On the road to Mandalay, in a mini van making good time across the vast Irrawaddy basin, I received an email. It was remarkable for two reasons. The first was that I’d successfully connected to the Internet. Access was erratic throughout our trip. Not that that stopped me from checking my phone from time to time—it’s a difficult habit to break. Partial reinforcement is especially reinforcing.
The second was the content. It was written by someone sitting in a glass tower surrounded by other, similar towers. The writer’s mastery of English was exemplary. Their command of the manoeuvres necessary to ensure responsibility for anything never lands on their desk equally impressive.
We were on our way to Mandalay, the last capital city of the Kings of Burma. One story has it that King Thibaw’s advisors, not wanting to take the responsibility for delivering bad news, withheld critical information about the size of the British army and the likelihood that if negotiations failed, which they did, the Kingdom would be overwhelmed.
This is the watch tower in the grounds of the Royal Palace in Mandalay. From here King Thibaw’s guards watched the British army approach the palace in November of 1885. Defeat was inevitable.
Thibaw and his household were exiled to India. Meanwhile, in British ruled Burma the social structures developed over centuries and which had sustained a rich and complex society, one largely unrecognised and misunderstood by the new rulers, collapsed.
There’s a parallel, albeit on a much smaller scale, between the plight of Thibaw and Burma and those affected by the email. That message marked the end of a specialist and proven effective service in a complex and little understood field of work, one deemed no longer core business for the entity concerned. And once that decision was made, the outcome was inevitable.
I was tempted to delete the email. Instead, I saved it against the day, yet to arrive (I expect it won’t) when I might have regrets or doubts about the decision I took last year, to live my life differently. And then, with the email open I handed my phone to John. You can say a lot in a crowded mini van with a glance, the raise of an eyebrow, a sigh.
We each returned to gazing out the window. It was a dry and dusty road.
It’s apt that the first piece of writing I came across about Mandalay, as it is for many English speakers, was the eponymous poem by Kipling. It’s a poem that evokes so much of the fascination by the British for all that is exotic; a poem written by a man who never went to Mandalay, whose contact with Burma was brief. He passed through Rangoon and Moulmein on his journey “home” after serving the empire in India.
John an I arrived in Mandalay late in the afternoon, to a place that was nothing like what I had imagined. Vanquished by the British in 1885, sacked by the Japanese in 1942, and bombed again by the Allies in 1944 there is little left of the old city.
It’s a town with the uniformity of architecture that comes from a complete and hurried rebuild. But I was excited to be there. I was looking forward to standing on the top of Mandalay hill, to gazing out at the future.
In the meantime, for old times’ sake, here’s the late, great Frank Sinatra: