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Saturday, July 8, 2006

"The Miracle of Purun Bhagat"

A dang good read

Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling was a complex man. Some see him as the voice of empire, the Anglo-centric spokesperson for Britannia's right to rule the waves. Such people accuse him of the worst sort of racism, misogyny, and a laundry list of blind prejudices.

It ain't that simple.

Take a look at this page on my The Temple Guy site, where I name Kipling "the expat's Poet Laureate." There you'll find "We and They" (along with "The Explorer"), which gives a singsong, children's version of a plea for tolerance. Because I know clicking out is onerous, let me give you the last stanza here:

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
As only a sort of They!

This relates to a conversation we had tonight: One Canadian guy said that sometimes people exclaim laowai! (foreigner) when they see him. He sometimes replies, Wo bu shi laowai, shi Jianadaren; ni shi laowai: "I'm not a foreigner, I'm a Canadian; you're a foreigner!" I admit, I've done similar things in Japan. A typical encounter: An old lady points and exclaims, "Gaijin!" (foreigner; literally "outside person"). I respond in kind: I point and exclaim "Gaijin!"

There was even the suggestion for a t-shirt reading "Wo bu shi laowai." However, Lila, my Filipina girlfriend, wants one that says Wo SHI laowai; "I AM a foreigner." Since she looks Chinese but can't speak the language, people keep speaking to her in Chinese and expecting her to respond. I told her they probably think she's just a stupid Chinese; she said something unprintable.

Anyway, who's a foreigner? A Japanese friend (hi, Reiko!) was in Hawaii and overheard a Japanese father and son:

Son: Daddy, look at all the foreigners!
Father: Son, we're the foreigners here.

(Of course in Hawaii that may be debatable, but...) For us who live abroad, this question is part of our everyday existence. For our bestest friends' going away party tonight, there were at least seven countries represented; "foreigners" far outnumbered the Chinese, and the medium of communication was English. So who was the foreigner?

Zoran (left) and Vida (in white) are leaving us soon; our friend Angel is "the Chinese"; and Mirasol, Richard (back) and Bobby (left) are the amazing "Mustang" at the Polo Restaurant, our newest hangout
Five foreigners and a Chinese (in pink dress)

I also wrote briefly on that page (the one about Kipling, remember?) about a proper interpretation of Kipling's famous line, "Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet..." Most see this as a declaration of irreconcilable differences. As I say there, few know the rest of the stanza:

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!

The story in brief shows a "border thief" who steals an officer's horse; the officer's son rides out on a dun to bring it back, of course. But the narrative turns when the border thief learns that this son is truly a man, and he gives him his son (and the mare and the dun) to prove he's his biggest fan. (Let those who have ears to hear forgive me.) The face-to-face meeting between these two men of arms--that is, the encounter with "the Other"--eliminates distinctions of nation and race--no "Border, Breed, or Birth"--and the two become "Brothers-in-Blood."

Kipling, then, was looking deeper than his critics give him credit for. This was recognized by wiser heads than ours during his lifetime: He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907.

Well then, I want to highly recommend a story, "The Miracle of Purun Bhagat" (in The Second Jungle Book). It tells the story of...but no, I really wish to tell you very little because one line in the story shocked me powerfully, and I don't want to deprive some of you of the same startle. How will you recognize the line I'm talking about? Well, I'll tell you this: although it shook me mightily, it ends with the thought that this earth-moving course of action "was considered nothing extraordinary."

Read it. Please. And I'll leave you with a question to ponder. Which was the "miracle" of the title: the heroic action at the end of the story, or the very choice of "career" that led to it?

In either case, the story demonstrates Kipling's keen sensitivity to what is important to the "oriental mind," and belies the charges that he saw "the Other" as in any way inferior.

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A quote (just for fun): From this page of the online version of Evan Morris' amazing and witty "The Word Detective" column (where I often find myself going for "research" and ending up reading far more than I have time for):

"Keep in mind that English, like all languages, is the product of a committee composed of millions of people squabbling over the course of many centuries."

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