The View from Menara Indah by Ziauddin Sardar
The apartment building stands perched on the lip of a great earthen bowl. Behind and above are high ridges formed by folds of thick jungle, like the prinked edges of a piecrust. Below the lip, the ground falls away in a wide swathe where houses nestle among trees and far away on the western horizon, the skyscrapers of the city stand out like tall trees breaking the line of the canopy forest. The little balcony of my living room takes in the whole, grand sweep. Just beyond the precincts of the apartment building, in full synthetic glory is the lush nitrated greenery of Kelab Darul Ehsan, a golf and recreation club for folks in newly acquired circumstances. A footpath winds around the Kelab, the local jogger’s highway, always jog-jammed between 5am and 9am, and again in the peak evening hours till the leisurely after dinner strollers emerge. In between, the footpath bakes gently in the sun or, when it rains, resembles the bed of a torrential river. When I walk this footpath, conformity having its effect, I look through the gaps between trees, shrubs and houses, back to the condo and I see the building lost in the jungle from every vantage point. From around the lip, from down in the dip, whichever way you approach or look, there, in its mouldering isolation, is the last lonely condo. This is Menara Indah, the block of flats, where I have been living for the past few years. Menara Indah is in Taman TAR, the TAR is an acronym, most things go by an acronym in KL, as Kuala Lumpur is known locally. The TAR stands for Tun Abdul Razak, a former Prime Minister. The neighbourhood, Taman TAR (Garden Tun Abdul Razak), is a developer’s vision of gracious modern living that has colonised the head of a little valley leading back into the jungle. Taman TAR itself is part of Ampang Jaya, and Ampang Jaya is both in the state of Selangor and a suburb of Kuala Lumpur. The road from Menara Indah gently meanders down the hill in wide sweeps till it meets the larger road, Jalan Ulu Klang, which takes you in one direction to the Zoo, and in the other to the major thoroughfare of Jalan Ampang. Jalan Ampang houses most of the foreign embassies and this international enclave leads on into the city.
I watch the sunset. It does not take much time: one moment the sun is there, and it is day, and the next it has disappeared. The floodlights of Kelab Darul Ehsan come on, synchronised with the sunset. The Asian work ethic predominates here, meaning long hours at the office and a five and half day working week. So that distinctive legacy of colonial days, time for play, like all other aspects of the upwardly mobile lifestyle, must be accommodated after working hours. Hence, floodlit golf. Air condenses around me. It becomes a gentle blanket that does not quite constitute rain; it does not descend rather it materialises in the atmosphere. I notice some clouds moving swiftly over the horizon, they come and hover in front of the building, as though thinking, and then quietly drift into my living room. For a moment I think it might rain inside my apartment. But the clouds simply nestle around me and everything becomes soggy. A pair of butterflies waft in and settle on the wall near the curtains.
I know them well. Huge and stunningly beautiful, they are utterly devoted to each other. Predominantly black with luminous green triangles on their fifteen centimetre wing span they have a bright red band around their heads. Their technical appellation, Trogonoptera brookiana, devalues their sublime charm. I have named them after the lovers in the classical Persian romance, Laila Majnun. They were said to be ‘black’ and so in love that they became oblivious to the dangers of earthly existence. Laila, consumed by her love for Majnun, dies; and Majnun, unable to live without Laila, commits suicide. I do not wish a similar fate for these winged lovers; but constant danger lurks on the walls and ceiling of my flat. First thing every morning, I rush to the living room and breathe a sigh of relief when I find them waiting for me to open the balcony doors, and release them to the jungle.
