GEORGE ORWELL AND BURMA
George Orwell served in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma for five years from 1922 to 1927, an experience that was the inspiration for his 1934 novel “Burmese Days.” He worked as a colonial police officer in northern Burma in the 1920s. He wrote the “past belongs to those who control the present” and described Mandalay as a rather disagreeable town—“it is dusty and intolerable hot and it said to have five main products that begin with P, namely pagodas, pariahs, pigs, priests, and prostitutes.”
George Orwell (1903-1950) was born as Eric Blair in British India. After graduating from Eton College in England, he worked in Burma. He fought against the fascist dicatorship of Franco in the Spanish Civil War, which began in 1936. His novels "Animal Farm" and "1984" were published in 1945 and 1949, respectively. The latter depicts a nightmarish totalitarian nation. Even today, closed societies such as North Korea are described as "Orwellian".
Orwell has been described as one of the most influential writers of the modern world. A prolific writer, who produced numerous journalistic pieces and political essays, before he penned his famous novels, 1984 and Animal Farm , he an extraordinary ability to cut through all the bullshit and write about what was really going on. Few writers have made such bold predictions and had many of them come true. Orwell has such an impact on our way of defining the world that the adjective "Orwellian" was coined to describe anything that smacks of totalitarianism and authoritarianism. “Big Brother” and “Newspeak” were words he coined.
Orwell was an incredibly prolific writer—his complete works takes up 20 volumes—especially when you consider that he died a the age of 46. Orwell was an astute journalist, great essayist and superb literary critic, but he was at his best addressing social and political issues. Many his best works are pieces on Socialism and Capitalism that still ring true decades after they were written. On his deathbed he was hashing out the idea for another book—a novella entitled 'A Smoking Room Story'—in which he would revisit Burma, a place he had not been to since his youth.
Book: Burmese Days by George Orwell
George Orwell’s Life
Orwell's real name was E.A. Blair. He took his pen name from a river south of his home town, the industrial town of Wigan. Orwell was born in 1903 into the impoverished middle class. He attended Eton, where he was bullied by other boys and had a generally lousy time. In one his essays he describes a boy in an elite school who meet a lady, who tells him, "Here is a little boy...who wets his bed every night. Do you know what I am going to do if you wet your bed again?...I'm going to get the Sixth Form to beat you." Orwell didn't graduate from Oxford or Cambridge or any other university. His experience at Eton— which he said was "five years in a lukewarm bath of snobbery”—was enough education for him,
Orwell looked sickly and gaunt. He had a tubercular condition that slow him down somewhat but didn't stop him. His propensity for hard work didn't help his health. Orwell could be sociable and affectionate, but overall he seemed to seek solitude. Some scholars have suggested that Orwell was gay. The assertion is based on arguments that some of the characters in 1984 resemble secretive homosexual lovers.
Orwell went to Burma when he was nineteen. Overall he wasn't impressed by the British there, who he accused of being capitalists exploiting the local people. He left Burma abruptly and decided to become a writer. In addition to Burmese Days he wrote the essays Shooting an Elephant and A Hanging about his experiences in what in now Myanmar. After returning to Britain from Burma, Orwell struggled with little money in London, where wrote The Road to Wigan Pier , and Paris, where he worked as a dishwasher and wrote Down and Out in Paris and London . His experiences led him to believe that exploitative nature of capitalism was not just limited to Third World colonies but could also be found in his own back yard. In the 1930s, Orwell volunteered as soldier in Spain to fight against the forces of Franco in the Spanish Civil War and was shot in the neck.
During World War II Orwell worked for the Home Guard and the BBC, where he prepared material for broadcasts to India. Even though hardly anybody listened to the broadcasts, they were highly insightful and prescient. In one broadcast he told that Indians that although life with the British wasn't ideal it was fair better than they the life they might experience under the Japanese.
Orwell never had much money but the success of Animal Farm earned him some substantial royalties and he used the money to buy a small farmhouse on the island of Jura in the Hebrides, where he wrote 1984 and spent of a lot of time gardening. Orwell’s first wife was named Eileen. He had extramarital affairs and she may have had some too, but overall they were loyal and supportive of one another. She died as result of a mistake by her doctors. While practically on his deathbed, Orwell married Sonia Bronwell, a young highly regarded critic in London who moved to Jura and helped him tend his garden. Orwell died in 1950 at the age of 46 of tuberculosis.
Orwell’s Time in Burma
When Orwell arrived in the Irrawaddy Delta to begin his career as an imperial policeman, in January 1924, the Delta was leading Burma's exports of over 3 million tons of rice - half the world's supply. Orwell served in a number of locations in Burma; having spent a year of police training in Mandalay and Maymyo, his postings included Myaungmya, Twante, Syriam, Insein - (north of Rangoon, site of the colony's most secure prison, and now present-day Burma's most notorious jail), Moulmein and Kathar. Kathar with its luxuriant vegetation, described by Orwell with relish, provided the physical setting for “Burmese Days.” Many people in Myanmar say Orwell's best-known works, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, are also about Burma.
