Published in La.Lit on 4 September 2020
Giving And Taking
I was surprised, initially, when I heard that the theatre collective Katha Ghera had decided to inaugurate their new space, Kausi Theater, with an adaptation of Shel Silverstein’s children’s book, The Giving Tree: “Dayalu Rukh”.
The story is simple and involves a boy and a tree. It opens with the boy swinging from the tree’s branches and eating her apples. After some time has passed, the boy returns. He has bigger needs; he doesn’t seem too pleased with life. But the tree is happy to offer him her fruits, then her branches and then her trunk so the boy can sell them. More time passes. The boy grows old. And the tree, thanks to the boy, has been reduced to a stump. But the tree is still happy because at least the old man can rest on it. What a sweet tale of generous friendship! What a universal story!
Both children and adults have been able to connect to Silverstein’s story since its publication in 1964. Unsurprisingly, an equally large contingent of critics name The Giving Tree as one of their least favourite children’s books. A 2014 article in The New Yorker quotes a blogger who argues that the book “encourages selfishness, narcissism, and codependency”. For environmentalists, the book is a metaphor for human pillage. And one critic rightfully asks whether anyone would gift this book to a new mother because it implies that mothers should always give without expecting anything in return, and be happy (“and the tree was happy” is a recurring line).
That’s why, for me, the story’s power is centred in the potential it provides for sophisticated conversations, not in its superficial reading of friendship. Known for ending many of his children’s books on a note of ambiguity, Silverstein himself claimed that the book had no message. The writer was a longtime columnist for Playboy magazine and The Giving Tree came as an anomaly in his career. He often struggled to explain it during interviews. “It’s about a boy and a tree,” he once said. “It has a pretty sad ending.” His subsequent collection of poems for children, Where the Sidewalk Ends, was banned across the US for years because it was blamed for promoting rebellion and disrespect towards authority, among other things. Therein lies the value of Silverstein’s work and that’s why his stories and poems are timeless. A work of literature becomes a classic not because of its sugary sweetness but because of the confusing aftertaste. Simplicity might be initially appealing but complexity has a longer shelf-life. “What would you do if you were in the boy’s position?” one might ask a teenager in Kathmandu. The answer is not straightforward. The teenager might search within and think deeper. But I would caution any parent to use this story as an example of an ideal relationship.
Now onto my initial reaction to the theatrical production, ongoing at Kausi until July 8. I had made up my mind that the story was too static to be dramatized. After all, it has only two characters and there is hardly any action. Even the illustrations in the book are black-and-white line drawings. But director Akanchha Karki’s reimagination is layered and dynamic. A cast of seven actors together embody the lone tree. For most of the play, these actors remain mostly still; their arms are branches that gently sway in sync to an imaginary breeze. Periodically, they fold their bodies inwards, just so, to convey the tree’s gentleness. The actors take turns to provide voice, animating an inanimate living being. There is even a surreal moment when the tree disintegrates, when the actors scatter on stage, taking the audience to unknown emotional territory. This “Longing Dance” is choreographed by Sumnima Sampang, who is also one of the actors.
The flow is adeptly handled by everyone involved. And the action and dialogue are accompanied by song and poetry. The music is perhaps the most effective and successful aspect of this production. In this rewriting, Karki has included words by Nepali poets Bhim Nidhi Tiwari and Madhav Prasad Ghimire. Composer Adhishree “Addy” Dhungana’s voice provides beautiful interludes to the play to indicate the passing of time, to portray the transformations wrought by age and to convey the sorrow of witnessing the reduction of the leafy and lively tree to a short, sad stump.
“There’s music inside you…There’s light inside you…There’s life inside you…There’s God inside you…” are excerpts of phrases recited by the actors from Ghimire’s “Bana Jiwanta Manisa”, which speak directly to the conundrum at hand – how to receive a story which may or may not have an embedded message? What to take away from this Dayalu Rukh? But this is precisely what Karki is offering. The inclusion of these lines is her way of subtly nudging audience members to contemplate and investigate. Onomatopoeic Nepali words from another poem by Ramesh Khakurel (“Jhilikka, Sanakka, Lasakka, Chasakka”) are poignantly voiced by the remaining actors towards the end to describe the indescribable ephemerality of a spark (of lightning, of a matchstick, of life), of a smell (an elusive smell that sometimes fills one’s senses), of a stretching (in this case, the stretching of time), and of the sharpness of pain (the kind of pain the origin and meaning of which are unknown).
Dayalu Rukh, which runs for less than an hour, is deftly produced. The costumes are earthy. The lighting, hazy at times, imitates twilight. Although lead actor Ingi Hopo Koinch Sunuwar’s depiction of the little boy is jarring and artificial, he is able to impart aloofness to the young man and finally, as the bent, wobbly elder, he brings his performance full circle, providing a snapshot of a lifetime.
Karki and Gunjan Dixit, co-founders of Katha Ghera, should be applauded for their work and for their determination. Much attention was given to their leadership on opening night on June 22, and why not? The pursuit of any kind of arts is still discouraged in Nepal; women are still subjugated in society. The organizers invited notable female academics, artists and actors to the performance, and Srijana Subba spoke about the idea of Katha Ghera (“story circle”): no one is ahead and no one is behind; everyone stands together. I think of it as a circle of stories: a reminder that we are all circled by our stories at all times, that it is our stories that make us human, that these circles often overlap and connect at unexpected points, that one is marked by these pointed connections, that we have no choice but to move ahead, carrying these stories, connected and marked. And perhaps our salvation and power lie in standing together and sharing our stories, loudly and clearly.
Because it turns out that I am surprised also because of my own reactions to both The Giving Tree and to Dayalu Rukh, which have evolved into something more layered. I remember when I first read the book. I was much younger and my response was raw, perhaps half-formed – after all, how could one not be moved by the sacrifices of the eponymous tree? Now, I know better. If I were the man in the story, would I really, so selfishly, chop away a thing of such beauty? Would I hack away at a branch, then the trunk, to build a boat for myself, or a house? Or would I simply sit under its leaves, in its shade, just to breathe, to just be? Perhaps I would have eventually walked away, knowing there’s more to see, out there in the world, wanting instead to bring something back as an offering to this lovely being. The play was refreshing. I was reminded once again – as one is reminded in encountering a creative work oozing with beauty – to leave all assumptions at the door, to be open to possibilities. Like that moment as I waited, childlike, for the opening scene. I was curious; I was full of questions. Like that odd hour recently, neither morning, night or day, there I was: half-awake half-asleep, surprised by my own thoughts, teeming with stories, thinking of that chap named Shel, of his bizarre life, of his bold body of work. The Silverstein who wrote so originally, for adults, for children and for all of us. What did he give? What did I take? I was compelled to ask myself.
One thing is clear: here I am, marked again. My response, riper; the taste, bittersweet.
I am surprised.