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A Sapling on the Roadside

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By Savitri Narayanan

Saurabh felt like dancing as he saw the breakfast on the table. Hot, puffy pooris and steaming, delightful potato curry beamed at him! Usually, breakfast would be pav with warm milk, bread and jam or seasoned poha. It was a long time since Mummyji had made Saurabh’s all-time favourite – poori bhaji!

“Thank you, Mummyji!” said Saurabh as he grabbed a plate and filled it with the delicious breakfast. He lost count and continued eating until he couldn’t eat anymore!

“Now go and play!” smiled Mummyji.

After the unit tests, the school had declared a holiday for children while the teachers did the corrections. For the past week or so, none could think of anything but studies and exams.

“At last, it’s time for friends and games!” thought Saurabh as he put on his cap and picked up the ball from the rack.

“Anything to buy from the shop?” he paused to ask.

Kumarji’s store was near the Panchayat Ground. Surprisingly, the store stocked a wide range of things -from groceries to eatables to cosmetics to utensils to toys. Rarely did a customer come out empty-handed!

“Nothing today, bete,” Mummyji’s voice seemed kinder than usual, “now that the unit tests are over go and play with your friends but be back before it gets dark!”

***

The park was rather deserted. A few boys played marbles at the far end. Some girls played hopscotch near the sandpit. Saurabh bounced his ball as he sat on the park bench to wait for Atul and Poornima.

“Haven’t seen you for some time now, betey,” someone called out to him, “what happened?”

“Nothing happened, Uncleji, unit tests were going on!” laughed Saurabh as he continued to bounce the ball.

Goel uncle, a retired policeman who lived in the bungalow across, was a familiar figure in the neighbourhood. Always ready for a friendly chat, Uncleji seemed to find reasons to be outdoors. Walking, exercise, meeting friends or going to the nearby temples- uncleji was everywhere! Without fail, he walked for an hour in the park, both in the mornings and evenings.

“But what are you doing, Uncleji?” asked Saurabh, surprise and curiosity evident in his voice.

Instead of walking and exercising, Uncleji was squatting on the ground! Some gardening tools were scattered around. He was digging with a shovel and planting something.

Uncleji what’re you up to today?” Saurabh came closer, bouncing the ball.

“What are you planting, Uncleji?”  Poornima too came up and joined the conversation.

“You children of the 21st century, can’t you identify this plant?” chided Uncle. “Don’t you know this sapling will grow into a mango tree one day?”

“And bear lots of sweet mangoes!” Ankit continued in the same tone, half in jest, “which we all can eat!”

“That’s exactly what I meant!” said Goel Uncle as he finished his task and put away the tools.  He levelled the loose soil around the sapling and got up. The boys followed him and sat down on the park bench.

Uncleji, it will take a long time,” said Rehman. “Our Science book says that a mango tree has to be nurtured for about ten years or more to start fruiting!”

“Unless it’s a hybrid variety which fruits faster,” said Saurabh. “My uncle’s home in Satara has one that fruited in just three years.”

Uncleji, don’t take offence! Why are you wasting your time and effort planting this mango sapling when you know you may not get to eat those mangoes?” asked Atul.

“Atul is right, Uncleji,” said Saurabh, “Isn’t it easier for you to buy mangoes from the super-market? There’re so many kinds to choose from and you’ve enough money! Why’re you taking all this trouble?”

“The supermarkets store all those mangoes because someone planted and nurtured them, isn’t it?” the old man’s voice grew tender as years flowed back in his mind. “Can you imagine me as a young student like you? Many mango trees grew in the village on the open, public land. On the way back from school, we children feasted on the mangoes! Climb up and pluck, shake the branches or throw pebbles to make them drop down – we found many ways to eat those ripe sweet mangoes to our hearts’ content!”

“What fun, Uncleji!,” said Saurabh as he visualised the joyful scene.

”We  ate those mangoes and still hold on to many fond memories  thanks to the  good people who had planted the saplings many years back!” said Uncleji. “This is my token of gratitude to them!”

“It seems a mango tree continues to fruit for about forty years!” said Atul, remembering his science lesson.

“True!” Uncleji laughed aloud. “Soon a day will come when not you but your children and then grandchildren will be here playing football! By then this sapling would have grown into a huge mango tree, its branches laden with ripe, sweet mangoes!”

“How much fun they’ll have!” said Saurabh.

Uncleji this is a promise,” Poornima spoke up. “We’ll ensure this sapling grows into a huge mango treeso that many more children will eat the sweet mangoes, like us!”

“That’s responsible living, the world is a good place thanks to children like you!” said Mr Goel.