By the Old Moulmein Pagoda
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With Kipling in Burma -- and Myanmar

I ’d like to tear a leaf from Isak Dinesen and say that I had a farm in Burma -- but that could never fly. In fact, Burma’s turbulent history and long-standing remove from the world’s cultural currents makes the very idea seem cousin to the bizarre. What I did have relative to Burma back in the ‘90s was a yen to go and see it. From is astrological-communist government, to its Buddhas reclining in remote pagodas, to the elephants met while wandering its fragrant lanes, the country appealed as a place as distant as any I might reach. Added to this was that Burma – like Japan before Perry and Tibet before Mao – was a hermit country, and, as such, held out the promise of enchantment hidden behind its ancient walls. Perhaps some ethereal back-of-beyond awaited me there – a wondrously green valley nestled within a geological fault that’s itself tucked inside a remote, ice-capped peak. There, serenity would reign in lieu of a military clique.

I suppose that I and others who share this Shangri-La fantasy would be willing to have our DC-3 go down in a storm just to have mysteriously-appearing Sherpas guide us to this Asiatic-Art-Deco paradise. And while I never got so far as to hope to be welcomed there by a comely Jane Wyatt waving to me from a grand stairway, it was nonetheless fervid imaginings like these that led me and my late friend, Alan Rose, to cross the Pacific to Taiwan, then, after stays there and in Bangkok, go on into Rangoon and the rest of the “Golden Land.”

On the penultimate leg of this journey, Rose and I watched, beguiled, as a Mandalay Airlines stewardess temple-danced in our plane's main cabin. Ignoring her performance was a young man wearing an improbable "Pearl Harbor University" sweatshirt who preferred to gaze out his window at the passing cloud banks instead. He in turn was ignored by passengers abuzz with the rumor that the overly-Maybellined woman seated aft between bodyguards was the notorious former First Lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos. Rose even said that, given the time of year, she was likely going to Burma to pick up some rubies.

What only I seemed to pick up on was that it just wasn’t her. Sure, the object of passenger interest looked like Imelda – but only as someone made-up to do so. Never mind the flanking goons and military band that struck up a jumbled air the moment her pumps hit the ramp-stairs -- if this were the real Imelda, why would we soon spy her leaning against a terminal wall, cigarette in hand, chatting with a guard on what seemed a work break? You’d think anyone who’d just been saluted with her national anthem would be whisked off in an air-conditioned government Toyota instead of sweltering through a sidelined smoke with the help. As I stood in the customs line pondering this, thoughts of the Johnny Walker scotch and English 555 cigarettes secreted in my luggage (not to mention the $500 US I had a Baltimore shoemaker sew into the lining of my dop kit) intruded to suggest that Rose and I might be walking into a Burmese remake of “Midnight Express.” What was I thinking, I thought, as the distance between me and my uniformed customs inspector narrowed. That hippie guidebook's advice on using contraband to skirt an authoritarian regime’s exchange rates seemed far more reasonable when I stood a world away – instead of a few feet away -- from the regime itself. Just as my mind began to fill with images of slimy, third-world jailhouse overlords battling for my failing frame, the Imelda clone and her five-by-five bodyguard swept down on the Pearl Harbor U. scholar over in the next line.

“Imelda” smiled menacingly as tobacco smoke curled up her patent-leather pompadour. “Hello where from?” she rasped by way of an opener. At this the kid bridled, retreating slightly and mumbling an answer that I couldn’t hear, but would’ve bet had nothing to do with Pearl Harbor. At that, Imelda pressed her sneak attack: "Why you come to Burma?” she barked from a point well within what's considered social distance here at home. This question changed everything. Suddenly indifferent to his inquisitor’s indecorous behavior and incongruous smile, the young man seemed to draw strength from what he knew to be his answer: He'd come to Burma, he fairly announced, “for Rudyard Kipling.”

Kipling. You’d think someone might’ve told this lad that neighboring India is the place to go in search of the Great Bard of Empire. After all, it was in India where the Nobel-Prize-winning author of Kim, The Jungle Book and Gunga Din spent much of his life into adulthood. Indeed, it was in that country's subcontinental heat where the writer forged his talents as a journalist, author and poet. Kipling lived some 25 years in India; while in all his long life -- he spent only three days in Burma.

