one could argue, would have been just the right moment to end this story. But things are not what they seem.
One day, Dryope takes a walk around a pond in which nymphs live (which was prohibited), carrying flower garlands for them. All the while she is breastfeeding her “sweet burden”, her baby boy. Spotting a lovely lotus tree, she picks a flower for her son. The tree responds with a trickle of blood. This was Lotis, Iole later found out, a nymph who morphed into a tree to flee the oversexed Priapus, “altering her features, keeping her name”. Scared out of her wits, Dryope’s instinct is to run. But her feet have already started to feel wooden, immobile. They have begun growing into ground-like roots. A ligneous feeling, a numbness, creeps up her legs, and travels all the way to her neck for one final choke. Her hair, she learns, is a fistful of leaves. Only her face is left unscathed, beautiful still.
“I can speak no more,” she mumbles to her father and husband, who have just arrived on the scene. She bids them take care of her branches and leaves, and manages to spare a cautionary line for her son, once he’s old enough to try to make sense of it: “Let him still fear lakes, and pick no flowers from the trees, and think all shrubs are the body of the goddess”. This is when her body is irreversibly changed and she becomes a black poplar woman. The story leaves her here.
The Kannada tale, in contrast, opts for a very different ending. The wandering prince, now tongue-tied and in rags, appears at his married sister’s doorstep. She nurses and pampers him, but he still keeps mum. To untie him, she even sends her maids to his bedroom. But it doesn’t work. Nothing does. In one last desperate attempt, she calls for the ‘thing’.
The prince and she fumble around on the bed (she even gives him a massage), and after a prolonged look he recognises her to be his lost wife. Then the floodgates of her speech burst open, and she narrates her story to him, remembering its fugitive pieces. They decide to give it another try. He helps her turn into a tree again and fixes her broken branches and leaves, his fingers pliant, almost weightless, as he is mending her. And this is how she becomes whole again.
The motif of the tree, whether flowering or withering, recurs across cultures and time in connection with female creativity and procreativity – in tales, myths, poetry and ritual. There is something about trees that makes them such apt symbols for the time of transition and liminality in women’s lives, the interim between girlhood and womanhood, when boundaries are still permeable and rules have not been set (which happens again in menopause, but that’s another story). In this period, everything is possible: bodies are shifting shape, models are being recast, girls turn into trees and then become girls again (if everything goes well).
Women probably told stories like ‘A Flowering Tree’, Ramanujan muses, as cautionary tales for girls to beware of brutes and rouges (and pick gentlemen instead), perhaps as forewarnings to boys and men not to manhandle women, or as a kind of sublimation of their own early, sometimes traumatic experiences. Storytelling enabled them to revisit a haunting memory and hopefully heal it, he continues. Narrating an actual past event – now brewed into a bewitching story that leaves out the identities and personal details – in front of the community must have felt liberating, and a bit naughty, too.
The cautionary tale element is present in Ovid’s Metamorphoses as well, though more directly in the story of Dryope. There, it is both implied by the narrative framework (the pregnant Iole is telling the story to her mother-in-law) and in the lines that Dryope utters, to be relayed later to her son. Charles Segal suggests that the former defines the strictly female environment in which the stories like this might have been circulated, and that Iole could be offering a counter-narrative to the mainstream panegyrics of her lover Hercules’s stunts and heroics.
The protagonists of these tales encounter their own and male sexuality for the first time, the latter proving traumatic in the case of Metamorphoses. The difference between the Kannada tales and Ovid’s stories lies in how the trauma of the girls’ first experiences is digested – whether or not it ultimately becomes an initiation, or simply benumbs and stupefies the protagonists, freezes them in shock. It is precisely in this, where these narratives take the events once the immediate crisis has passed, that their value as compasses or signposts, as the countercultural rites of passage, lies. ‘A Flowering Tree’ reads almost as a map.
To turn into a flowering tree, the heroine needs assistance from whoever is around, and she wouldn’t even attempt the transformation – voluntarily that is – if she knew she wasn’t safe. This help, in its most pragmatic aspects, consists of somebody else pouring water over her to trigger the blossoming, or to bring her back to human form again. Her flowering is dependant on others, and she is, Ramanujan observes, most exposed (and therefore vulnerable) at the apogee of her (pro)creativity, her flowering. But it is this same willing exposure and laying down of arms, he continues, that can heal her once she has become senseless from successive maltreatment. The heroine lets her husband, the prince – now softened by experience – mend her by listening to her narrative. As if abiding by contemporary psychotherapy guidelines, she has to revisit the terrifying events again, undo them step by step, and replace horror with beauty within the same context. In short, she has to remember to forget.
