Jul 052017
 

People of a certain age know Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Mandalay” to one degree or another, maybe just snippets. I knew bits of the poem from a very young age because my father would occasionally sing snatches of the song, “Road to Mandalay,” created out of the poem by Oley Speaks and popularized on a recording by Peter Dawson:

For decades this was all I knew of the poem and had no idea that it is a mere shell of the original. Even though I knew nothing of Mandalay other than what the poem tells us, it’s fair to say that this was a prime reason for me wanting to come here. Here’s the whole poem in its original version:

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 English 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!
O the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay !

You can see that the Speaks/Dawson version is merely the first and last stanzas with the meat and substance of the original missing.

Kipling wrote “Mandalay” around March 1890, when he was 24 years old. He had arrived in England in October the previous year, after seven years in India. He had taken an eastward route home, traveling by steamship from Calcutta to Japan, then to San Francisco, then across the United States. Rangoon had been the first port of call after Calcutta; then there was an unscheduled stop at Moulmein. Kipling wrote the following at the time about Burmese women:

I love the Burman with the blind favouritism born of first impression. When I die I will be a Burman … and I will always walk about with a pretty almond-coloured girl who shall laugh and jest too, as a young maiden ought. She shall not pull a sari over her head when a man looks at her and glare suggestively from behind it, nor shall she tramp behind me when I walk: for these are the customs of India. She shall look all the world between the eyes, in honesty and good fellowship, and I will teach her not to defile her pretty mouth with chopped tobacco in a cabbage leaf, but to inhale good cigarettes of Egypt’s best brand.

At the time Mandalay was the former royal capital city of Burma, which was part of British India from 1886 to 1937, and a separate British colony from 1937 to 1948 when it became an independent nation. Moulmein is the Anglicized version of (present-day) Mawlamyine, in south-eastern Burma, on the eastern shore of the Gulf of Martaban.

British troops stationed in Burma were ferried to and from Mandalay on the Irrawaddy River by paddle steamers run by the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (IFC), hence the Irrawaddy was known as the “road to Mandalay.” Rangoon to Mandalay was a 700 km trip each way. During the Third Anglo-Burmese War of 1885, 9,000 British and Indian soldiers had been transported by a fleet of paddle steamers (“the old flotilla” of the poem) and other boats from Rangoon to Mandalay

Kipling claimed that when in Moulmein, he had paid no attention to the pagoda his poem later made famous, because he was so struck by a Burmese beauty on the steps. This chance encounter is the real core of the poem shrouded in the sentimental longing of a British soldier for Burma following his ten-year stint in the army and subsequent return to the squalor of Victorian London. There’s a lot to the poem and to Kipling’s ambivalent colonialism inherent in it. In my next post I’ll add to the welter of words concerning Kipling, the British Empire, and Mandalay.

To be continued . . .

 

 

 

 

 Posted by at 10:51 am

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