On his time in Burma, Steven Martin wrote in Time magazine, “Eric Blair's arrival in Burma as a member of the Indian Imperial Police in 1922 was actually a homecoming of sorts. He had been born on Indian soil 19 years earlier, the son of a minor official in the British-Indian government's infamous Opium Department. Eric's mother had grown up in Burma, in the port town of Moulmein. Barely a year after his birth, baby Eric accompanied his mother back to England. After schooling he sat for civil service examinations and before long was in Liverpool, boarding a ship bound for Rangoon. He trained in Mandalay, then was rotated to a number of posts in both Upper and Lower Burma where his colleagues remembered him as a highly competent if taciturn servant of the empire. During his stint as a policeman in the country, Blair learned Burmese and “Hindustani,” and absorbed an impressive amount of knowledge about the local people and culture, as well as the indigenous flora and fauna. After five years Blair resigned from the Indian Imperial Police and returned to England, where he adopted the pen name George Orwell and wrote his first novel, a scathing attack on British imperialism called Burmese Days. More than 60 years after the novel was first published, pirated copies of Penguin's “Twentieth-Century Classics” edition are easy to come by in Rangoon. Burmese entrepreneurs have discovered that Orwell's sordid tale about a colonial-era community in Upper Burma is eagerly snapped up by foreign tourists. [Source: Steven Martin, Time magazine, 2002]
Kazuo Nagata wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “One day here in 1924, a group of students waiting in Hpaya Lan Station (then known as Pagoda Road Station) were teasing each other when one bumped into a tall British man. The Briton burst into a fit of anger and was about to swing his cane at the student's head, but relented and poked his back instead. One of the students, Tin Aung, who later became the president of Rangoon University, wrote about the incident before he died in 1978. After the encounter, the students followed him onto a train as they continued to protest the man's actions. But as Tin Aung recalled in his writings, witnessing the man trying to patiently speak to the outraged students instilled in him a sense of sympathy and understanding. Tin Aung was told by a Burmese police officer that the man's name was Eric Blair, who later adopted the pen-name George Orwell. [Source: Kazuo Nagata, Yomiuri Shimbun,, Asia News Network. June 16, 2013]
Khin Maung Nyunt, 84, professor emeritus of Mandalay University, says the writer sensed the emptiness behind the feelings of superiority that many Britons harboured toward Asians. He says the period Orwell spent in Burma was a turning point for him. After rejecting the illusions of imperialism, Orwell denounced totalitarianism for its accumulated lies and repression of truth and conscience in such works as "Animal Farm" and "1984". "Because nationalistic education continued for many years, works of foreign literature, including Orwell's, were not widely read," Khin Maung Nyunt laments.
Burmese Days is a tale from the waning days of British colonialism, when Burma was ruled as part of the Indian empire - "a portrait of the dark side of the British Raj." At its center is John Flory, "the lone and lacking individual trapped within a bigger system that is undermining the better side of human nature." Orwell's first novel, it describes "corruption and imperial bigotry in a society where, "after all, natives were natives - interesting, no doubt, but finally...an inferior people." [Source: Wikipedia +]
Steven Martin wrote in Time magazine, “The plot of Burmese Days revolves around the poignant figure of John Flory, a manager of a logging firm based in the fictional town of Kyauktada in Upper Burma. Flory has been in Burma for eight years, speaks fluent Burmese and Hindustani, and has a rare admiration for the locals and their ways. Although there are a handful of other British residents in Kyauktada, Flory feels alienated by his own kind who “Can be at ease in a foreign country only when they are disparaging the inhabitants.” [B. D. Chapter 10, par. 5] Flory therefore keeps his opinions to himself during obligatory visits to the whites-only club, where the British meet daily to drink and curse the insolence and ingratitude of the natives. His only real friend is Dr. Veraswami, an Indian physician whose enthusiasm for British rule Flory finds mildly exasperating but amusing. When U Po Kyin, a corrupt and grasping Burmese official, targets the doctor with a smear campaign designed to ruin him, Veraswami asks Flory to save him by proposing him for membership to the Europeans club — an unthinkable act in the eyes of the other members. Meanwhile, just as Flory seems to have grown complacent with his solitary existence, Elizabeth Lackersteen, the young niece of one of the other British residents, arrives in Kyauktada; Flory falls in love with her. Suddenly made aware of his loneliness by his feelings for Elizabeth, Flory begins to despair. In his absence from England he has become distant from family and friends, and his ties to the land of his birth have nearly disintegrated. Though Flory has grown comfortable with life in Burma, to show any affection for the subject land or its people is viewed as traitorous among the small community of colonials, who spend much of their time reminiscing about their homeland. Flory believes Elizabeth is different and sees in her a chance to share his secret life. Sadly, his attempts to interest her in their Burmese surroundings fail miserably and she instead chooses the closed European society symbolized by the club. In the end, Flory's blind love for Elizabeth leads him to disgrace and a tragic end. [Source: Steven Martin, Time magazine, 2002 **]
Much of the book's beauty comes from Orwell's eye for detail. His description of a Burmese bazaar is unparalleled (though Somerset Maugham comes close in his Gentleman in the Parlor). Perhaps more thought-provoking are Orwell's snatches of dialogue, so disturbing that they could only have been taken from real-life examples. Consider this exchange between a member of the club and the club butler: “Butler!” “Yes, master?” “How much ice have we got left?” “'Bout 20 pounds, master. Will only last today, I think. I find it very difficult to keep ice cool now.” “Don't you talk like that, damn you — ‘I find it very difficult!’ Have you swallowed a dictionary? ‘Please, master, can't keeping ice cool’ — that's how you ought to talk. We shall have to sack this fellow if he gets to talk English too well. I can't stick with servants who talk English. D'you hear, butler?” [B. D. Chapter 2, par. 39-45 **]
