Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Heart of Giving

One of the most annoying things about being absent-minded is that you look for something in a place where you are absolutely sure you will find it. And it’s not there.

What’s even more annoying for the absent-minded is that this partial eclipse of memory goes with an absolute conviction that The Thing ought to be in the place where it’s not.

Which means that even though you’ve looked once, you’ll look again and again in the same place, expecting it to materialize. Meanwhile, your deepening irritation will temporarily shut down any rational thinking process that might actually help you find it.

But happily for folks like us, we often do find in the process things we were not looking for. And that can be quite a treat.

Last week I tore my basement up trying to find a critical piece of information on my daughter’s educational experience in elementary school. Half an hour rummaging through files and cupboards brought no luck. Finally, I opened a cardboard box to see if I had stashed anything there, to find it filled with neat layers of labeled manila envelopes. And I could not have been happier if I had found a rusty old treasure chest.

You have to understand that what helps me “find” something – even if it’s nothing that I was looking for – is that I do not easily throw things away, especially things that have any kind of paper content. Magazines and newspapers accumulate. Books populate almost every room. Old receipts -- some dating back to 2005 -- haunt my purse. And old letters are hoarded.

How old, you ask? Well – the envelope that I opened had the earliest letters I ever received. In it, I found the first two letters written to me by my brother when he was six years old. I was eleven. His handwriting at that age is far more legible than that of some doctors I know, even if the lines swoop downward in neat parallel diagonals across the page.

What’s funny about those letters is my brother’s directness. He wants me to bring him lots of toys and books and comics and presents when I return to Bhubaneswar from my grandparents’ home in Madras. To soften me up, he writes “how very good you are.”

The letter reminded me of the book for children titled “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein. It is a simple and timeless story that speaks to adults and children alike. But like all books that tell the truth, it is controversial.

I had no idea how controversial it was until I got a link from an online friend to the philosophical journal First Things, where you can read analyses of this book’s message by distinguished academicians and theologians. If you’re philosophy-oriented, I’d suggest you print it out and read it at leisure. It's a bit overwhelming to take in the whole agglomeration of interpretations at once. Here’s the link to the journal –


It's both fascinating and revelatory to read those opinions after reading the book. Fascinating, because it shows that communication is so much more than a linear progression from words to meaning. A story, a word, an inflection of voice, an emailed response – each of these is subject to infinite shades of interpretation.

The old adage “seeing is believing” suggests that first –hand experience is the most reliable litmus of truth. But the light from any given source is reflected and refracted through our individual system of prisms and mirrors, leading each of us to subtly different conclusions. Most of us know this -- but we fight and argue anyway, and resent those who disagree. It keeps the old synapses firing.

For those who have not read the book and cannot easily find it, here is a synopsis from Wikipedia:

The story is a short
moral tale about a relationship between a young boy and a tree in a forest. It tells the account of how the tree loves the boy, and helps the boy with his needs throughout his life, from the boy's childhood until his golden years.

At the beginning of the story, the boy plays with the tree all the time, climbing its trunk, swinging from its branches, and eating its apples.

However, as the boy ages, he says that he can no longer play with the tree, and begins asking the tree for various things; first money, which the tree gives him its apples for; next a house for a family, which the tree gives up its branches for; then a boat, which the tree sacrifices its trunk for.

By the end of the tree's life, it has become a stump - a mere fraction of what it was physically; even in this state, the boy and the tree can enjoy each other's company. When the tree says that it has nothing left to give, the boy (now an old man) says that he now only wants a place to rest, and so sits for a while on the tree's stump, making the tree happy.

The synopsis will tell you what the story is about, but to feel its impact you have to progress through the book, dwell on its illustrations, experience the punctuations of emotion in its narrative, and become one with the tree as well as the boy.

I wrote my own little commentary after I read through some of those Symposium papers. Here it is:


The beauty of this book is that it can be read at different levels of meaning.

In my opinion, it is one of the few books I have read in any genre that I regard as being absolutely perfect as written.

One of my best online friends said children would likely find this book very depressing. In his opinion the boy is very selfish and just takes and takes. The tree’s sacrifice, he felt, would not be understood by a small child.

I disagree. While it is true that a child is going to read this book a lot more literally than an adult, I think today’s child encounters much horror and mayhem on television as well as in real life. It is impossible to shield children from actual and anticipated violence in the news and everyday conversation. Popular culture is increasingly bankrupt of basic values.

Given the current scenario, I do not think this story is too much for a child to handle. In fact, if correctly interpreted by an adult, this book can have a lasting positive impact on kids.

Is the tree decimated by the spirit of “sacrifice” ? Not in my view. The word “sacrifice” implies an inherent attachment to the gift given, which the tree absolutely does not have. The tree is not a martyr, using self-flagellation to prove her moral superiority to the boy or anyone else. She is merely being true to her nature. She gives because making the boy happy makes her happy. In her apparent depletion lies her fullness.

