Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Flamboya Tree by Clara Olink Kelly

As a student, I used to love reading war stories, esp World War II ones. To me, they were inspiring, yet very human tales of bravery, kindness, love and wisdom. I was always awed by the people's ability to go any lengths to protect themselves and their own, during difficult times. My favourite reads included especially The Upstairs Room by Joanne Reiss, the House of Sixty Fathers (fictional read) by Meindert DeJong, etc. I was unfortunately traumatised by Anne Frank, perhaps because of all the war biographies I read, she was the only person who didn't survive.

I came across The Flamboya Tree one day while looking through the library book shelves. Reading it, I discovered that it was more of a tribute to a very brave, young mother of three (one a baby of six weeks) who managed to stick her kids through a Japanese concentration camp for nearly four years, without the support of her husband (who incidentally was later found to be cheating on her, and further prolonging her and the children's misery by not applying for their passes to return to Holland as soon as possible but chose to continue establishing trading connections around the British refugee camp in Bangkok. Indirectly causing his wife to nearly die of malaria, and the children, of monkey pox while keeping his wife in the dark about both situations. Selfish Miserable Bastard)

Claartje's (Clara) mother herself hobbled along, her legs infected and swollen from an advanced case of beri beri, exacerbated by imposed and self-inflicted starvation which she saved her own miserable portions of gray rice for her always hungry children. Claartje's (Clara) mother later told her children that they kept her going. The Flamboya Tree painting, which she bought as a young bride in Ceylon and brought along to her new home in Java with her husband and children, would later comfort her, "restored her soul when times got ugly" at the dingy garage in the concentration camp. Her children valued the painting as well, with the protagonist herself clutching the painting like a precious cargo when they finally returned home to Holland, to the disgust of her grandmother.

Ironically the most awesome anecdote of Clara's mother's bravery was when they were starving at the Margriet Kamp (refugee camp) after the war, trapped there by her arschloch husband's selfishness. The children had come down with monkey pox and were transported to another hospital some distance away. The two younger children, Clara and her younger brother Gijs, were so ill they couldn't eat (and their older brother ate their portions after cajoling them to eat in vain. I also didn't like the older brother much.) Their mother taken ill by Malaria before them, wasn't allowed to follow them and later after not receiving word after their condition since they left, visited them at the hospital with her errant husband. She was probably worried sick by her children's delirum and refusal to eat even their favourite sweets, that she came to rescue them the next day by herself.

"The next day our mother returned by herself. Having obtained a special pass to leave camp, she had made the long and arduous trek by bus. Starting early in the morning, she had waited in long lines for tickets, then had to transfer several times. The rickety old buses were uncomfortable and dirty. The broiling sun turned them into tin ovens, made worse by the many hot bodies pressed close against hers. She had crossed sluggish brown rivers teeming with mosquitoes and flies, and stopped in many kampongs, small villages, where more passengers crowded into the already overloaded vehicle. By the time she reached the hospital in the afternoon, she was so exhausted and dehydrated she almost collapsed. But she was on a mission and nothing was going to stop her. She had come to fetch us and take us home. She knew we were dying and nobody seemed to care.

...With her arms around our middles and our heads down, we dangled at her sides like limp rags as she plodded slowly back along the sandy path between the high grasses. The sun beat down, and our mother's arms were slippery with perspiration. A couple of times she sat us down in the shade of a tree and gave us all a drink from a bottle of water she had brought with her. She cooled our faces by wetting her hand and wiping it across our foreheads. Nobody spoke. The heat was too oppressive.

...It was night by the time we returned to camp. Our mother was so exhausted from having to carry us on and off buses all day long that she collapsed on the lawn in front of our barracks. "

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