ON WHAT WE’RE NOT ALLOWED TO SAY

Dear Bill,
I never forget your final comment at the very end of one of our most fruitful collaborations, “Kim, Kipling and Kakamura:”

Christopher,……………………………… ……………… July 4th, 2011
Have enjoyed our adventure with Kim. To quote the holy man:
“‘Go in hope, little brother,’ he said. ‘It is a long road to the feet of the One; but thither do we all travel.’”
………………………………………..
Bill.. (W.F.Kammann)

And yes, that is the great adventure, but it’s also the great conundrum, at least for me it is. For you can never stop on that road, it’s so steep and narrow, indeed, any attempt to turn round and head back is curtains. Why, even just pausing to catch your breath can trigger an avalanche!

Which is why I’m still trying to be here, to move on anyway, to trouble the world with my precarious, unstable words and images. And I don’t always like the words that I write either, but I have to live with myself, and they’re there. On the other hand, if I keep at the words long enough, and I mean for years and years, what emerges sometimes speaks to me in an independent voice, telling me important things I never knew or even guessed at before.

For me the process feels like I look in the photo below — because it’s obvious I hadn’t a clue what all those signs were saying when the photograph was taken in Yangon. Yet three years later I dare to write about what they mean today, and yes, I hear what I’m saying.

INDISCRETION 2

Indiscretion #1.

It’s now October 6th, 2017, and I have just finished rewriting an old post that’s been haunting me ever since it went up on our East is East and West is West thread on May 22nd, 2011 . You can click on the old date to read the new version. And if you do, please be sure to include the accompaniment as the post makes no sense without it, or at least it doesn’t for me.

You can also click here  to read what Kipling actually said in his poem called “The White Man’s Burden.” (I still like what I say about the poem, and have left the notes alone. See what you think.)

Although the May 22nd, 2011 essay has been extensively revised, the gist of the argument remains the same,  and that’s very important to say as I’m not trying to cover up anything or to apologize. On the other hand, because the writing is better, more fluent, more attentive, less self-serving, the essay says more of what I was trying to say 6 years ago but couldn’t. The whole thing is still very borderline, I know, but in such musings it’s the risk that occasions the rising, isn’t it? Isn’t that what makes whatever it is happen, because you can’t just say certain things, that you’re simply not allowed to?

Here’s another “not allowed to.”

A few days ago in The Guardian, the British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, was scolded for reciting Kipling’s famous poem, “Mandalay”  “live” and “on mic,” —  a situation that was deemed “not appropriate” by the British Ambassador to Burma. For of course the recitation was in Yangon, right in front of the Schwedagon Pagoda no less.

I do understand the discomfort of the Ambassador, given his position, but to conclude that Boris Johnson’s recitation is “not appropriate” in Burma today is to misunderstand the whole poem, and in particular its very moving invocation of  Burma, love, nostalgia and worship as experienced by a common soldier in 1890. The narrator is  just a bloke,  after all, a Cockney “10 year man” without any social, imperial or so-called “British” pretensions. Furthermore he’s ‘back home’ in London feeling lonely and displaced, and missing what he almost worships as a heaven on earth. Indeed, to be ashamed of the poem is to misunderstand entirely what’s being expressed in it and, even more importantly, to demean the very people whom the British Ambassador thinks are going to be offended by hearing the poem recited in their country. For those Burmese who are literate, and there are many, know and admire Rudyard Kipling — yes, and in some ways they understand him a whole lot better than the self-conscious Ambassador does. Because the Burmese actually read English poetry thanks to the British education they still receive, and are very proud of too, and they not only know the poem personally but can recite it as fluently as Boris Johnson can, and indeed in much the same ‘I’m-not-just-a-bloke’ accent, which is a subject in itself.*  Because you simply can’t take away that Britishness from the Burmese, however politically correct you think you are or they ought to be — indeed, not even the brutal social and economic scorched-earth-regime imposed by the Junta on the whole region could do that, even after 60 years of trying really hard.**

And another parallel indiscretion — a much harder one that you can only talk about in a whisper:

The modern history of Myanmar is terrible, and the Rohingya nightmare just the worst of a great many ethnic entanglements the region faces. And here’s the rough part that very few understand. Just as we have to try hard to understand why it’s not actually offensive for the British Foreign Secretary to recite Kipling’s “Mandalay,” even in the shadow of the Shwedagon Pagoda, we westerners have got to try to understand Aung San Suu Kyi’s mind-boggling silence on the subject of the Rohingya. For the issue is not a national problem that can be settled by any Burmese  leader, however loved and charismatic he or she may be, but rather the expression of the profound anxiety of a huge, displaced, muddled region that isn’t a coherent nation at all, and in many ways still doesn’t want to be. And most of that we’re not allowed to say.

