Auld Lang Syne

As the year 2010 is ending, all of us in the plain and hills of Manipur should be singing Auld Lang Syne at the stroke of midnight of December 31 to usher in a harmonious New Year, for all times’ sake. Perhaps, the church, UCM and AMCO in Manipur should be in the enviable position for initiating it.

In these radical times of fundamental change in politics and social conditions it is time to quit nagging about all the things that are going wrong in our life and do something drastic to change it. It is time to pummel a mission statement into our psyche.

While reminiscing my youth in my peaceful hometown of Imphal, I recall Dr Kamal who wrote in his book Madhavi that ‘people cannot live without hope’. Auld Lang Syne gives us hope. It is a song written by Robert Burns, the most famous Scottish bard in 1788. ‘Auld Lang Syne’ means ‘Old Long since’ in the Scottish dialect (old days long ago in modern English).

When I was in college in Bombay, Scottish dialect was also taught in the English language classes. I remember reading about Robert Burns poems, which I didn’t understand very much. One of them was Auld Lang Syne. In the UK I had a doctor colleague, a Scottish lassie called Valerie Wilson from Ayr. She used to invite me and my wife every year to ‘Burn’s Supper’ or Robbie Burn’s Night. It is the annual celebration of this Scottish Poet’s birthday on the 25th of January. It is celebrated anywhere in the world where there are Scots, including Mumbai at the Tajmahal Hotel. The menu of the dinner is always in Scottish traditional meals, such as Scotch broth (starter soup), Haggis, Champit Tattles, Bashed Neeps (main course), St Andrew’s Trifle (desert) followed by Coffee.

Robert Burns was born in the village of Alloway near Ayr. Ayr is a holiday coastal town with a beautiful beach, 32 miles south-west of Glasgow. Robbie’s humble single roomed white-washed and thatched cottage (now a museum) is still very well preserved. He was the son of a poor tenant farmer, born 30 years before Lord Byron, also a Scot, who was famous for his good looks but infamous for his incest with his half-sister Augusta Leigh. Burns died in Dumfries very young, of rheumatic heart. Though poetry, at that time was an occupation for the upper and middle classes, Robbie was an exception. He lived from January 25 1759 to July 21 1796.  Burn’s Suppers range from stentoriously formal gatherings to rave-ups of drunkards and louts, especially in Glasgow and Edinburgh. The eating of a traditional Scottish meal with haggis, the drinking of Scotch whisky (usually neat) and recitation of one of his satirical poems are the hallmarks of the night. This is culminated by singing Auld Lang Syne.

The song is well known in many English speaking and other countries and is often sung to celebrate the start of the New Year at the stroke of midnight, what the Scots call Hogmanay. By extension, its use has also become common at funerals, graduations and as a farewell or ending of an occasion. At the Tokyo Olympic Games in 1965, the Grand Finale ended with “Auld Lang Syne”, which the Japanese believe is a Japanese song. The Chinese have it too, translated in Chinese. At the Burn’s Bicentenary in 1956, the Russians issued stamps to commemorate the occasion. Samuel Marshak’s translation of Burn’s poems is a constant best-seller in Russia, along with Shakespeare and Dickens.

In the UK the song is sung at the end of a variety of functions. The Queen sang it at the Millenium Dome celebrations in 2,000.  It is sung at the Passing out Parade of Young Officers in the Royal Navy. The custom is followed in India at the Passing out Parade of young officers at the National Defence Academy, as well as in Pakistan, Malayasia,

Myanmar, Nigeria and Canada. In the USA it is used as a song of remembrance at memorial events. The American patriotic song, “America the Beautiful” has the same metre, and the lyrics can be sung interchangeably.

In Bangladesh and West Bengal the melody was the direct inspiration for the popular Bengali song Purano shei diner kotha (memories of good old days) composed by Rabindranath Tagore. In Chile the melody is sung in Spanish as a funeral farewell song, especially in the Catholic Church. In China students sing the song in Chinese for friendship, as well as at  student graduations and funerals. In Japan, the Japanese students’ song Hotaru no hikari (Glow of a firefly) uses “Auld Lang Syne” tune. It is commonly sung in graduation ceremonies and at the end of school day. In Denmark, the song was translated into the Danish dialect sallingbomal in1927. In France the song is known as Ce  n’est qu’un au revoir mes fieres (This is just a goodbye my friends). In Greece it is part of the ending ceremony of scouting. In Hungary the song is sung by school leavers. The list is endless.

Burns wrote poems and songs in his Scottish dialect; spoken only by a few mortals on the face of the earth. He also wrote a few in the English language, over which he had no command. So he gave it up. Burn’s popularity is perhaps because of his exposition of human nature with its failures and triumphs. He puts his character in all his writings.

When “Auld Lang Syne” is traditionally sung at the approach of the New Year, it is a common practice that everyone joins hands with the person next to them to form a great circle around the dance floor. At the beginning of the last verse, everyone crosses their arms across their breast, so that the right hand reaches out to the neighbour on the left and vice versa. When the tune ends, everyone rushes to the middle, while still holding hands. When the circle is re-established, everyone turns under the arms to end up facing outwards with hands still joined. At the end of the song the circle is broken and everyone shakes hand with each other wishing a Happy New year.

Another equally famous Robby Burns’ poem is a traditional children’s song, “Comin Thro’ The Rye”. This is a variant of the tune to which Auld Lang Syne is usually sung. The melodic shape is practically the same, the difference lying in the tempo and rhythm. I remember this song sung by Ava Gardner (once married to Frank Sinatra, and died in London, drinking gin and tonic) in the film Mogambo with Clarke Gable and Grace Kelly, which I saw at the Metro cinema hall in Bombay in 1952. I saw this film (repeated every Christmas time) again today. The two stanzas sung by Ava are given below:

Gin (= should) a body meet a body
Comin thro’ the rye,
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need a body cry?
Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro’ the glen,
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need the warl’ ken?

Here is the rendering of Auld Lang Syne. Only the first and the last stanzas are quoted for flavour, followed by translation into modern English. This dialect is still spoken in the Highlands, such as Inverness where Shakespeare based Macbeth as the Thane of its Cawdor Castle. “Hail Macbeth; hail Thane of Cawdor.”

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days o’ auld lang syne
With the following chorus everyone joins hands 
across in a circle
And gie’s a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak’ a right guid-willie waught,
For auld lang syne.
Should old acquaintance be forgotten
Never be remembered?
Should old acquaintance be forgotten
And days long ago.
And there’s a hand, my trusty friend!
And give me a hand of yours!
And we will take an excellent good-will drink
For days long ago.

The writer is based in the UK