05 January 2016

Duty is a virtue resident in a mango seed

‘One day I saw an old man planting a tree. I asked him, “Grandfather, you will never taste the fruit of this tree”. He said “I live as though I will live for ever”. Now I live as though I will die tomorrow. Tell me, are we different or are we the same?’

The above is part of a dialogue in the classic film Zorba the Greek. The ethics associated with the old man planting a tree whose fruit he is destined never to enjoy is not Greek-specific. We are all familiar with the charming ditty where a little child asks a grandfather what he’s doing (he’s planting a mango seed) and then seeks reason for the act. 

The old man admits that he would probably not live long enough to taste a single mango. Indeed he says that he is not even thinking about it (mama lamayo min ambayak nopathami) but points out that his intention is to do his duty (yuthukama pamanak itu kota thabanemi) just as those who came before did. 

This is not a new story. We’ve had a lot of tree-planting campaigns in this country. If there’s one thing that I appreciate about the late President Premadasa it is the fact that he used his executive authority to grow trees. Today, almost two decades since he was assassinated there are miles and miles of roads outside Colombo lined with shady trees that give the impression of a green tunnel.

We know whose idea and whose authority and determination gave us those tunnels but we don’t know the names of all those who planted the seeds that grew into trees under whose benevolent branches we’ve taken refuge from the scorching heat and the unforgiving monsoon. The point is, someone planted. That someone is now dead and gone. The trees survive our passing and pass on the goodness of the planter to many who are not given to giving thanks. 

My former colleague at the Agrarian Research and Training Institute Dr Piyasiri Pelenda once told me that whenever he travels out of Colombo he brings home some sapling to plant in his garden. That was not a tree-planting-day gimmick. It had a yuthukam ring to it. Dr Piyasiri now lives abroad and he might have no idea who is benefiting from the fruits of his labour. It doesn’t take much to plant a tree of course, the ‘labour’ consists of conscious determination to do the ‘little thing’, the planting of a mango seed. Not because it’s National Tree-Planting Day or someone’s birthday; because it is a yuthukama thing.

We live in times where parents admitting their children are required to make donations to the School Development Society. Some schools want parents to pay for a desk and a chair for their child, a condition which even the poorest parent will comply with because they still consider education to be of paramount interest. Does it take too much to ask a parent to tell their five year old to plant an amba ataya or some other sapling in the garden? The child could be asked to furnish a photograph of the event and thereafter, every year, on the first day of school, submit a new photograph.

Sure, not every family will have a garden, but there’s enough common property that can be used. Not everyone will have a camera, but some other monitoring mechanism can be put in place. Even if this seems too crazy to be part of the overall national policy on education, it is an idea that can be implemented in many places. Even if it was not, it is something that many parents can get their children to do.

When a child grows up with a tree, that child grows to love nature, discovers natural processes that are either taken for granted or are considered negligible enough to be ignorant of. Hundreds of thousands of children enter Grade one every year. If a fraction took this exercise seriously, we would have a hundred thousand trees being planted every year and a similar number of citizens who grow up understanding, appreciating and falling in love with the natural world. I am certain they will turn out to be better citizens, more responsible, more benign in their engagements with one another and the world around them. 

Patriots in act and not in label. 

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer and can be reached at malindasenevi@gmail.com