In Mandalay, Burma, back in the heyday of Empire, my grandfather played polo with Lord Louis Mountbatten, assassinated on Monday by IRA terrorists. It was in 1921, on a hot dry field at the foot of Mandalay Hill, that the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII), Lord Louis Mountbatten (his cousin and aid-de-camp), and my grandfather, Eric Percy-Smith (Deputy Inspector-General of the Burma Military Police), galloped around on sweating pkonies. They kicked up clouds of dust that swirled around the sepoy attendants who chased errant polo balls through prickly grass seed, or simply stood with bayonets glistening.
My father, 10 years old at the time and enrolled at nearby St. Peter's parochial school, recalls the scene today: "There we were, a whole contingent of schoolboys, out in the hot sun, waving the Union Jack for the visiting royal team, while the horses thundered up and down the field and the players swung the lead and whacked and chivvied at the polo ball, swilling bear between chukkers.
"Mountbatten was a dashing fellow with matinee-idol good looks, nimble and athletic. There was another very handsome man on the field, however, a great blue-eyed mustachioed player on the home team, a Lt. Col. Percy-Smith of the 19 Fame's Horse and 17 Jat Lancers regiments.
"Who would have believed I would end up one day his son-in-law?"
On that same royal tour of Burma and India, Moutbatten courted the beautiful Edwina Ashley, proposing to her the following year at a viceroy's ball in New Delhi. The hostess, Lady Reading, turned up her viceregal nose at the idea. She wrote to Edwina's aunt, expressing the opinion that the young man did not appear to have a very promising career ahead of him. Despite her objections, the romance culminated in their marriage in London, the social event of 1922.
By 1944, back in Burma, Mountbatten's career was no longer in question. The vice admiral, supreme Allied commander in Southeast Asia, had taken over a disorganized, despondent command and trounced the Japanese. He took the law into his own hands and threw everthing he had -- including material that was not his to divert -- into the battles at Imphal and Kohima.
While the Japanese were in retreat after bloodying the coast of Arakan with William Slim's men, my father, now Lt. Law-Yone in the British Army met Mountbatten again.
He tells it this way: "I had just got my first Japanese prisoner of war, a captain, and was eager to get on with interrogation. I had fed him with K ration sugar and was lighting up a cigarette for him when a staff officer came to interrupt. 'You're wanted', he said. I looked up, annoyed. 'I'm busy.' 'Too busy for the supremo? I think he outranks you.'
"I jumped and went. Somewhere in a room filled with heavily starched and decorated Allied brass was the supremo. I turned to the man with the largest assortment of medals on his chest and saluted. Wrong man. Then I recognized Mountbatten.
'You speak English, do you?' he asked me.
"'My mother tongue, sir.'
He was paying a visit to a field hospital, and I was to go along as interpreter. At every bed we stopped at he wanted me to raise morale by reassuring the wounded ("Tell him who I am.'). The Arakanese are not easy people to convince in a hurry, though, and my fevered explanation that the apparition by my side was Lord of the Seven Seas and next in importance only to Guatama Buddha left them unmoved.
Then we came to the bed of a Villager so badly cut up that only one eye and the corner of his mouth were exposed. The rest of his head was wrapped in yards of bandage.
"This was a bad show, by George, What, what? When did this happen? Which way did the Japanese go?'
"We had to wait an eternity before the wounded man replied: 'Japanese? What Japanese?' He'd had a fight with his neighbor. The man had pulled a knife on him.
"It was at this point that Lord Louis Mountbatten lost interest in the whole exercise. End of interpreting assignment. 'Dismissed.'
The supremo went on to become viceroy of India, 20th and last in a line of distinguished proconsuls -- Hastings, Wellesley, Cornwallis, Curzon. The took a pragmatic view of the territories in keeping with Britian's changing fortunes. He seemed to adapt to the role of liquidator of empire without much difficulty, though he was accused of arbitrary behavior when, with breakneck speed, he decreed partition of the Subcontinent into India and Pakistan.