The boy thinks he is made happy every time he takes from the tree, but it is never permanent, and he is forced to return time and again to the tree because she always has an answer for him that he can find nowhere else.

What emerges from the story is that this is the only way it could be. The tree and the boy are two sides of the same immanent reality.

The tree is the constant fountainhead of Being, and is therefore essentially unchangeable even if its physical nature is hacked at or denuded.

The boy is the metamorphosing wave that dances on the skin of the Deep.

The boy can be called selfish, yes, but he doesn’t know that he is. He never intends to hurt the tree, only to help himself. So he is more ignorant and undeveloped than selfish. He really doesn’t think beyond the immediate expediency of a solution. He takes what is available for granted time and time again. He never thinks of planting another tree so that another child may have the same pleasure and friendship he enjoyed.

But that is precisely what a child who reads this story will likely think of doing.

We are all takers in this life, because the reality is that much of our giving is conditional. We expect that it will be returned -- if not materially, then at least in the form of gratitude, or greater affection in return, or a reward in heaven.

This simple story teaches, among other things, that giving is reward enough -- provided it is done with the right attitude.

I am always amazed by the Giving Trees among us – people who respond spontaneously, without reserve, with tenacity and determination to fulfill a dire need. People who place the well-being of those they help beyond accolades or recognition for themselves. It is those few -- who shine in relative obscurity -- who keep the rest of the world from disintegrating.

I’d like to acknowledge three such initiatives here. I’ve never met the “initiators” in person, but – and this is true of the good friends I’ve made online -- I feel like I have always known them.

The first is a project to provide computer instruction to the children of sex workers in Chennai. It will help children marginalized for no fault of theirs, unable to get vocational education from established schools because of the social stigma they bear, The project is called ASSET, and you can read about it at


The second is a nonprofit started by women for women, which provides counseling and medical advice with sensitivity and respect for confidentiality. It operates in the US as well as in India, and you can explore the organization’s ventures in detail, as well as its refreshing online magazine at

Finally, I would like to applaud the long, arduous, and often thankless journey taken on by the founder of India in Classrooms, a venture that aims to correct shallow, negative, and just plain wrong perspectives of India and Indians in American school textbooks. The website can be accessed at

With so many worthwhile causes out there competing for one’s attention, it is hard sometimes to figure out what to support and where to begin.

But I think I know how to get next year off to a good start. Come spring, I’m going to plant a tree.


Priyamvada_K said...

Delightful post, worth a re-read for all its layered meanings. But meanwhile, wanted to be the first to comment, so am here (so much for developedness, and maturity :). Or, seeing as moderation is enabled, maybe I'm not the first to comment?


Jayant said...

Dear Chitra, thanks for including me in your email list for this blog. Reading you writing reminds me of Bhagvatam - not only for the stories within stories, but also for the imagery. To be Indian is to be just one miniscule aspect of the manifested universe having endless conversations with every other manifestation whether it is a rock, a river, a constellation, a monkey or a half man-half lion!

Thanks for giving us the link to Mona Vijaykar's work. Her podcasts are particularly interesting! Also in that context of history, and not that I want to pitch anything, my article from 2003 was finally published by Madhu Kishwar in Manushi July-August 2006 and picked up by hvk: http://www.hvk.org/articles/1006/48.html



Chitra said...

Thank you for stopping by, Priya. And friends, do check out Priya's blog --just click on her name and it will take you there. She is a wonderful writer.

Jayant, thank you for your generous praise and poetic sentiments. Congratulations on your article!

Chitra said...

As long as we're introducing people all around, let me make one for all Chennai-ites and the people who love them -- check out



"On a lighter vein, and an empty stomach"

Rajiv said...

The story of the boy and the tree is truly profound in that the tree could represent our relationship with others, others relationship to us and our relationship to ourselves.

As long as the tree accepts its true nature as one of
giving, it will be happy. If not it will have infinite ways to feel dejected and unworthy. One cannot also ascribe our sentiments to the tree either; it may have never struck the tree that it was not getting what it wanted.

For example, the tree could think of itself as old, gnarled, with
twisted bark and limbs whose shapes it cannot really control, and just when theyre growing longer they get
hacked off.

But the people around it admire its beauty, etch it on lithographs and water colors, bask in its shade to
read the same book, and never think of it in a bad way. The tree engenders them to unocver a creative side that they may have lost. And of course the tree
silently returns oxygen back to the surroundings.

Finally one could say that if the kids, adults AND the tree genuinely understood their true relationships
among themselves and the environment, the world would
be a different place.

And there would be more trees to go around.


Priyamvada_K said...

Thanks for the kind words. You have inspired my latest blog. Check it out.

Very well said.