Orwell's initial attempts to have Burmese Days printed were not encouraging. A publisher in Britain rejected the manuscript and led Orwell to believe that the government would try to suppress it. In actuality the publisher had been warned by his lawyer that the novel was likely to attract lawsuits. Orwell was forced to take his work to America where it was published by Harper's in 1934, but only after modifications were made. Orwell was asked to change the occupations of some of the characters from civil servants to businessmen, effectively softening his denunciation of the British colonial system. The book was well received in the U.S., and the British publisher finally relented after Orwell agreed to modify the story even further. Among the second round of amendments was an attempt to delocalize the story from Katha. In order to illustrate to his British publisher the changes made to the text, Orwell drew a map of Kyauktada and then described how this fictional town differed from the real-life town of Katha. **
“Burmese Days” was several years in creation. Orwell was drafting it in Paris during the eighteen months he spent there in 1928 to 1929. He was still working on it in 1932 at Southwold while doing up the family home in the summer holidays. By December 1933 he had typed the final version, and in 1934 he delivered it by motorbike to his agent Leonard Moore for publication by Victor Gollancz, who had published his previous book. Gollancz, smarting from fears of prosecution with regard to another author's work, turned it down because he was worried about libel action. Heinemann and Cape also turned it down for the same reasons. After demanding alterations, Harpers were prepared to publish it in the United States, where it made its debut in 1934. In the spring of 1935 Gollancz declared that he was prepared to publish Burmese Days provided Orwell was able to demonstrate it was not based on real people. Extensive checks were made in colonial lists that no British individuals could be confused with the characters. Many of the main European names have since been identified in the Rangoon Gazette and U Po Kyin was the name of a Burmese officer with him at the Police Training School in Mandalay. Gollancz brought out the English version on 24 June 1935. +
Plot Summary of Burmese Days
Burmese Days is set in 1920s imperial Burma, in the fictional district of Kyauktada. As the story opens U Po Kyin, a corrupt Burmese magistrate, is planning to destroy the reputation of the Indian Dr. Veraswami. The Doctor's main protection is his friendship with John Flory who, as a pukka sahib (European white man), has higher prestige. Dr.Veraswami wants the privilege of becoming a member of the British club because he thinks that if his standing with the Europeans is good, U Po Kyin's intrigues against him will not prevail. U Po Kyin begins a campaign to persuade the Europeans that the doctor holds disloyal, anti-British opinions, and believes anonymous letters with false stories about the doctor 'will work wonders.' He even sends a subtly threatening letter to Flory. [Source: Wikipedia +]
John Flory is a jaded 35-year-old teak merchant. Responsible three weeks of every month for the 'excavation' of jungle timber, he is friendless among his fellow Europeans and is unmarried. He has a ragged crescent of a birthmark on his face. Flory has become disillusioned with his lifestyle, living in a tiresome expatriate community centerd round the European Club in a remote part of the country. On the other hand he has become so embedded in Burma that it is impossible for him to leave and return to England. Veraswami and Flory are good friends, and Flory often visits the doctor for what the latter delightedly calls 'cultured conversation.' In these conversations Flory details his disillusionment with the Empire. The doctor for his part becomes agitated whenever Flory criticizes the Raj and defends the British as great administrators who have built an efficient and unrivalled Empire. Flory dismisses these administrators as mere moneymakers, living a lie, "the lie that we're here to uplift our poor black brothers instead of to rob them." Though he finds release with his Burmese mistress, Flory is emotionally dissatisfied. "On the one hand, Flory loves Burma and craves a partner who will share his passion, which the other local Europeans find incomprehensible; on the other hand, for essentially racist reasons, Flory feels that only a European woman is acceptable as a partner. " +
His dilemma seems to be answered when Elizabeth Lackersteen, the orphaned niece of Mr Lackersteen, the local timber firm manager, arrives. Flory saves her when she thinks she is about to be attacked by a small water buffalo. He is immediately taken with her and they spend some time getting close, culminating in a highly successful shooting expedition. After several misses Elizabeth shoots a pigeon, and then a flying bird, and Flory shoots a leopard, promising the skin to Elizabeth as a trophy. Lost in romantic fantasy, Flory imagines Elizabeth to be the sensitive non-racist he so much desires, the European woman who will "understand him and give him the companionship he needed." He turns Ma Hla May, his pretty, scheming Burmese concubine, out of his house. Under the surface, however, Elizabeth is appalled by Flory's relatively egalitarian attitude towards the natives, seeing them as 'beastly' while Flory extolls the virtues of their rich culture. She is frightened and repelled by the Burmese. Worse still are Flory's interests in high art and literature which remind Elizabeth of her boondoggling mother who died in disgrace in Paris, poisoned by her painting materials whilst masquerading as a bohemian artist. Despite these reservations, of which Flory is entirely unaware, she is willing to marry him to escape poverty, spinsterhood and the unwelcome advances of her perpetually inebriated uncle. +
