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The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Last king standing


There is something about the fall of the once supreme and all-powerful from omnipotence to impotence that lures us close to a theatre, as it were, where the elements interweave and attach themselves to the players at will; some of us choose the facts, others the fiction. Also, one realizes soon that misfortune and concomitant sorrow are peripheral issues and it is often a series of political manoeuvres that is central to the story, be it Bonaparte’s or Mozart’s, Pu Yi’s or Shah Jahan’s. Nevertheless, a Greek chorus is always in evidence in the background.

Some, whilst sticking with the theatre archetype, assert that the British seemed to exhibit a fine sense of drama in exiling in 1858 a debilitated old Bahadur Shah II ‘Zafar’ to Rangoon and then, in 1885, deposing the last Burmese king and exiling the royal family to Ratnagiri which, even now, is not one of India’s most accessible regions. If one ignores for a moment this fine sense of irony, it will be evident that their overriding phobia was forever paranoia; the British were haunted by a consuming fear that a deposed monarch, if accessible to his people even after his fall, could become the rallying point of revolt against the government in situ, so it was politically expedient to send their victims to somewhere far removed from the centres of risk. Why did the rulers not replicate an Yekaterinburg in Delhi and later in Rangoon? Chances are that the paranoia was at work again; whilst much of the lower echelons were quickly decimated, there was the perceived risk of a serious backlash if the monarch was murdered; the Bolsheviks, though, had no such qualms. As an interesting footnote, King George V refused to afford asylum to his cousin, the Czar, and his family because he was cautioned that such an act could lead to a pro-monarchy revolt which was not in the interests of the British government, in the face of the Bolshevik fait accompli.

Burma, now Myanmar, was, and is, an incredibly beautiful country whose riches lie below the fertile land and above it; a heritage of precious minerals, rich rain forests, blue mountains and one of the world’s great rivers beyond which Kipling’s dawn “comes up like thunder” from across the South China Sea. Its numerous pagodas disseminate the oldest of Buddhist teachings, those of Theravada, to a proud and god-fearing populace. Most important, Burma straddles five countries, from Thailand and Laos to the east and India and Bangladesh to the west whilst up north the huge land mass of China looms. This rare, strategic fact never escaped the gaze of envious eyes across the centuries: thus the rapaciousness of succeeding invaders and finally colonists dictated its violent timelines. By the time the latter eventually departed, prolonged civil strife had been scripted. This had communists, pseudo-liberals, royalists, fortune hunters from across its many borders and plain brigands jockeying to get into power positions, which expectedly provided fertile ground for one of the world’s most oppressive army regimes to take charge in the name of law and order, and democracy be damned. What pushed Burma beyond the edge of reason and caused a ruination that may take decades to right itself? Was it the severely exploitative mindset of the British? The death of established royalty? The avarice of its neighbours? The adopted cynicism of a people who had grown to believe that given the levels of corruption, crime and general intolerance that ruled their country, it was really a case of finders keepers? Any story about the fall of Burma’s, or perhaps any other monarchy for that matter, cannot be written outside the context of these issues, particularly if one or all of them have contributed to the spoilage. And it is with reference to this that Sudha Shah’s book on the fate of the Konbaung dynasty can be judged.

Shah researches brilliantly. Her ‘List of people’ names a hundred characters who populate the book’s pages and the mind tries to remember everyone as the story progresses but the boggle is very much at work. One wonders though whether it was necessary to name even those who do nothing much to her story. Nevertheless, the fact that she spent seven years culling data from reams of often obscure manuscripts, from talking to anyone she believed was even remotely connected to her subject and visiting, more than once, all the places where her story took her, shows in the excruciating detail she works into the narrative; nothing, it seems, is unimportant to her. Maybe an intractable editor would have filtered out large chunks that border on the trivial, but this, unfortunately, has not happened. Biographies often tend to grow exponentially as authors, worrying about having left out things, keep adding on men and women and matters and ample and overcrowded books now and again collapse under their own weight; Shah’s book, though, is rescued, more or less, by her skills as a very capable storyteller.

To those who are knowledgeable about the tenure of the British raj in India, comparisons between British policies in the subcontinent — from furthering trading interests to full blown colonization and all the stratagems that lay in between — with those adopted in Burma are an inducement to read Shah’s book. On the face of it, the overthrowing of an established order in the main to secure economic advantages for a home country first in the throes of industrialization or later in the aftermath of war, and to create a bulwark against the manoeuvrings of others with the same ideas, present socio-political parallels; on the other hand, the dissimilar elements are crucial. For instance, the British attitude towards the use of an occupying force, its treatment of royalty and partisan insurgency, its drive to establish clear systems of governance, and the constant horse-trading that seemed to be wrapped up in deceit and doublespeak: these were shaped and adapted to current realities. However, Shah’s interests seem to lie elsewhere and she leaves you to wrestle with these issues without any help from her.

Shah gratefully acknowledges Amitava Ghosh’s The Glass Palace as having started her off on “an extraordinary journey”, which the painful and deeply affecting story of King Thibaw, Queen Supayalat and their four daughters certainly is. More distressing than the despicable behaviour of the British in Burma, acting out the orders of their viceroy, Lord Dufferin, on behalf of their government in India, which led to the king and his family being ejected from their homeland, was the appalling treatment meted out to them by the administration once they reached first Madras and then Ratnagiri. On the other hand, their liaisons with the local Marathi townspeople celebrate life and make for compelling reading.

I do not think Shah meant to write an erudite account of a succession of strategically significant events that stemmed from a serial colonizer’s acquisitive policies and pushed a near East country into political chaos which, a century later, it is still trying to rid itself of. For her what was important was an exceptional story of a man and the five women dearest to him; it just so happened that the man was the last king standing.