When Cik Idah is born, her grandmother plants a mango seed in the front garden. As the baby girl grows to adulthood, the mango tree provides her with a place to play, take refuge and store her memories.
I embarked on a roundabout route to acquire a copy of this picture book, before making direct contact with the actual publisher, Helang Books, on Facebook. Imagine my surprise when I opened the cover on delivery to find a personal message from the author, Hidayah Amin! It absolutely made my day and brings a smile to my face every time I read it.
This is a very personal story, recounted in the first person by Hidayah Amin, or Cik Idah as her family call her. It starts with her birth in the family home, a beautiful and bustling mansion in the historic Malay district of Kampong Glam, Singapore. Cik Idah’s grandmother, Nenek plants a mango seed in the front garden to mark the birth of her first grandchild. As the baby girl grows to adulthood, the tree plays an important role in her life, first as a place to play and dream with her younger brother, Hadi and her cousins, but also as a place of refuge when she is upset. It provides both the backdrop and a lovely focal point for Cik Idah’s recollections, which make up the story.
At times, the mango tree takes on almost human characteristics. It listens to Cik Idah and she finds comfort in its rustling leaves. A few nights before Eid-ul Fitr, the Muslim festival that marks the end of Ramadan, she sees the branches of her tree drooping as if it is praying. The tree stores treasured memories from Cik Idah’s childhood; she misses it when she moves away and hopes that it will never be chopped down (you’ll need to read the book to see if the tree is still standing by the end of the story).
Although we learn that the Yellow Mansion is home to up to thirty family members (on occasion), Hidayah Amin cleverly focuses on just a few characters: herself and her brother notably. I also particularly warmed to her grandmother Nenek who features at various points in the story. Nenek is instrumental, of course, in planting the mango seed when her granddaughter is born. She is keenly in tune with nature and shares her knowledge with her grandchildren. She chides Cik Idah when she tries to flush the weaver ants out of her tree:
‘Nenek told me that the kerengga (weaver ants) were good for my tree.’
She also reminds Cik Idah and her brother not to stomp on the ground as roots are the tree’s source of energy. And the children put their ears to the ground to apologise.
Malay words and phrases are woven throughout the text. Many of these can be understood in context, or through the illustrations, and sometimes a translation into English is provided after the word or phrase in question. In short, they don’t detract from the flow of the story, rather add colour and authenticity to the account. I also enjoy the way the author interrupts her narrative to share interesting facts and stories with the reader.
Idris Ali’s watercolour illustrations provide a warm and touching portrayal of Cik Idah, her family and her mango tree. Cik Idah and her brother are pictured gleefully jumping in puddles, Nenek is shown planting the mango see in traditional dress (‘baju kebaya), and there are some glorious depictions of nature. An army of weaver ants marches up a mango tree branch; the mango tree is shown against a glittering night sky, leaves illuminated from the moon behind.
The Mango Tree is a moving personal account of childhood memories, family and peaceful co-existence with nature.
The Mango Tree by Hidayah Amin, illustrated by Idris Ali (Helang Books, 2013)
Hidayah Amin is an author and entrepreneur. She was born in historic Kampong Glam, Singapore. After graduating from the University of Cambridge, she founded Archipelago Consultancy, which provides services in research, heritage, education and creativity. Her favourite fruit is the mango.
Idris Ali is a self-taught artist who has been painting since he was 10 years old. He has held many exhibitions and received multiple awards for his work.
The Mango Tree was the co-winner of the Hedwig Anuar Children’s Book Award 2015 and the winner of the Samsung KidsTime Author’s Award 2015. The title was alsoshortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize 2014.