The threat comes from three generations of geckoes dwelling behind the various picture frames that decorate the walls. I have watched them grow and multiply, play and fight. I have developed a relationship with the patriarch. Indeed, I have even managed to train him: on my instructions, ‘Go fetch, Grandpa!’ he moves like lightening to gobble up troublesome visitors. Life in a tropical climate requires the balcony doors to remain open all waking hours to facilitate the circulation of air. Plenty of opportunity for a plethora of troublesome visitors known and unknown to make their appearance: mosquitoes (including giant ones carrying the deadly dengue fever), giant wasps, giant three-horn rhino beetles, longhorned grasshoppers, cockroaches. There is, for example, a form of winged frog. Not a frog, in fact, but a beetle resembling nothing so much as a frog, right down to its beige and brown markings. Its body is so solid and heavy it seems impossible for its transparent, gossamer wings to propel it anywhere, and yet it regularly flies in through the balcony and thuds resoundingly into the walls of the living room. Plenty of opportunity too for the welcome visitors: the hosts of little butterflies, so beautifully marked they take your breath away. The colours and patterns of their wings resemble the finest Indonesian batik, and I cannot help but wonder if the delicate tracery of human art is not, after all, a mere pale imitation of the naturally occurring form. Some days the ceiling of the living room is a carpet of butterflies, dicing with extinction as the family of juniors, as I term the exuberant younger geckoes, contemplates a feast. The problem is this younger brood do not listen to me. I fear, one day, they will disturb the tranquillity of Laila Majnun; or worse kill one of them, which would mean self-immolation for the other.
Around the time Laila Majnun come in, a flock of bats flurries into motion. The bats are invisible by day – obliviously hanging upside down somewhere, sleeping, contemplating, dreaming. As soon as the sun sinks, large swarms of them swirl and swing, moving at speed forming infinite loops in what appear to be chaotic movements. Occasionally, a bat flies into the living room. At velocity the bat keeps swooping, like a demented, would-be kamikaze with me as the cowering aircraft carrier. It zooms in ever-wider circles, with sudden tangential dives in search of an exit. There follows an eccentric minuet as I edge sheepishly towards doors and windows, skirting the kamikaze, open them and try to ‘shoo’ out the aerial invader. It can take a considerable time for a bat to identify an opening and exit stage left. Invariably, the bats enter by way of the balcony and egress through the front door, which is at the back of the building facing the jungle.
The door opens straight on to the forest. Even though it is inside a metropolitan jungle, the Ampang forest is real rain forest. The term jungle is really applicable only to secondary forests where growth is relentless, unbridled, apparently quite beyond the control of Man. Several massive tualang trees, over sixty metres high, stand majestically only a few metres away from the door.
Below them is the dense layer of the canopy, under which burgeons another layer of saplings, about ten metres high. The forest floor is covered with thick layers of shrubs; in undisturbed rain forests, this layer is fairly open and easy to travel through. But in Ampang’s secondary forest, or belukar, the vegetation is almost impenetrable. Here grow plants adapted to life in dark places. Different layers of plants, provide different habitats for the animals. Hornbills, gibbons, the slow loris and many insects live in the upper canopy. Pheasants, porcupines and the pig-tailed monkeys and insects live on the forest floor. Males of the Rajah Brooke birdwing butterfly flutter at ground level, particularly near the open areas of running water. I just open my front door and get a sideways-on, complete floor-to-ceiling view of it all. The forest is never silent, but it does function as a very precise alarm clock. Just before the morning azan, the call to prayer from the local mosque, the forest wakes up and every living thing it contains leaves off their nightly noises for a full throated, various, discrete burst of sound that rises to a crescendo. When everyone has announced their presence and asked what’s for breakfast, they subside into the normal day long throb of background sound. The open space, a few metres wide, between the forest and Menara Indah, is occupied by a silted riverbed at most times fed by a pleasant trickle of water dribbling over a rocky ledge opposite the fifth floor, my floor, to become a narrow rivulet that winds across the silted bed, before ducking into a culvert. When it rains the scene is transformed. They say Kuala Lumpur means muddy junction, I swear it is onomatopoeic just like the Malay names for so many features of the natural world around them, signifying the junction where Lumps-pour, it pours down lumps of rain. The first time I was caught walking in the rain it physically hurt; I was enveloped by stinging, pounding, pricking needles of rain with no way out. When the rain comes, a torrent of orange brown water makes a thundering debouchment as it hurls its load of laterite soil in suspension over the ledge, plunging with deafening roar to the ground beneath. The silted bed becomes a raging river, set fair to, but never quite, wash away the building. It can rain at any time throughout the year in Malaysia; during the two monsoon seasons it rains even more. The monsoons are notable for the great thunderstorms with their spectacular son et lumière displays that turn day into night. Butterflies and bats are not the only things that come in via my balcony, one day a bolt of lighting attempted to play the same game.