Flory is about to ask her to marry him, when they are interrupted firstly by her aunt and secondly by an earthquake. Mrs. Lackersteen's interruption is deliberate because she has discovered that a military police lieutenant named Verrall is arriving in Kyauktada. As he comes from an extremely good family, she sees him as a better prospect as a husband for Elizabeth. Mrs. Lackersteen tells Elizabeth that Flory is keeping a Burmese mistress as a deliberate ploy to send her to Verrall. Indeed, Flory had been keeping a mistress, but had dismissed her almost the moment Elizabeth had arrived. No matter, Elizabeth is appalled and falls at the first opportunity for Verrall, who is arrogant and ill-mannered to all but her. Flory is devastated and after a period of exile attempts to make amends by delivering to her the leopard skin but an inexpert curing process has left the skin mangy and stinking and the gesture merely compounds his status as a poor suitor. When Flory delivers it to Elizabeth she accepts it regardless of the fact that it reeks and he talks over their previous relationship telling her he still loves her. She responds by telling him that unfortunately the feelings aren’t mutual and leaves the house to go horse riding with Verrall. When Flory and Elizabeth both part their ways, Mrs. Lackersteen orders the servants to burn the reeking leopard skin, representing the deterioration of Flory and Elizabeth’s relationship. +
U Po Kyin's campaign against Dr. Veraswami turns out to be intended simply to further his aim of becoming a member of the European Club in Kyauktada. The club has been put under pressure to elect a native member and Dr. Veraswami is the most likely candidate. U Po Kyin arranges the escape of a prisoner and plans a rebellion for which he intends that Dr. Veraswami should get the blame. The rebellion begins and is quickly put down, but a native rebel is killed by acting Divisional Forest Officer, Maxwell. Rising to unexpected courage Flory speaks up for Dr. Veraswami and proposes him as a member of the Club. At this moment the body of Maxwell, cut almost to pieces with dahs by two relatives of the man he had shot, is brought back to the town. This creates a tension between the Burmese and the Europeans which is exacerbated by a vicious attack on native children by the spiteful arch-racist timber merchant, Ellis. A large but ineffectual anti-British riot begins and Flory becomes the hero for bringing it under control with some support by Dr. Veraswami. U Po Kyin tries to claim credit but is disbelieved and Dr. Veraswami's prestige is restored. +
Verrall leaves Kyauktada without even saying goodbye to Elizabeth and she falls for Flory again. Flory is happy and plans to marry Elizabeth. However, U Po Kyin has not given up; he hires Flory's former Burmese mistress to create a scene in front of Elizabeth during the sermon at Sunday church. Flory is disgraced and Elizabeth refuses to have anything more to do with him. Overcome by the loss and seeing no future for himself, Flory kills himself and his dog. Dr. Veraswami is demoted and sent to a different district and U Po Kyin is elected to the Club. U Po Kyin's plans have succeeded and he plans to redeem his life and cleanse his sins by financing pagodas. He dies of apoplexy before he can even start on building the first pagoda and his wife envisages him returning to life as a frog or rat. Elizabeth eventually marries Macgregor, the Deputy Commissioner and lives happily in contempt of the natives, who in turn live in fear of her, fulfilling her destiny of becoming a “burra memsahib” [respectful term given to white European women]. +
Themes of Burmese Days: Imperialism, Race and Identity
Imperialistic views among the main characters differ, as does the public opinion as to the purpose of the British conquest in Burma. Imperialism is defined as the creation and/or maintenance of an unequal economic, cultural, and territorial relationship; this usually occurs between states in the form of an empire, based on domination and subordination. A lot of discussion based on imperialism takes place within the novel, primarily between Flory and Dr. Veraswami. Flory describes imperialism as "the lie that we're here to uplift our poor black brothers rather than to rob them.” However his view is ridiculed by his friend, Dr. Veraswami, who believes that British rule has helped civilise the people, improve education and build infrastructure. From Dr. Veraswami’s perspective British Imperialism has helped him achieve his status as a doctor in colonial Burma. Flory counters this by noting that little manual skill is taught and that the only buildings built are prisons. Furthermore, he suggests that the English brought with them diseases, but Veraswami blames this on the Indians and sees the English as the curers. [Source: Wikipedia +]
Flory views imperialism as a way to make money, commenting that he is only in Burma to finance himself, that this is the only reason why he doesn't want British rule to come to an end. Westfield states that British rule has begun to collapse in Burma, to the point where the natives no longer respect their rulers. Westfield’s suggestion that the British should simply leave the country to descend into anarchy is well received by the other members of their club, even Flory. +
Throughout the novel, there is a stark contrast between the sentiments on race even among the English. While most of the English club members, specifically Ellis and Mr. Lackersteen, have a strong distaste for the Burmese natives, viewing their entire race as “black, stinking swine”, there is a sense of opposition to the racism by other Club members, like Flory and Mr. Macgregor to a certain extent. Mr. Macgregor, the secretary of the Club, is the one to raise the issue of admitting a native to their all-white club. Even the mention of this creates a strong reaction from Ellis, who claims he would rather “die in the ditch” before belonging to the same club as a native. Ultimately though, Mr. Macgregor still maintains a general distaste for the Burmese similar to the other Englishmen. It is rather clear that most of the English see nothing admirable in the Burmese people and instead view their race as a point of disgust. Flory on the other hand, is the most welcoming of the Burmese though, he is less willing to openly share his sentiments in the midst of such overwhelming racism. Flory is close friends with an Indian man, Dr. Veraswami, and even goes as far as to hold judgment against his fellow Englishmen’s racism rather than see the Burmese as inferior. The racist attitude plays an intricate role in what the English view as successful and proper colonization. They believe that in order to maintain their power and to keep their own best interests at the forefront, they need to oppress the natives. They do this through their racist attitudes, actions and beliefs which put the natives lower in the power hierarchy by treating them as lesser humans who need the English aid. So not only is the racism something that affects the characters’ social interactions, it also acts as an important tool for English governing in Burma. Although there is a vast spectrum of racism held by the English in Burma, it is ever-present and “a thing native to the very air of India”. +
