The love for Orwell continues…the second book cover in the series is ‘Burmese Days’ by George Orwell.
After Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, I had intended to read more of Orwell. The actual book on my TBR was Down and Out in Paris and London but then I landed on Burmese Days. Accuse the Book Cover or the Title.
One look at the cover and it somehow connected me with ‘The Glass Palace’ by Amitav Ghosh. Probably, the connect with ‘Burma’ and the story about Indians living there during British rule transcended.
From 1922 to 1927, Orwell served with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. After returning to England, Orwell started to write his first book – Burmese Days which was published in 1934. The reason why ‘Burmese Days’ turns out to be a rich treasure of British, Burmese and Indian lifestyles, culture and nasty politics.
‘Burmese Days’ is set in a fictional village called Kyauktada in Burma, when this country was governed as part of the Indian state under British rule. The book begins with U Po Kyin, the Sub-Divisional Magistrate of Kyauktada in Upper Burma. The opening pages aptly expose the deeply entrenched corruption and exploitation of the poor under British rule.
There is John Flory, the British timber merchant with an appreciating heart for the local people and their culture. The reason why he is scorned by others. He is friends with Dr.Veraswami, the South Indian doctor who aspires to be part of the European club. But, U Po Kyin lives with a grudge against Dr.Veraswami and would rather want the club membership for himself. Within this ambit, Orwell exposes the prejudices British had against the local people, their skin colour, food, and practices. And, at the same time, he also lets people enter the minds of the Burmese and Indian people holding positions of power and turning against own people.
Does this cover work for me?
On the cover, the picture is of Ma Kin, U Po Kyin’s wife holding a white cigar. In the backdrop, one sees elephants and people on boats on the Irrawaddy River.
It was an irony that Ma Kin, the woman who only stands behind her husband, serving him food and listening to his tall talks is on the forefront of the cover. Why would the designer have her? In some other editions too, there is a Burmese woman on the cover, which I am confused about but has to be Ma Hla May, John Flory’s Burmese mistress. The three prominent female characters in the book are – Ma Kin, Ma Hla May, and Elizabeth, the white woman. But, it is always the Burmese woman on the cover.
I was rather smitten by a cover that had John Flory and Dr.Veraswami in a room with Ko S’la his servant doing the phankha and Flo, his dog on a chair. Flory and Dr.Veraswami’s friendship runs through the spine of the book so why not.
After reading the book, the few scenes that stayed inside my heads were – the local bazaar where John Flory takes Elizabeth and she cannot bear the heat or the smell. And, the Chinese store where Flory then takes the exhausted Elizabeth for a cup of tea.
The second has to be the European Club, the conversations of the British men and women, their problems in adjusting in a foreign land, their expectation of supremacy and pomp.
I think the first cover was text heavy for the publishers would have known the strength in its narrative. The book also faced tough times as the West withheld publishing the book for the way Orwell depicted the British in service in the foreign land.
In the end, you will remember ‘Burmese Days’ as “a portrait of the dark side of the British Raj.”