Yet that -- odd as it may seem -- is the point. While Kipling’s stay in Burma appears little more than a layover made as he sailed from India to Japan, upon his arrival in Rangoon, the author found himself less in the midst of a familiarly neighboring culture than one made unique in its ability to enrapture. Mesmerized by Burma's peculiar strain of the exotic, Kipling spent part of his stay was in the ancient city of Moulmein, where the old pagoda that looks eastward at the sea in his famous poem, "Mandalay," still works its magical effect.

Readers of “Mandalay” (which must encompass most inhabitants of the English-speaking world) fall into one of two categories: Those who have never been to Burma, and those who have. To the former, the poem seems little more than a Victorian beerhall ballad that goes from wistfulness to poignancy as British soldier dwells on memories of his Burmese love, lost to an irredeemably foreign post. For those who’ve been there however, the sense of loss is for Burma itself -- as Kipling manages to resurrect a sublime sense of place in the reader’s breast by the end of the poem’s first lyric stanza.
Thus, modern travelers reading ‘Mandalay’ find themselves recalling Burma with the same longing as Kipling’s lovelorn Tommy had done more than a century before.
One might attribute the transporting powers of “Mandalay” to a fortuitous union of scribe and scene at some extraordinary moment in time; but whatever the reason, Kipling’s ability to capture the peculiar magic of Burma in 60 lines of poetry (actually, the first four will do the trick) has forever fused his identity with that of old Burma. Thus, while India properly relates to the historical Kipling and Kipling the journalist; a bit of Burma invariably attends all romantic and literary perceptions of the man. Whatever the oriental scene that Kipling portrays, something in the popular memory tends paint its backdrop in fairy-tale frescos of Thibaw’s Golden Land.

That brought me to consider the following: As something of old Burma pervades Kipling’s writing; what then of the poet still inhabits today’s Burma, or as the world seems bent on having it -- Myanmar.

We know that as the country has only lately opened to the West after decades of cultural and political isolation, the careful observer can still find much of the Raj past ornamenting its everyday scenes. In the sunlight glinting off the golden domes of distant hilltop pagodas, or the sight of pre-WWI steamers, their upright bows rippling of the Irrawaddy’s coffee-colored waters past elephants hauling teak along its “sludgy, squdgy” banks – Kipling’s Burma yet lurks. Admittedly, most of this phenomenon is subtle, as when the words and sensibilities of the poet are found amid the thatched-hut villages in which ancient crones still hold their cheroots between betel-stained teeth as they jabber away in the performance of some shamanistic ritual. Conversely, as with the several riparian outings offered to “Kipling’s Burma” by tourist organizations -- while perhaps shadowy, much of these Kipling associations are made out to be anything but subtle. When I was in Burma, such scenes were not put on for the benefit of tourists. There barely were any tourists. Now, however, whether by means real or merely atmospheric, whether authentically glimpsed as a part of everyday life or commercially performed for the entertainment of travelers, such tableaus bring the name of the same 19th-century British author to Western minds.

This duality can be said to be reflected in today’s increasingly commercialized Myanmar, where Kipling is found prominently, if artificially, at the country’s tourist sites; and authentically, if subtly, where his spirit lurks in remote places and every-day culture.
Finding just what it is that drives this Kipling phenomenon, as well as uncovering the various ways by which the thing manifests, has been my purpose in researching and writing this book. As to the former, theories abound: Some have said that -- as Burma's exoticism has always stood at a greater remove from that of India – Westerners may have long imagined it as a likelier setting for the writer’s faraway tales. Others hold out for a more mysterious cause having to do with the author’s three days of rapture. While it’s a cinch that the poet himself isn't around explain such things as the rush of new tourist sites offering foreigners excursions into “his” Burma, he may have left us a clue. For it was in tk when he wrote of the country (in words tourist companies now eagerly invoke), that it is only in Burma where you will find a land “quite unlike any … you will know about.”

He never did get around to telling us just why he believed this, however.

At least not in prose.

CHAPTER ONE: “On the Road to Mandalay”

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