Throughout the novel, the concept of identity is reflected through all the main characters, Flory as a result is recognized as the best example of a character that can be described as a person with an identity crisis. The idea of identity relates to the question on who is anyone; how do people present themselves to the world, as well as what is their interpretation of themselves. Flory is a character who is intertwined between his love of Burmese culture as well as his commitment to British imperial rule. He is stuck in a position where he aims to please all. Flory’s love of Burmese culture is expressed in various ways. First his relationship with Dr. Veraswami is an example of his respect for the culture. Dr. Veraswami and Flory often meet and engage in dialogue in regards to the influence of the British. His openness to speak to a Burman about this further develops his identify in the novel. Later in the novel, once Elizabeth is introduced almost immediately Flory does his best to expose her to the Burmese culture. Although she resists he tries his best to in a sense create another character similar to himself, as a means of spreading his beliefs. On the other hand, being a white British man Flory is forced to adhere to the imperialist views Englishmen are expected to possess. As an active member in the British club he is acting as part of the ‘ruling class’ where he is set at a higher social status in relation to other English men as well as the Burman. In addition his proven dedication to his job as an Timber merchant for the British Empire, creates as character that can be seen as a loyal Imperialist. A person who is willing to exploit both human and capital resources of the Burmese. In conclusion, Flory’s identity can be described as one who seeks approval from everyone his is associated with. He tries his best to integrate his lifestyle with the Englishmen as well as wants to be a part of Burmese society. This confusion of identity and the need for approval later leads to his demise as both worlds come crashing down simultaneously. +
Shooting an Elephant, Shoe Question and George Orwell’s Feelings About Imperialism
In his essay "Shooting an Elephant", about his life as a police officer in Burma, Orwell wrote that the longer he stayed in the country, the more strongly he felt that imperialism was evil. His sympathy toward the Burmese people had deepened, he wrote. The essay tells of the day he received a report that an elephant had gone on the rampage in a village. He arrived carrying a weapon, and found himself surrounded by a crowd of curious villagers. He did not want to kill the creature, but he reckoned the locals would regard him - and all Britons - as cowardly if he failed to do so. The colonial masters' reputation was at stake. He raised his rifle and fired, but his anguish was increased by the slow and painful death of the elephant. For Orwell it was a metaphor for British imperialism. "When the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys," he wrote. [Source: Kazuo Nagata, Yomiuri Shimbun,, Asia News Network. June 16, 2013]
Steven Martin wrote in Time magazine, “In an essay written in 1936 titled Shooting an Elephant, Orwell related how, as a policeman going about his duties, the Burmese often baited him. “The insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance got badly on my nerves,” he wrote. At the time Orwell served his stint, anti-British sentiment was on the rise, so much so that, as he described it, “If a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress.” Buddhist monks were the vanguards of this hectoring form of resistance and, according to Orwell, “None of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on the street corners and jeer at Europeans.” [Source: Steven Martin, Time magazine, 2002 **]
“Much of this discontent was caused by what the British termed the Shoe Question — that is, the Europeans' steadfast refusal to remove their shoes upon entering a Buddhist temple or other holy place. So insistent were the British upon retaining their footwear that when they found they were unable to coax Burmese bystanders into carrying them piggyback over the consecrated ground, many resorted to a boycott of touring the temples altogether. Others defied the Burmese ban on footwear. Occasionally tempers flared, leading to violence. In October 1919, scandalized monks tried to physically evict a group of shoe-wearing Europeans from Eindawya Pagoda in Mandalay. The leader of the monks was later sentenced to life imprisonment for attempted murder. Challenge to British authority and a perceived loss of prestige drove the colonials to rule with a paranoid ruthlessness. Burma had the highest rate of crime of all the colonies in the British Empire, and so the largest prison in the empire was built near Rangoon at Insein. Often the line blurred between true criminals and those motivated by a desire for Burmese independence. It was in this atmosphere of tension that Orwell went about his duties. What is surprising, and a ringing testament to Orwell's sense of fairness, was that he didn't blame the Burmese for their actions. In fact, he actually sympathized with them. **
In Shooting an Elephant Orwell wrote: “I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better. Theoretically — and secretly of course — I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British. As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the gray, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been bogged with bamboos — all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt.” **
“Yet Orwell was human and his emotions were in conflict. On the one hand he clearly shared the sentiments of his Burmese Days character John Flory, whose estrangement from his own kind drove him to “long for a native uprising to drown their Empire in blood.” Yet on the other hand, Orwell admitted to feeling the base urge to strike back at his Burmese tormenters, or as he frankly put it in Shooting an Elephant, “I thought the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts.” In the end, no doubt fearing the loss of his own sanity, Orwell quit the imperial police and, once back in England, began writing about his experiences. **
'Finding George Orwell In Burma'
In her book “Finding George Orwell In Burma,” the writer Emma Larkin (a pseudonym) retraces Orwell's path through Myanmar, according to NPR, “as a way of exploring the present-day country, its people and its brutal military junta, which has renamed the country Myanmar.”
