‘Burmese Days’ by George Orwell is a window into the lives of the British Officials serving in Burma under the British occupation of the Indian sub-continent. Orwell could draw a lot from the five-years he spent as a police officer in the Indian Imperial Police force in Burma. Katha on the west side of the Irrawaddy River was one of the places where Orwell had been posted and he created ‘Kyauktada’, the fictional place in ‘Burmese Days’ based on this experience.
I genuinely loved reading ‘Burmese Days’ for two reasons – the book gives an honest caricature on the British officials living in Burma and the local population during the British rule. Secondly, this book is so different from Orwell’s more popular works – Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty Four (which ofcourse, came later). ‘Burmese Days’, being Orwell’s first book, published in 1934 follows an autobiographical approach. There aren’t metaphors or allegories so it just brings you closer to Orwell, as a person.
The Story Overview
We are introduced to U Po Kyin, a corrupt and conniving Burmese Sub-Divisional magistrate who is hell-bent on destroying the reputation of Dr.Veraswami, an Indian doctor and jail superintendent. But the protagonist of the story is John Flory, the 35-year-old British timber merchant with a hideous crescent-shaped birthmark on his left cheek, posted in Kyauktada. Perhaps, this was to establish Flory, a foreigner as a more likeable character in comparison to a ‘native’.
John Flory feels an affinity for the local people and their culture, the very reason why he is scorned by the white community. In a decade that Flory spent in Burma, he feels alienated from the English community and his closest friend is Dr.Veraswami, the South Indian doctor who aspires to be part of the European club. Dr. Veraswami seeks Flory’s friendship for getting an opportunity for cultured conversations. Flory and Dr.Veraswami had a way of discussing the British occupation of the Indian sub-continent. Dr. Veraswami jokes that the British Empire is an aged female patient suffering from various ailments.
The European Club is a highly esteemed place with the local people. Dr. Veraswami and U Po Kyin are keen on getting the club membership. Dr.Veraswami has Flory to recommend him for the club membership; this puts him in line of enmity with the powerful U Po Kyin.
“In any town in India the European Club is the spiritual citadel, the real seat of the British power, the Nirvana for which native officials and millionaires pine in vain.”
The Club members are rigid on keeping the membership exclusive to the Europeans but a new rule has made it mandatory to have one non-European membership. The club meetings provide the vent for the Europeans to talk about their hardships, adjusting to the scorching heat, lack of amenities and even the inability to get authentically tasting bread.
The story sways between U Po Kyin and Dr.Verswami vying for the coveted membership of the European club. And, Flory’s aspiration to settle down with a well-meaning European woman while he has a Burmese mistress for the time being.
Lifestyle of Europeans living in the Indian Sub-continent
The Europeans were heaving with disgust for the native population’s brown skin, mannerisms, culture and even for having a garlic odour. They were frowning for living in a hot weather. However, the solace for the Europeans under these harsh conditions was in the extravagance of keeping servants. The British had no liking for the local population but they made their lives easier. And, they remained constantly annoyed with the ‘kit-kit’ of the workers. This popular phrase of ‘kit-kit’ continues till now. And, they expected a ‘Salaam’ from the locals and a complete allegiance.
Flory is well-versed in using native words like dirzi (tailor), dudh-wallah (milkman) and even curse words. This shows how much the British officials had acclimatized with the local language and lifestyle. Orwell spills so many local words which we use in our contemporary Hindi, it amazes me.
Elizabeth’s contempt for the native population
The unmarried Flory is swept off his feet by Elizabeth, the poor British acquaintance of Lackersteens. She lived in Paris in utter poverty before she came to Burma but her position in Indian subcontinent is an elevated one. Flory tries to win over her but she is astounded by his inclination towards the local population. Ofcourse, there is Ma Hla May, Flory’s Burmese mistress hidden under the closet.
Elizabeth’s character is interesting as we get to know of a European girl from a poor background, trying her luck at finding a suitable husband in a foreign country, for her chances are much better here than in her own country. There are European bachelors living in the British occupied colonies, lonely and away from their families.
She tries to grow love for Flory but her contempt for the local people and their ways is far higher. And, she maintains after going to the local bazaar with Flory that the place is following Chinese precepts of beauty which were now outdated.
“Oh no! They’re highly civilized; more civilized than we are, in my opinion. Beauty’s all a matter of taste. There are people in this country called the Palaungs who admire long necks in women.”
While Elizabeth has to handle her lecherous Uncle Mr.Lackersteen, she also expects to find a better match than Flory. And, she gets inclined towards Verrall, a haughty and arrogant British military officer.
Saya San Rebellion in the background
There is a reference to the San Saya rebellion that took place in Burma around 1930. These were a series of anti-colonial uprisings in Burma against the British rule. Orwell writes about the Thongwa rebellion and an uprising against a British official for killing a native. This portion maybe sketchy but Orwell gets across his point of brewing dissatisfaction amongst the local population and the arrogance of the officials.
Hearing of the rebellion, U Po Kyin’s kind-hearted wife fears for the lives of the rebels, saying, ‘They are very foolish, those villagers. What can they do with their dahs and spears against the Indian soldiers? They will be shot down like wild animals.’
The Significance of Flory’s Birthmark (spoiler alert)
Flory had always been ashamed of his birthmark. The birthmark is significant as it made him different from other Europeans. Flory wasn’t confident facing Elizabeth with this birthmark but when he died, the birthmark faded away. Flory’s birthmark and his favourable opinion for the local community always made him feel like an outcast. Ofcourse, nowhere Flory stands to fight the British. There were only milder reiteration on accepting the local culture and his willingness to give opportunity to the natives to be part of the European club.
Burmese Days is equally Indian Days
Kim by Rudyard Kipling was one book which went at length describing India and the British officials during the British rule of the subcontinent. However, ‘Burmese Days’ is based on a British official’s life so it brings more of the idiosyncratic details.
I was amazed at finding this book more Indian at heart, the British officials, the European club, the corrupt District Magistrate, an aspiring doctor wanting to be part of the British camaraderie and mutual hatred between colonial rulers and the people.
Also, I had done the Book Cover Series for #A2Z Challenge and had written about Burmese Days, you may click here to read that post.