To put that in another, no less shocking but more familiar context, Rakhine State is subject to an ethnic blight as sore and as septic as that which plagues Charlottesville, Virginia in the U.S.A. Because America is infected by exactly the same ethnic malaise, and has lived with it for an almost identical time-frame too.

So here’s the big question. Which is less destructive, a genocide that inches its way along like a glacier, demeaning, thwarting, imprisoning and snuffing-out the lives of generation after generation of individuals in the same family, or one which scorches the earth like a forest fire, consuming a whole community of families in just one day? Yes, and which one in the end will prove to be more destructive to human dignity and potential?

And here’s another very hard thought for me personally. Though I try to be sensitive to Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence, to hear what she is saying by not saying anything,  I have to admit how disappointed I am that such a great, strong, courageous, near perfect heroine has emerged with such dull feet of clay. Indeed,  I’m writing this in part to have the opportunity to say that Aung San Suu Kyi can still count on my trust, love and respect for her as a person, because my own feet are so parochial, so low, colonial and clayish too — as revealed in my May 22nd, 2011 imperial-sized, blotched-copy text on Privilege and Service.

Which was and still is very hard to say, yet is even harder not to say, at least right now as I sit at my desk in Chiang Mai.

Christopher Woodman

* In another article the day after the one above, The Guardian referred to the Foreign Minister’s “schtick:” “Etonian accent, Latin tags, supposedly lovable Wodehousian eccentricity, sub-Churchillian evocation of the glorious past of this island race.” And of course there’s the orange hair and the smirk, as if we hadn’t seen that before!

** And yet another Guardian article today (Oct. 7th, 2017),  ditching both the Ambassador and the Foreign Secretary but redeeming “Mandalay.” “Kipling saw a road that led to romance rather than to slaughter,” Ian Jack writes, and then quotes the famous opening lines:

,……    By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,
,……    There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
,……    For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say
,……    Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”

EAST IS EAST AND WEST IS WEST

Mandalay

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”
………….. Come you back to Mandalay,
………….. Where the old Flotilla lay:
………….. Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay?
………….. On the road to Mandalay,
………….. Where the flyin’-fishes play,
………….. An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!

‘Er petticoat was yaller an’ ‘er little cap was green,
An’ ‘er name was Supi-yaw-lat — jes’ the same as Theebaw‘s Queen,
An’ I seed her first a-smokin’ of a whackin’ white cheroot,
An’ a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s foot:
………….. Bloomin’ idol made o’mud —
………….. Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd —
………….. Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed ‘er where she stud!
………….. On the road to Mandalay . . .

When the mist was on the rice-fields an’ the sun was droppin’ slow,
She’d git ‘er little banjo an’ she’d sing “Kulla-lo-lo!
With ‘er arm upon my shoulder an’ ‘er cheek agin’ my cheek
We useter watch the steamers an’ the hathis pilin’ teak.
………….. Elephints a-pilin’ teak
………….. In the sludgy, squdgy creek,
………….. Where the silence ‘ung that ‘eavy you was ‘arf afraid to speak!
………….. On the road to Mandalay . . .

But that’s all shove be’ind me — long ago an’ fur away,
An’ there ain’t no ‘busses runnin’ from the Bank to Mandalay;
An’ I’m learnin’ ‘ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells:
“If you’ve ‘eard the East a-callin’, you won’t never ‘eed naught else.”
………….. No! you won’t ‘eed nothin’ else
………….. But them spicy garlic smells,
………….. An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells;
………….. On the road to Mandalay . . .

I am sick o’ wastin’ leather on these gritty pavin’-stones,
An’ the blasted Henglish drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;
Tho’ I walks with fifty ‘ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,
An’ they talks a lot o’ lovin’, but wot do they understand?
………….. Beefy face an’ grubby ‘and —
………….. Law! wot do they understand?
………….. I’ve a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!
………….. On the road to Mandalay . . .

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin’, an’ it’s there that I would be —
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;
………….. On the road to Mandalay,
………….. Where the old Flotilla lay,
………….. With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!
………….. On the road to Mandalay,
………….. Where the flyin’-fishes play,
………….. An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!

………………………………………………………………..Rudyard Kipling (1890)

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