In “Finding George Orwell In Burma,” Emma Larkin wrote: “George Orwell,' I said slowly. 'G-e-o-r-g-e O-r-w-e-l-l.' But the old Burmese man just kept shaking his head. We were sitting in the baking-hot front room of his house in a sleepy port town in Lower Burma. The air was oppressive and muggy. I could hear mosquitoes whining impatiently around my head, and I was about to give up. The man was a well-known scholar in Burma, and I knew he was familiar with Orwell. But he was elderly; cataracts had turned his eyes an oystery blue, and his hands trembled as he readjusted his sarong. I wondered if he was losing his memory but, after several failed attempts, I made one final stab. 'George Orwell,' I repeated — 'the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four.' The old man's eyes suddenly lit up. He looked at me with a brilliant flash of recognition, slapped his forehead gleefully, and said, 'You mean the prophet!' [Source: Emma Larkin, July 28, 2010; Excerpted from Finding George Orwell In Burma by Emma Larkin. Copyright 2004 by Emma Larkin. Excerpted by permission of the Penguin Press. |||]
“Orwell had lived in Burma in the 1920s as an officer of the Imperial Police Force. For five years he dressed in khaki jodhpurs and shining black boots. Armed with guns and a sense of moral superiority, the Imperial Police Force patrolled the countryside and kept this far-flung corner of the British Empire in line. Then, suddenly and without warning, he returned to England and handed in his notice. Just as abruptly, he began his career as a writer. Exchanging his real name, 'Eric Arthur Blair', for the pen-name 'George Orwell', he donned the rags of a tramp and marched off into the dank London nights to collect the stories of the down-at-heel. Orwell based his first novel, Burmese Days, on his experiences in the Far East, but it was his later novels such as Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four that would turn him into one of the most respected and visionary writers of the twentieth century.|||
“It is a particularly uncanny twist of fate that these three novels effectively tell the story of Burma's recent history. The link begins with Burmese Days, which chronicles the country's period under British colonialism. Not long after Burma became independent from Britain in 1948, a military dictator sealed off the country from the outside world, launched 'The Burmese Way to Socialism', and turned Burma into one of the poorest countries in Asia. The same story is told in Orwell's Animal Farm, an allegorical tale about a socialist revolution gone wrong in which a group of pigs overthrow the human farmers and run the farm into ruin. Finally, in Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell's description of a horrifying and soulless dystopia paints a chillingly accurate picture of Burma today, a country ruled by one of the world's most brutal and tenacious dictatorships. In Burma there is a joke that Orwell wrote not just one novel about the country, but three: a trilogy comprised of Burmese Days, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. |||
“During a visit to Burma in 1995 “I spent wandering through postcard-perfect scenes of bustling markets, glittering pagodas and faded British hill stations I found it hard to believe I was travelling through a country that has one of the worst records for human-rights abuse in the world. To me, this is the most staggering thing about Burma: that the oppression of an entire nation of some 50 million people can be completely hidden from view. A vast network of Military Intelligence spies and their informers ensures that no one can do or say anything that might threaten the regime. The Burmese media — books, magazines, movies and music — are controlled by a strict censorship board and government propaganda is churned out not only through newspapers and television, but also in schools and universities. These methods of reality-control are kept firmly in place by the invisible, though ever present, threat of torture and imprisonment. |||
“For an outsider like myself, unable to see beyond the façade the generals have created, it was impossible to imagine the daily fear and precariousness of living in such a state. It was during my efforts to understand this aspect of Burmese life that I became fascinated by Orwell. All his novels explore the idea of individuals being trapped within their environment, controlled by their family, the society around them or an all-powerful government. In Nineteen Eighty-Four he conjured up the ultimate vision of oppression, even giving us the language with which to describe it: 'Big Brother', 'Room 101', 'Newspeak'. |||
“As I reread Orwell's novels — books I had not read since my schooldays — I became curious about his personal connection with Burma. What was it that had made him trade his career in the colonies for that of a writer? And why, after nearly a quarter of a century away from Burma, did he look to the country for inspiration while he lay on his deathbed? I began to imagine that Orwell had seen something in Burma, had had some thread of an idea, that had worked its way into all his writing. I looked through the various biographies that have been written about Orwell, but their authors seemed to underplay the significance of Burma and, as far I could gather, none of them had ever conducted any research in the places where Orwell spent five life-changing years. The towns and cities where Orwell was posted span the geographical heart of the country and, in a sense, it is still possible to experience Burma as Orwell knew it — almost half a century of military dictatorship has given it the air of a country frozen in time. But a journey through Orwell's Burma would lead through an even eerier and much more terrifying landscape: that of a real-life Nineteen Eighty-Four where Orwell's nightmare visions are being played out with a gruelling certainty. |||
“Before I left for Burma, I went to the George Orwell Archive in London to look at Orwell's final manuscript. When Orwell died, in 1950, he had only just begun the project. 'A Smoking Room Story' was planned as a novella of thirty to forty thousand words which told how a fresh-faced young British man was irrevocably changed after living in the humid tropical jungles of colonial Burma. In an inky scrawl on the first three pages of a notebook bound in marbled paper Orwell had written an outline for the tale and a short vignette. I flicked through the rest of the book and found the pages blank. The rest of the story, I realized, lay waiting in Burma. |||
Book: Finding George Orwell In Burma By Emma Larkin, (Penguin, 2005)
Following in the Bootsteps of George Orwell in Burma
