Introduction

‘If I Were a Tree’ reveals the Indian society’s complicated and cruel caste system. The poet wishes he would have been born as a tree rather than a person, because the human race still practices immoral discrimination based on caste. The poet, on the other hand, turns to nature, which he believes does not discriminate against any creature regardless of size, colour, habitat or gender. Mudnakudu Chinnaswamy aspired to be a tree since, unlike a human born into a low caste household, trees are not subjected to prejudice or humiliation.

About the Poet

Mudnakudu is a famous Kannada poet from the Mudnakudu village. His major interest lies in writing poetry. His passions include anything from culture and theatre to social service. Apart from English, Spanish, and Hebrew, he has been translated into numerous Indian languages. He holds an M.Com., M.A., and a D.Lit. in Social Sciences He works at the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) as a Director (Finance).

About the Translator

Rowena Hill was born in 1938 in England and studied in New Zealand. She also studied in Italy and India (University of Mysore). She lives in Mérida, Venezuela, and has taught English Literature at the Universidad de Los Andes. Some of Kannada’s most well-known poems have been translated into Spanish by her. More importantly, she has translated various literary masterpieces from Indian languages into English and Spanish.

Theme

In the poem, ‘If I Was a Tree,’ Mudnakudu Chinnaswamy expresses his suffering, disappointments, anguish, and frustrations. He raises his voice against the unjust class system. For centuries, the caste system has caused conflict among humans by dividing them and building barriers. In today’s society, knowledge gives us power. Discrimination on the basis of caste is prohibited under the constitution. Unfortunately, the complicated web of politics, bureaucracy, and stereotypical attitudes makes it difficult to totally eradicate it.

Structure

The poem is written with intense sentimentalism toward the lower caste, their pain, and their indignation. The poem is divided into four stanzas, each with a different line length. Because it is written in free verse, there is no rhyme pattern.

Poem

Stanza 1

If I was a tree
The bird wouldn’t ask me 
Before it built its nest 
What caste I am. 
When sunlight embraced me 
my shadow wouldn’t feel defiled.
My friendship with the cool breeze 
and the leaves would be sweet.

The poet explains that if he were a tree, the bird would not inquire about his caste before making its nest. This shows that the poet has felt embarrassed of his caste as a result of the caste system on several occasions. He says that his shadow would not feel soiled when the sunshine embraced him. The tree would also have a beautiful relationship with the cool breeze and the leaves would be sweet.

Stanza 2

Raindrops wouldn’t turn back 
taking me for a dog-eater. 
When I branch out further from my roots 
Mother Earth wouldn’t flee shouting for a bath.

When he states that raindrops won’t stop thinking of him as a dog eater, it’s clear that the individuals from whom he had expectations, much like a tree hoping for water, always rejected and insulted him. Then he says that when he spreads out his roots, Mother Earth will not flee in dread of sullying its image. This means that he was pushed out by the upper caste because he belonged to a lower caste. ‘Branching out’ refers to lower caste individuals discovering and utilizing their full potential, which the upper castes prevent them from doing.

Stanza 3

The sacred cow would scrape her body on my bark,
scratching wherever it itched 
and the three hundred thousand gods sheltering inside her
would touch me.

The poet goes on to explain that if he were a tree, the sacred cow, which inhabited over three hundred thousand Gods, would scratch herself and touch him using that justification. This indicates that he has been refused access to a number of sacred and holy places. It is a paradoxical expression that demonstrates how the higher caste worships cows yet overlooks the divinity of their fellow people.

Stanza 4

Who knows,
at the end,
hacked into pieces of dry wood,
burning in the holy fire,
I might be made pure,
or becoming the bier for a sinless body
be borne on the shoulders of four good men.

Finally, the poet justifies his desire to be a tree by saying that being a tree would guarantee his death by being burned in holy fire or turning into a bier. This shows that he is aware that he will be despised even after death, and that he will not be permitted to be cremated in a decent manner. As a result, he would be condemned both during and after his life as a person, but as a tree, he would live in peace and dignity.