In striving to outlaw discriminatory practices, are we in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater?
The Burma Star Association is a grouping of servicemen and women who served in the Burma Campaign of World War II.
Every year, their dwindling numbers gather together at London’s Royal Albert Hall for the National Service of Remembrance for those who never returned from what was arguably the most bitterly contested campaign of that war.
The members of General (later Field Marshal) Bill Slim’s 14th Army who fought in the retreat through Burma, to the monumental struggle at Kohima, which turned the tide in favor of the Allies before pushing the Japanese back until they were defeated, often referred to themselves as “the forgotten army.”
They waged a war thousands of miles distant from the European theater, combating an unforgiving climate, a cruel terrain and rampant disease as well as a fanatically determined enemy.
For those who have little or no idea of the primal struggle of the campaign, the autobiographical books by two great novelists, George MacDonald Fraser’s Quartered Safe Out Here and John Masters’ The Road Past Mandalay, provide remarkable insights for the uninitiated.
The melody for the song “The Road to Mandalay” was written by Oley Speaks to a poem by Rudyard Kipling. It was a favorite marching song of the 14th Army’s soldiers.
For that very reason, the song has always been a feature of the annual Burma Star Association’s Reunion at the Albert Hall.
But this year, to the dismay of the association’s members, the song has been excised from the program, apparently because the performer, a famous operatic bass-baritone, who was invited by the British Broadcasting Corporation to sing it considered that one line was “derogatory to people of color.”
The performer’s manager declined to say whether he voiced any objections to the poem or any particular line within it. In the end, another choice of song was made.
One cannot help wondering why the BBC did not ask someone else to sing it.
Let us put the line in context so that it can be considered objectively.
The poem tells the story of a British soldier in Victorian times who fought in Burma and fell in love with a Burmese girl.
He has returned to a cold, wet London:
“I am sick o’ wastin’ leather on these gritty pavin’ stones.
An’ the blasted English drizzle wakes the fever in my bones.”
And though he walks with 50 housemaids out of Chelsea to the Strand, who talk a lot of loving, he asks rhetorically, “Wot do they understand?”
Because he has “… a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!”
He recalls the first time that he caught sight of her smoking a cheroot and then comes the line to which exception is taken:
“An’ a-wastin Christian kisses on an ’eathen idol’s foot.”
The idol to which he refers turns out to be a statue of the Buddha, the icon of the most forgiving of spiritual philosophies.
I wonder, can a kiss on a statue of the Buddha’s foot, by whomsoever it is planted, no matter what their religion, be regarded as derogatory to people of color?
The soldier’s complaint is that the maiden should not have wasted the kiss on anyone other than himself. As he observes: “Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed ’er where she stud.”
Let us assume, for instant purposes, that the Burmese maiden was typical of the gloriously honey-colored people of her country. Far from derogating from her in any sense of the word, the poem glories in everything that she represents to the soldier.
He pines for her, speaks of her thinking of him:
“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.”
Nor is it a pejorative comparison between Christianity and Buddhism, for he asks to be shipped “somewhere east of Suez, Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments.…”
The “Christianity” of the kiss lies in its adjectival purity rather than its religious context.
A poem that, on any objective reading, is a simple soldier’s soliloquy to a beautiful Burmese girl cannot by any stretch of the most bigoted imagination be construed as derogatory of someone of color.
The members of the Burma Star Association are incensed at the exclusion of their song from their memorial to the men and women who gave their lives so that we can enjoy freedom from fascist dictators – a decision made by those who have not earned the right to dictate what these veterans wish to hear.
I support, wholeheartedly, proper measures against discriminatory practices of any nature and the exclusion of words or actions, founded on race, color, creed, age or sexual orientation that are gratuitously offensive.
But to take this one line out of context and castigate it as derogatory to people of color merely exhibits ignorance. Literary ignorance and that of the human condition.
Worse, it militates against intelligent censorship of material that does offend against the reasonable sensitivities of any element in our societies and devalues the whole thrust of educating people to a more enlightened perspective of humanity in which, to the extent that we judge others, we do so on the basis of their qualities as human beings.
I hope that the audience of veterans at this year’s Burma Star Reunion will send their message to the BBC in Kipling’s soldier’s words:
“… Silence ’ung so ’eavy you was ’arf afraid to speak!”
Neville Sarony QC is a noted Hong Kong lawyer with more than 50 years at the Bar.