Sunday, 11 May 2014

There's a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Kathmandu

Is it just me, or was this one of the lines somehow edged itself into your memory during your childhood?  I think my father quoted it from time to time, though he didn't know the rest of the poem. (For those who don't know it - it's here.)

It's a lovely line - in the sense that it bounces along, presents an instant image, leads the reader into the narrative behind the poem. I came across it again the other day - written during the days of the Raj, it tells the tale of a militiaman in love with a young woman, her ethnicity unclear but the implication is that she is Nepali (Kathmandu being the capital of Nepal).

It's a poem of its time. The young woman asked for the eye of this little idol as proof of love, but the idol haunted the man for years afterwards. It wouldn't, at the time, have raised an eyebrow - especially as the lovely rhythms of that first line carry on throughout the poem.

Now - in the twenty-first century - it feels patronising - even racist. The jaunty tone of the poem contradicts any suggestion that this might be a love poem, even implies attraction between people of different ethnicities is slightly comic.

In addition, this yellow idol - diminished as it is by the loss of an eye - bears no relation to any of the Hindu deities I came across in Nepal.

Does this matter? Maybe not - it's a poem of its time. We've moved on, and surely anyone reading it could recognise that times have changed. And yet that sing-song rhythm lingers. I've come across people who, when I mention I've been to Nepal, quote this line. For some it seems to include all they know about the country.

I don't want to suggest we cull every Victorian poem that celebrated the Empire. But I wonder if we need to read them with one eye (yellow or not) on the times in which they were written and another on the wonderful opportunities we now have to celebrate our diversities and our commonalities.


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  2. Sorry Jo, that last comment was me, but I made a mess of it, so let's try again: I agree so much with what you say here. It's hard, isn't it? I mean, not to judge literature and history too from our own perspective, but I also feel we should try to put ourselves in the shoes made at the time to understand how and why people acted or wrote the way they did. If we can at least see it from the point of view of the time, it might perhaps help us to appreciate our current diversity and easier social mixes even more!

    1. I have no problem if we read these poems in the spirit of the time, as long as we are able to stand back and think about how times have changed - for the richer. It's jingoism without thinking I have a problem with.

  3. This post brought to mind the DJ from Devon I think who has been suspended for playing a 1930s version of The Sun has got his Hat on. That version includes the n word which is a shame because it always sounded like a harmless enough song to me. I think that this poem, which I remember wrongly as a one-eyed yellow monster, has its place in literature. It represents a period in time and we wouldn't want to be remembered as 'book burners'.