Steven Martin wrote in Time magazine, “I first read Burmese Days on the night train between Rangoon and Mandalay in 1997. Once I finished the book, I returned to the preface and began reading it over again. Since then, the novel has become one of those books I reach for when I have some spare minutes and crave an escape from work. Parting the pages and rereading a passage or two, I always notice some new detail or revel anew in one of Orwell's astonishingly timeless observations. When Orwell describes how “a tuktoo clung to the wall, flat and motionless like a heraldic dragon,” I know exactly what he is talking about: as a writer living in northern Thailand, which shares much of the flora, fauna and culture of Upper Burma, I once shared a house with several of these ugly but harmless tropical geckos. [Source: Steven Martin, Time magazine, 2002 **]
“There is scant mention of Rangoon, Burma's capital, in Burmese Days. The story was set in Upper Burma and so it made sense to head north. Soon after my arrival in Rangoon, I booked a seat on the Number 17 Up, the night train to Mandalay. Orwell who spent 13 months in Mandalay learning the duties of a colonial policeman. A photograph survives that shows Orwell, in a Sam Browne belt and cradling a pith helmet, with fellow cadets at the Police Training School in Mandalay in 1923. In Burmese Days he described the city as being dusty, hot and famous for having “Five main products all beginning with P, namely, pagodas, pariahs, pigs, priests and prostitutes.” [B. D. Chapter 25, par. 3] The pagodas are still there as are the Buddhist monks who tend them, but the prostitutes, pigs and pariahs (an old, Anglo-Indian term for stray dogs) are keeping a low profile in modern Mandalay. **
“I had found little evidence of Orwell in Mandalay. The edges of my copy of Burmese Days had become fluffy from being passed around and flipped through by many a Burmese. Almost none had heard of it. Those who had, held only a vague idea of what it was about and had no clue as to where it might have been played out. The novel has never been translated into Burmese but, I was told, it was sometimes referred to in the official government newspaper when a point needs to be made about the humiliation endured during colonial times....Although they are avid readers, and many works by Western authors have been translated into Burmese, the government of Burma is very particular about what it lets its citizens read. Western authors who have used Burma as a setting for their novels are not exactly plentiful, so there is no way that Orwell's book could have been overlooked as a candidate for translation. Perhaps Orwell's rather flippant interpretation of Burmese Buddhism had put the novel on a list of officially nontranslatable works. “ **
Exploring George Orwell’ Kantha
Steven Martin wrote in Time magazine, “I boarded a train and set off for Katha, the northern town where Orwell was stationed from December 1926 to June 1927. In order to illustrate to his British publisher the changes made to the text, Orwell drew a map of Kyauktada and then described how this fictional town differed from the real-life town of Katha: “With reference to the possible identification of the imaginary town of Kyauktada with the real town of Katha. I have been unable to obtain a map of Katha, but I have searched my memory and made out a fairly clear picture of it. It was something like my description of Kyauktada, except that (a) I had put the cemetery beside the church, which it was not in Katha, (b) I had put in a pagoda which did not exist at Katha, and (c) I had described the Club as having a garden that ran down to the river, whereas that at Katha, as well as I can now remember, was not actually on the river, though near it ... “ Orwell's hastily sketched map was reproduced in the Penguin edition of the novel and this was the only solid bit of data that I possessed that might help me locate settings in the novel: the bazaar, the church, the jail, the hospital and, most importantly, the whites-only club. [Source: Steven Martin, Time magazine, 2002 **]
“I arrived at Katha just as the sun was rising, after a comfortless night on the train. With Orwell's map balanced on my lap, I rode a trishaw from the train station into town. In print, Orwell had described the town as having “A railway terminus ... a block of law-courts ... a hospital, a school and one of those huge, durable jails which the English have built everywhere between Gibraltar and Hong Kong.” [B. D. Chapter 2, par. 5] Quite a bit has changed since Orwell's time. Wide streets laid out on a grid and lined with shade trees are fronted by shops offering the inevitable Chinese merchandise: cheap clothes, housewares and hand tools. Along the banks of the Irrawaddy a fleet of boats bobbed at their moorings as cargoes of earthenware jars were hoisted from their holds. Orwell's map seemed to depict some other settlement altogether. I had a sinking feeling that attempting to find anything that could be traced to a novel written nearly 70 years prior might be pure folly. **
“Katha, like most tropical settlements, is liveliest at dusk and dawn. Outside, locals promenaded along the river road while children played a netless version of badminton or aimlessly coasted on bicycles. Darkness was falling and there wouldn't be enough light to begin exploring the town, so I walked along the river, startling knots of bathers who were balanced on rocks to lather themselves. According to Orwell's map, there should have been a bazaar somewhere along the river's edge. A kilometer-and-a-half downriver from my hotel, I came upon a weed-choked obelisk that I later learned was a monument to independence from Britain. Surrounding the neglected memorial was a muddy field stacked with large piles of teak logs. I barely had time to take in the scene when I was forced by darkness to retrace my steps back to the hotel. **
“The following morning I set out once again, armed with Orwell's map, a notebook and a pen. Katha is an attractive, leafy town and the morning's gentle mist was conducive to exploring on foot. This time I followed the river upstream and began drawing a crude map of my own. Every 30 meters or so I paused to scan my surroundings and scribble in my notebook. For the most part the residents of Katha went about their own business, more curious than friendly. When I smiled at passersby, many giggled nervously and looked away and a few appeared to be genuinely astonished. Evidently, Western visitors to Katha were few and far between. Walking the streets of Katha, I was in no way heckled as Orwell had been, but I did feel a vague uneasiness familiar to solo travelers. I had been unable to locate anything even loosely familiar with the setting in the novel, and it disturbed me. I had started by looking for the British cemetery, mainly because it would be instantly recognizable but also on the odd chance that it might contain some names from the book. **
