The Woman Who Climbed Trees review: Addictive, evocative and haunting

Smriti Ravindra blends myth and folklore in her debut novel

The Woman Who Climbed Trees opens with a wedding. Meena, 14, stands on a terrace in Darbhanga eating roasted peanuts when she is told about 21-year-old Manmohan, her future husband. He is the first in his family from Nepal to study in India. Her mother, Kaveri, claims he is “a prize”, and a “proper Majnu”.

But Manmohan is no Majnu; instead, he dreams of finding his place in Kathmandu and leaves his wife with her dour mother-in-law Sawari Devi in Sabaila.

Ravindra blends folklore and myth to create a world that is dazzling, populated by women and brought alive with their stories.

Manmohan had studied at the Banaras Hindu University and dreams of democracy. It is through his eyes that readers see the politics of Nepal and India.

At the beginning of the novel, as the barber’s wife applies mehndi on Meena’s hands, she talks about marriages, mothers and motherland. “The mother and the motherland are not like the arms or legs of a body, which when decayed can be amputated,” she says. “The mother and the motherland are the heart and the liver of the body. They cannot be removed. The mother remains, and the motherland too, in daylight and in darkness... What is mother and motherland to a woman. They are impermanent dreams.” This loss lies at the heart of the book, one that is carried through generations and remembered.

The story is personal, fuelled by the memory of her mother’s longing for her home in Nepal. It is addictive, evocative and haunting.

The novel, Smriti Ravindra’s first, traces Meena’s journey to Sabaila from Darbhanga as she tries to build her life in a country that is not hers. Ravindra brings alive the squelch of Sabaila mud, the mountains of Kathmandu and the green of her garden as she writes with longing of the Madheshi experience in Nepal. The politics may be familiar, but Ravindra makes it palpable and real. It is not institutional history that she weaves―the linking of Nepal with India―but one that is remembered and felt. She blends folklore and myth to create a world that is dazzling, populated by women and brought alive with their stories. And these characters―whether it is Sukumariya, the old babysitter of Sabaila who carries the memory of the struggle of the first Indians who came to Nepal; Kaveri, Meena’s mother who lives fiercely when her husband dies; Kumud, Meena’s sister-in-law trying to keep up with the tasks and her twins; Meena, fragile and strong at the same time; or Preeti, who watches her mother unspool―make The Woman Who Climbed Trees deeply felt and impossible to forget. The heart beats with these stories, stories that make you weep and ones that you will instinctively recognise.

The Woman Who Climbed Trees

By Smriti Ravindra

Published by HarperCollins India

Pages 416; Price Rs599