Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A day under the Flame of the Forest Tree

It is 1983 in Kuala Lumpur. Right in the heart of this tropical urban city, the old blends with the new. Buildings with gothic-revival motifs, left behind from the old colonial days of Malaya, stand in the blazing sun next to gray modern block buildings typical of the 70's & 80's.

One of these is an old missionary school typically built with 3 petal motifs, curvilinear arches, rose windows and colorful European tiles; and when walking through its passages, one feels  as if in Westminster Abbey or such a church in England except the weather is humid and the rainforest is peeking through the windows. A strange setting, as if someone picked up a block of buildings in old Europe and plonked it in the middle of the tropics.

The centre courtyard of the school is a field where small children in brown and orange pinafores play under a gigantic flame tree, the Delonix Regia or Royal Poinciana, where its petals of brilliant rouge dot the grass as if a great party has ended and confetti are strewn all over the grassy floor.  These are the sons and daughters of the teachers of the school - kindergarten has finished and they are merely waiting for the school bell to ring and their parents can bring them home for lunch.

One of them, a little girl, takes out her handkerchief from out of her pocket and wipes her nose and forehead. Her hair is clammy with perspiration and stuck to her face from the heat and from playing under the sun. All the children are gathered on the long gray bench under the flame tree. It is a good time to sit on the stone bench as it is magically cool compared to the heat warping the atmosphere.They have had a good old time picking up the prettiest and most perfect petals of the flame tree on the ground. The most prized piece of the pickings is the fifth upright petal called the standard, which is slightly larger and spotted with yellow and white.

She studies her handkerchief because the other children aren't paying much attention to her- it is a small cotton square fabric with a pink border folded in a triangle. There's a picture of two rabbits at play  - a cheap printed piece - but she remembers to use it because her mother puts it in her pocket every morning before she dresses to go to kindergarten. Sometimes its Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck but today its two happy rabbits. And to reward her mother's ministrations, she will bring home some red and fiery  petals as a gift including the rare and precious standard.

Its another hot day after all under the old flame tree in 1983.