Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Skinning Tree by Srikumar Sen

Those of us who have not been to boarding schools don’t understand how difficult life for a kid can be there. Apart from a few difficult situations, however, Sabby Sarkar doesn’t face too many challenges coming from his peers. But that doesn’t make Sabby’s experience at his boarding school at Gaddi pleasant. The Skinning Tree is the first book by Srikumar Sen (now 81). The novel starts in the Calcutta of the 40s and 50s where Sabby is growing up in an aristocratic Anglophone Bengali family.

Sen brings alive the Calcutta of the period effectively and successfully creates the political and social atmosphere of the time. Through the Sarkar household, Sen has brought about the duality of the world aristocratic-Anglophone Indians inhabited those days, one that included their British social equals cohabiting with their loyalty to India and sympathy for the Independence movement.

However, Sabby’s Calcutta world abruptly comes to an end when he is sent to a boarding school and finds himself in a completely different world. Of the most remarkable things at the school is the fearsome atmosphere created by discipline-enforcing sisters and brothers at the boarding. Every boy who strays from the straight line of discipline faces punishment, spanking of various degrees of severity depending on how far away you strayed.

Another hallmark of Sabby’s experience at the boarding is the numerous acts of cruelty the students carry out towards animals. This is where the book draws its title from – there is a tree outside the boarding premises on which the students throw out skinned bodies of birds and animals after sadistically killing them. Initially a little reluctant, Sabby eventually joins his boarding friends in their acts of cruelty. I felt cruelty towards animals was a manifestation of the pent up feelings caused by oppression at the boarding – cruelty inflicted on one person finds its way to another, maybe in a different form.

However, this cruelty-towards-animal part of the book can read a little unsavory. The details of torture of insects, birds are too graphic and sensitive souls will find it difficult wading through them. The book also becomes a little monotonous while the author takes you through the butchery of one animal after another by Sabby and friends. The book takes a sudden turn towards the end when a tragedy occurs.

One day Sabby finds a sister, a very authoritarian figure in the boarding, calling out to him for help standing on a ledge a fall from where would surely lead to death. At the same time, it is time for Sabby and the other boys to attend a prayer. The prayer bell has rung and heeding the sister’s call for rescue would mean reaching the prayer late and attracting punishment from one of the brothers. Sabby stops upon hearing the sister’s call for help, but as he sees his friends rush for the prayer, he follows them. Next day they find the sister’s dead body lying on the ground below the ledge.

And even after many years a contrite lingers in him. Sabby wonders should he have tried to help the sister, but wouldn’t he get late for the prayer then attracting punishment? Even if he tried to save the sister, would he, just a child, be able to really save her? He could have called others' attention to the incident, but who would listen making a dash as they were for the prayer? Or was it that when he saw the sister in a helpless situation calling out to a mere boy for help, Sabby found it hard to believe that a person of such command and authority as the sister could be so helpless – the prayer bell seemed more believable and he ran for it?

The very atmosphere of oppression and fear-psychosis which the sister had helped build finally took her life. To me The Skinning Tree is a strong indictment of the boarding life where punishment (and fear of punishment) is used as a means to enforce discipline.

After this incident Sabby visited home and never went back to the boarding.

The book has won the Tebor Jones South Asian Prize.

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