When it comes to Ovid’s protagonists, their story stops with their trauma – there are no exits envisaged, no solutions offered. Both Daphne and Dryope have irretrievably lost their voices, and therefore their only instruments with which to attempt wholeness again. They have become stiff, immobile, expressionless – tree-like.
Thinking about Ovid’s metamorphic bodies, Segal notes that they are “porous” and “fluid”, chameleons that perfectly blend with their landscapes. These bodies finally take on a shape that best reflects an emotion or character of the person in question. Seen in this light, could Dryope’s transmutation be simply the externalisation of her internal processes, of her own unresolved knots of fear and terror? The female body in the Metamorphoses, Segal illustrates, is constantly being objectified and subject to an aggressive, lust-driven male gaze. Rape – which happens often and quite erratically – renders a woman “entrapped” or “enclosed”, according to Ovid. Isn’t then Dryope’s or Daphne’s immobilisation, their numbing due to the unprocessed trauma of (attempted) rape, best embodied in the form of a tree – still graceful, but anesthetised, mute and seemingly unresponsive? Could the focus on breasts and lactation in Dryope’s story be read as an indicator of her postpartum depression? We see her breastfeeding her son at the beginning, her milk “warm” and flowing, but when the morphing starts, the child is ineffectively trying to wrap its thirsty mouth around her hard breasts covered in a bra of bark, from which the milk has stopped running.
Stories and myths as the unofficial rites of passage might have been – and can continue to be – used in lieu of the invasive rituals devised by patriarchy and imposed on women (sometimes even internalised by them). Just think of African female circumcision practices, for example, traditionally rites of passage whose function is to prepare a girl, or to make her eligible, for married life. The numbification here is deliberate; it is a means of control. Or, take the example of the events depicted in Digvijay Singh’s 2001 film Maya. It is a brutal story about a girl in a South Indian village who has just started menstruating and is ritually raped by village priests to ‘inaugurate’ her sexuality (or, rather, appropriate it). Her parents, firmly fixed in caste consciousness and tradition, seem to think that submitting their daughter to this sadistic ‘rite’ is the correct thing to do. They even throw a celebration afterwards, personally ensuring that the transgressive priests eat their fill.
On the other hand, existing rites in other parts of the world seem to deal with the same symbols as those employed in ‘A Flowering Tree’. Nadia Abu-Zahra studied Muslim communities in rural Tunisia, for whom various rain rites and prayers are a form of ‘spiritual passage’, enacted in times of drought. Rain (which plays a vital role in desert landscapes) galvanises, rejuvenates, purifies and ultimately assuages. They don’t call it simply ‘rain’, Abu-Zahra emphasises, but rahma, Arabic for ‘divine mercy’. Rahma inseminates the arid soil and the precious olive trees the people subsist on. The trees then erupt in milky flowers and give birth to fruit.
The prayers for rain, she writes, conclude with fertility rites performed by women in praise of Mother Tambu, or Earth. With two dry sticks crossed in their hands and dressed in ‘female’ clothes, the Tunisian girls tour the village of Sidi Ameur. On the threshold of each house a bucketful of water is emptied over them. This act ensures (to resort to metaphor again) that they can now safely metamorphose into flowering trees.
Ramanujan’s fascination with ‘A Flowering Tree’ articulates his susceptibility to the feminist or subdued perspectives in the study of Indian oral heritage, something he might have pursued deeper had he more time. He was onto something relevant and compelling, inviting us to tap into the rich repository of the so-called little traditions. In the case of this and many other related tales, the more sophisticated, fine-spun elements present in all sexes are given attention to contrast the hyper-masculinity which often characterises the ‘great’ traditions, or written canon. ‘A Flowering Tree’, as well as the two stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, are about personal sanctums and inviolable spaces, the protective boundaries around body and creativity. As such, they couldn’t be more contemporary.
~ Lora Tomas is a writer and indologist.
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