With the help of a man named Myo Aung he began to make some progress. “An old woman with a mouthful of betel gave a long, mumbling monologue, gesturing vaguely toward the center of town and then away from it. A Muslim man in a skullcap seemed to agree with her, and then several others began pointing in the direction away from the river. Myo Aung took it all in and asked several questions of his own before reporting back to me. At some time within the past decade or so, the British cemetery had been moved from its original site beside the police station to a secluded place in the hills a few kilometers outside town....Walking our bikes up over the low hills took no more than half an hour and then, at what was to me an indiscernible spot on the trail, the preacher's wife turned into the bush. Myo Aung and I dropped the bikes and hurried to catch up. Within seconds she had found it, a rotting picket fence encompassing a thicket of brambles that obscured less than a dozen headstones. A large one of pink granite looked as though it had been carved only days before. The date on it was 1891. Another gravestone, this one of badly chipped sandstone, was inscribed: “Sacred to the memory of KENNETH C. MITCHELL Burmah Police Son of the Late MR. P. MITCHELL C.I.E. of Simla Born 29th September 1869 Died 16th May 1892 R.I.P.” **
“It wasn't much, but it was a beginning. In Burmese Days Orwell described the grave of a nearly forgotten policeman who had died of delirium tremens. His headstone had read “Sacred to the memory of John Henry Spagnall, late of the Indian Imperial Police, who was cut down by cholera ... “ [B. D. Chapter 22, par. 9] Perhaps Orwell had made a note of this grave. Apart from it and the grave with the pink granite marker, there were seven badly worn headstones of whitewashed concrete indicating the remains of Royal Welsh Fusileers who would have died nearly half a century before Orwell took up his post there: “Soldiers killed in forgotten skirmishes,” Orwell described them. **
Finding the Police Station Where George Orwell Worked and Kartha’s All-White Club
Steven Martin wrote in Time magazine, ““Orwell was stationed in Katha barely a year, so the chances he might have left some physical evidence behind were slim, but perhaps I could use the pretext of looking for mementos of a dead uncle to gain access to police records. Naturally, this would only be possible if I were able to enlist Myo Aung to help me. I decided to broach the topic during a lunch of curried beef on rice. A few minutes later we walked a few steps out of the restaurant and Myo Aung pointed to a compound. On it was a tidy, two-story bungalow set back from the road. A fastidiously clipped lawn and trees with their trunks painted white gave the compound a military air. This was the police station and, once I compared it with the description in the novel, I was confident that this was the very building where Orwell had carried out his duties. [Source: Steven Martin, Time magazine, 2002 **]
Next Martin searched for the jail Orwell described. “We had not gone far when Myo Aung slowed at the sight of a chain gang working by the side of the road. The sight was near-perfectly mirrored by a scene in Burmese Days “Six convicts came by, heads down, dragging two heavy handcarts piled with earth, under the guard of Indian warders. They were long-sentence men, with heavy limbs, dressed in uniforms of coarse white cloth with small dunces' caps perched on their shaven crowns. Their faces were greyish, cowed and curiously flattened. Their leg-irons jingled with a clear ring.” [B. D. Chapter 11, par. 2] **
“Not far beyond the chain gang was the jail, or more precisely, the high concrete walls of the jail. Like the police station, its look of strict maintenance made it imposing. We stopped near the edge of a field littered with massive teak logs and I immediately recognized it as the place I had briefly seen the previous evening. Myo Aung pointed at the field of teak and said, “That used to be the bazaar.” I pulled Burmese Days from my shoulder bag and held the map page open. Finally, it was making some sense. **
“Myo Aung looked over my shoulder, studying the map. “Flory's house,” he said aloud, “hospital ... pagoda ... club.” “Do these still exist?” “Sorry?” “A long time ago, there used to be a hospital here. And a club for foreigners. Are the buildings still there?” “Oh yes. But no longer using for hospital or club.” This was too easy, I thought. Was it possible that the club was still standing? I had not placed much hope in ever locating the club, figuring it would have been first to be dismantled and forgotten after independence from Britain. Not wanting to get my hopes up, I asked Myo Aung to take me to the hospital first. **
“The hospital was between the river and the old maidan, a parade ground that had been transformed into an athletic field. I had actually walked past the shade-dappled building on my initial solo explorations earlier that morning but had failed to notice it. It was easy to understand why. As far as buildings went, it was an unremarkable example of colonial architecture, modified and saddled with additions over the years until it was difficult to tell what it had been. Adjacent to the hospital was what would have been the resident surgeon's quarters — Dr. Veraswami's house — but this too had been remodeled beyond recognition. The whole scene made me less than optimistic about the club. Myo Aung led me up the road that skirted the athletic field. Orwell's map showed the gardens of the hospital and club adjoining, but in reality the two buildings were at least a hundred meters apart. Before long we were confronted with a well-kept tennis court. Just beyond this — and I felt a pang of recognition as soon as I saw it — lay the club. It was a simple wooden building covered by a corrugated tin roof, and was surrounded by a lush garden and dominated by tree-size bougainvillaeas blazing with maroon blossoms. The sun was low in the sky and it bathed the scene in a soft light. Myo Aung explained to me that the building was now the office of a government-run agricultural cooperative. **
“Katha being a small town, he also happened to know the woman in charge....Yes, she knew that the building had formerly been a Europeans club during colonial times, but she had no idea that her humble office had been the centerpiece of a novel written by one of the 20th century's most acclaimed authors. Nor, for that matter, did she seem too impressed to learn that this was so. Khin Saw Myint smiled sweetly and then offered to give us a tour of the building. She pointed out minor modifications completed after World War II: low walls of brick and stucco were built to give added support to the roof, and the back veranda had been enclosed. Stepping into a musty back room provoked a childhood memory in Myo Aung. “There was a billiard table here when I was a boy! I remember rolling balls into the holes,” he said with pride. Of course, the table was long gone, as were any other tangible relics from Orwell's day. Still, I was moved by the atmosphere of the former club, and perhaps sensing this, Myo Aung and Khin Saw Myint retreated into another room, allowing me to sit and contemplate the space alone. **
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014