Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Traveling into Kipling's Mandalay

“By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' eastward to the sea,
There's a Burma girl a-settin', and I know she thinks o' me.” -Kipling, Mandalay

For the longest time as a boy, I believed Rudyard Kipling to be an American. Completely preposterous, I know, Kipling is the quintessential Brit and unapologetic preserver of the Queen’s soverign imperialistic realm, but in the innocence of my childhood, I made no distinction.
“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!’” –Kipling, Mandalay

In those days, Kipling, as he does to this day, sits very quietly on my mother’s bookshelf in between the Complete Works of William Shakespeare and Mark Twain, and the Love Poems of Alexander Pushkin and Emily Dickinson- all of who were Americans in my childhood heart, or more importantly, neighbors.
“An' I seed her first a-smokin' of a whackin' white cheroot,
An' a-wastin' Christian kisses on an 'eathen idol's foot.” -Kipling, Mandalay

You see, I really believed that Hamlet and Eugene Onegin and Tom Sawyer and Mowgli were my friends, and that heading out into the fields towards the trees of my parent’s farm in Colton, was like wandering with Baloo and Bagheera into the jungle- that standing cows were the ominous Sheer Khan, and eerie sounds in the forest trees the mysterious python Kaa.
“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!’” –Kipling, Mandalay

I know. I was a total literary kid dork! But The Jungle Book, other than Peter Pan and Robin Hood, the three greatest Disney Cartoons for a boy with an unbreakable imagination that could never be sullied with the harsh realities of truth, was a great inspiration to me.
“With 'er arm upon my shoulder an' 'er cheek agin' my cheek
We useter watch the steamers an' the hathis pilin' teak.” -Kipling, Mandalay

The realization that Kipling was in fact, gasp… British! sadly, came quickly. Reading works such as “Just So Stories,” “Gunga-Din,” and “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” ensured that I began to see the world not just as full of adventure and wild heroic danger, but also as power exerted over class and society.
“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.’” -Kipling, Mandalay

Two amazing adventure stories stand out: 1. The absolutely magnificent KIM, about a young white boy growing up in India who befriends a Tibetan monk, and 2. The Man Who Would Become King, based on two real life stories of Brit and American who traveled Asia as vagabonds and later became gods, ruled my imagination as a boy.
“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.” -Kipling, Mandalay

But another of Kipling’s works was always in my memory, and that is the poem, Mandalay. Yes, Mandalay! Such a word. There are certain names of cities that just capture imagination: Carthage, Troy, Atlantis, Shangri-La, and Mandalay is another.
“On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin'-fishes play,
An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!” -Kipling, Mandalay

So I finally found my chance to visit this storied city, riding across dusty roads and through dirty mountains, to finally arrive in the back of a truck with a scarf wrapped around my face in the glare of motorbike headlights and dim street lamps. Mandalay, here you are, just another lost and forgotten city on a list of boyhood dreams, laying out in the grass and watching clouds. I am here. You are with me now forever, as you have always been.
P.S. I feel like I'm still living that bookcase.  How sweet is that?  Thanks, Mom!

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