Why did Lord Louis Mountbatten, Viscount of Burma, ennoble himself with the title not of India, but of adjoining Burma? Mountbatten once told Churchill that he suffered "from the congenital weakness of believing I can do anything." But to have laid titular claim to all of India would have been hubris of the sort that the Indians would not have permitted. Alexander the Great had been denied the feat. Rather than select part of India for his title, he preferred to take the whole of Burma.
Since 1855, Burma had been a province of India, which was so far ahead constitutionally that the British had trouble cajoling the Burmese into separating from India. Since the, Burma had been the easiest of all the overseas dominions to govern. (During the peasant revolt of 1932, a total of two British soldiers were killed.)
When the struggle for independence came, most Burmese were glad to see the British leave only because, in the ancient cliche, good government is no substitute for self-government.
Mountbatten was the man who ushered in self-government for Burma and it is in this role that he lives on. He came to his adopted country with the right lineage and the right name.
The Burmese are at heart a class-counscious race with a lingering love of royalty, and Mountbatten's aristocratic holdings did him no harm. As for his name, it lent itself to a neat transliteration: Maung Ba Tin, Curzon. He took a pragmatic view of the territories in keeping with
Mountbatten, as one of his non-admirers grudgingly put it, could "charm a vulture off a corpse if he set his mind to it." That charm was at full voltage when he dealt with Asian nationalists. In 1947, for example, when he invited to Kandy, Ceylon, the future leaders of Burma for a conference on the transition to independence, he accomplished the rare feat of leaving the Burmese, as one observer said, "feeling pleased with themselves and satisfied with Mountbatten."
He gave them independence with such startling speed that in the ensuing euphoria, the Burmese saw no reason to object to his self-ennoblement as earl of Burma. It was nothing to worry about. Let Maung Ba Tin call himself whatever he wants.
Burma finally won independence, outside the commonwealth, on Jan. 4, 1948. But by then, the George Washington of Burma, Gen. Aung San, (Mountbatten's choice and the Burmese choice of leader) had been assassinated. Rumor had it that it was a put-up job by unsavory British elements. In the fit of xenophobia that seized the Burmese army officers as a result, the great statue of Queen Victoria that stood in a park was pulled down for destruction.
Yet none of this rage was directed toward Victoria's grandson, Mountbatten, whose portrait hung in the president's mansion. In the portrait, he wore the imperial golden sash and strands of Thedo Maha Thiri Thudhamma -- the highest order of chivalry that the country could bestow on any mortal.
In 1969, two revolutionaries seeking to overthrow the military dictatorship in Burma -- former Prime Minister U Nu and my father, former editor and publisher U Law-Yone -- were in England on a fund raising trip when they received an invitation to lunch at Broadlands, Moutnbatten's estate outside Southampton.
There they found Mountbatten "rattling around in that vast place with a single servant," as my father puts it, "but at 69 as brisk and fit as ever."
Mountabatten greeted them with the old warmth and charm. He led them through the gardens and game-filled grounds, through entire galleries of stern, knighted and bemedalled forbears, through endless displays of hunting tropies and Oriental gongs.
"I was transported," my father writes, "by the sight of Count Teraouchi's sword. The blade was too finely tempered to be exposed, so it was in storage somewhere, but even with a bamboo blade it surpassed in beauty and workmanship anything I had ever seen in the line of Samurai swords. I do not think the like of it can be found even in Japan today."
Over lunch, they talked about old times and new plans. Law-Yone reminded Mountbatten of the polo game in Mandalay, the Arakan incident. Nu elaborated on the future of Burma. "Then it was time to go down to the woods and plant a tree," my father writes. "The King of Denmark had been there recently but his tree had withered. U Nu tenderly placed a sapling in the appointed spot, muttering incantations the while, I think I did hear Lord Mountbatten inquire all the pother in Burma was about and U Nu aping Metternich with, "Lord Mountbatten, you are a friend of Gen. Ne Win's (the present ruler of Burma) as well as mine. It would be improper for me to ill repay your hospitality by introducing a tendentious subject."
"The noble earl nodded. 'Under the circumstances, that might be the wisest course.'
He was, after all, entertaining revolutionaries.
The irony of his death was that he thought he understood them all.