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Review: The Woman Who Climbed Trees: A Novel by Smriti Ravindra

ByShireen Quadri
Jun 03, 2023 06:42 AM IST

Set in Nepal and its borderlands in the late 20th century, The Woman who Climbed Trees presents the story of a marriage and through it, a commentary on sexuality and the status of women

 Smriti Ravindra’s The Woman Who Climbed Trees, set in Nepal and its borderlands, is an exploration into women’s lack of agency within patriarchal society. It delves into the complexities that arise when husbands are physically and emotionally distant, leaving women to confront their own vulnerabilities. It is also an unflinching look at female desire.

A Thakali woman in Népal (Bill Wassman/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

In the author’s note, Ravindra writes of the complex dynamic that has shaped the relationship between Nepal and India; a dynamic characterised by mistrust, misgivings, and an occasional eruption of conflict. However, amidst these challenges, there is an attempt to live in harmony as the Himalayan country “shapes and reshapes itself, both as a geographical marvel and a political construction.”

432pp, ₹599; HarperCollins India

The touching prologue that opens the novel tells the story of a widower searching for a bride to care for him and his children. He meets a beautiful girl who is drawn to his children’s sadness and innocence, ultimately falling in love with them. The wedding marks the beginning of a hopeful journey. The children blossom into happy individuals, and the once-quiet household becomes lively and vibrant, embodying an idyllic family.

One night, the husband discovers that his wife disappears in the middle of the night, every night, only to return before dawn. Intrigued, he secretly follows her and sees her climbing a tree. She has been relishing solitary moments there by singing songs and finding solace and contentment in her private haven. Bewildered by this discovery, the husband discusses it with his family, sparking intense speculation. They label her a witch and attribute her secretive excursions to supernatural activities. Eventually, the tree-climbing wife is punished for her transgressions.

The novel itself begins with 14-year-old Meena from Darbhanga in Bihar whose life takes a tumultuous turn when her parents arrange her marriage to 21-year-old Manmohan. In the days leading up to the wedding, after which she moves to Janakpur in Nepal, she is unable to shake off some memories. One particular night, on the eve of her eldest sister’s impending marriage, she had stumbled upon her two elder sisters engrossed in a private act. Shocked, she had quietly retreated.

In her matrimonial home, Meena feels trapped as Manmohan remains consumed by his work. She struggles to adjust to life with her tyrannical mother-in-law, Sawari Devi. Manmohan’s indifference causes a rift between the couple, further exacerbating Meena’s sense of isolation and increasing her dissatisfaction with the marriage.

Kumud, the elder daughter-in-law, and Meena assume the responsibility of managing the household and gradually develop a deep bond, akin to sisterhood. However, Meena finds herself experiencing feelings for Kumud that she knows are inappropriate. Her forbidden love for Kumud adds an unexpected layer of complexity to her already conflicted emotions. Ravindra deftly portrays her internal struggle, depicting the rawness of her desires and the agony of suppressing them in a traditionbound heteronormative society.

Her attraction for Kumud forever alters Meena’s life, yet her love remains unrequited. Meanwhile, the love between Manmohan and Meena fails to kindle even as they start a family. The novel delves into Meena’s despair as she endures multiple miscarriages before finally giving birth to a son and later, a daughter. Ravindra beautifully captures the spectrum of emotions that Meena experiences, from the intense love she feels for her children to the resentment she harbours towards her absent husband. She infuses the narrative with a delightful irreverence, blending Meena’s reality with her vibrant fantasies. To cope with her misery and loneliness, she turns to cinema: her diversion into daydreams about Bollywood stars becomes a refuge from the harsh realities of her life.

As Meena’s final days approach, the narrative transitions from the third-person to first person, with her daughter, Preeti, taking over as the storyteller, leading readers through her mother’s life and the dynamics of their family. Throughout the novel, Ravindra seamlessly incorporates cultural references — folktales, fables, songs and myths — lending depth and richness to the story.

While set in the late 20th century and largely revolving around a couple, the story transcends their journey to serve as a commentary on the status of women at large. It is a time of large scale rural-to-urban migration from the Mithila region in Bihar to Nepal. The novel captures the differences that exist between those Nepalis, who identify as “pahadi” or hill people, and the “Madhesis” from the plains, specifically the eastern and central Terai regions. The latter, who were predominantly engaged in low-skilled, menial jobs and had limited access to education, often faced discrimination.

The Woman Who Climbed Trees dwells on identity, tradition, and cultural assimilation with Meena’s journey being not just a physical one, but also an emotional and psychological voyage during which she negotiates the expectations placed upon her as a wife and daughter-in-law.

In the novel’s universe, while men enjoy the freedom to lead their lives outside the domestic sphere, women are expected to quietly dedicate themselves entirely to their marital homes. They frequently find themselves relegated to the role of household slave and despite their enormous sacrifices, find even their children being judgmental and resentful. After Meena’s mother, Kaveri, dies, her children criticise her harshly. Similarly, believing that her mother harbours a metaphorical monster within, Meena’s daughter too judges her.

Author Smriti Ravindra (Courtesy the publisher)

The characters are richly drawn and deeply human. Meena, with her desires, fears, and flaws, becomes a relatable and compelling protagonist whose story resonates with readers. Ravindra delves into her quest for love without being preachy. “You have to let the story tell itself,” says the barber’s wife to Meena. That’s exactly what the author does in the novel, allowing the story to unfurl organically, carrying the reader on its currents, along its rhythm and resonance. To a woman, mother and motherland are ‘impermanent dreams,’ Ravindra writes. It is the same for the three generations of women in the novel: Kaveri, Meena and Preeti.    

The prose exudes confidence and the story, that blends shock and surprise as it presents infidelity, incest, and lesbian relationships, keeps the reader hooked. The Woman Who Climbed Trees culminates with a return to the witch story that Meena heard on the eve of her wedding. The author juxtaposes this mythical tale against Meena’s own journey, drawing parallels and highlighting her experiences even as geographical borders become symbols of the limitations imposed upon women, both externally and internally. By navigating the terrain of same-sex desire with a delicate hand, the novel contributes to a broader conversation about inclusivity, acceptance, and the fundamental human right to love and be loved authentically, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

Shireen Quadri is the editor of The Punch Magazine Anthology of New Writing: Select Short Stories by Women Writers.

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