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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Mango Tree and a Baby


“Birbal the Wise” is a recurring figure in stories from Moghul India (16th Century). Birbal was an advisor to the emperor, Akbar, and was legendary for his cleverness, quick wits, and sagacity.


Two men lay claim to the same mango tree, and stood bickering and shouting in the palace courtyard. Birbal the Wise was asked to hear their case.

“I see,” said Birbal when it had been explained. “There is but one way to decide fairly. First, we will pick all the mangos and divide them equally between you. Then, chop down the tree, saw it into even lengths, and divide the wood equally as well.”

The first man readily agreed to these terms, but the second one was distraught. “But, Wise Birbal! I have tended to that tree for many years, pruning it and fertilizing it and keeping the birds and monkeys away! Please let this man have it rather than cut it down.”



Birbal turned to the first man. “I now know you are not the owner of this tree.”

Readers familiar with the Old Testament will recognize in this story The Judgment of Solomon. Whether that story made its way to Moghul India and influenced storytellers there, who can say? For those of you not so familiar with that Old Testament story, here is my paraphrase of it:

Two women came before King Solomon, both claiming to be the mother of a certain baby. The king’s decision was that the baby should be cut in half, so that each mother could have what she claimed was hers. The mother who cried in horror and relinquished her claim was the one Solomon declared the true mother.

A week or so after the Lovely K. heard the story of the Judgment of Solomon, I happened to overhear a drama unfolding in the kitchen, with K. giving voice to two apples who both claimed the same pear. “No, no! Please do not cut the pear in half!” one of the apples begged. “Take it all for yourself!” I don’t remember what piece of food was standing in for King Solomon. It might have been the jar of peanut butter. Clearly the story was already living inside her – if only in fruit form for the time being!  

As parents, we tend to make a big deal of sharing, dividing everything equally. “Fair is fair,” as they say. But some things cannot be shared. Intellectual courage allows us to question rules and discover when their application is destructive, rather than constructive. When rules are inflexible, the result can be a disaster: our children will learn tyranny rather than leadership, citing rigid laws as justification for cruelty, and as a substitute for their own better judgment.

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