The entrance gate to the Burmese embassy, just off one of Bangkok's howling thoroughfares, was securely locked. Next to the gate, a sign gave the visa section's hours of operation, indicating that I was indeed in the right place at the right time. I knocked on the sheet metal gate and strained to peer through the mail slot. A portly Burmese woman, her hair up in a fist-size bun, shuffled out from the office and yelled through the slot, “Yes?”
“I would like to apply for a tourist visa.”
She went back into the office and returned after a few minutes with some forms, stuffing them through the slot. Before I could say anything, she disappeared. I knelt on the sidewalk and wrote gingerly against my denim-clad knee. For “occupation” on the application form I wrote “graphic artist.” The Burmese government doesn't grant tourist visas to writers, and not without reason. Writers rarely have anything nice to say about the ruling military junta. But I felt no guilt in my deception. After all, I wasn't interested in modern politics. The purpose of my journey was to scare up the ghost of George Orwell.
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.
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. It was tempting to think that something of what inspired Orwell to write Burmese Days might still exist. History and politics have long kept Burma isolated and underdeveloped — was it possible that landmarks from Orwell's novel had survived to the present day? Would the locals have heard of him? These and other questions were on my mind when I applied for the visa in Bangkok that day.
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. Despite its Kipling-haunted name, Mandalay is no dusty bell jar of British colonial memory. If anything, the bustling town evokes New China, Burma's most enthusiastic trading partner, whose border is barely 320 kilometers away.
If New York is the city that never sleeps, Mandalay is a town that can sleep through anything. The sound of unmuffled engines hurls past with roaring Doppler effects, and motorbikes tear through the town like chainsaws run amuck. To amplify matters, the Burmese drive by the horn, and the sound of their honking — more a stutter of warning than a bellow of outrage — fills the air. At busy intersections, a screeching whistle accompanies the Hitleresque waves and salutes of white-jacketed traffic cops.
In the evenings, just as the sound of traffic begins to die down, Mandalay settles in for its traditional entertainment. Bamboo poles lashed together and draped with painted canvas backdrops form impromptu stages that seem to appear out of nowhere, temporarily blocking off side streets. The stages are venues for anyeint pwe, a vaudevillian variety show of singing, dancing and comedy skits. Orwell described one such performance in Burmese Days:
“The music struck up and the pwe-girl began dancing again. Her face was powdered so thickly that it gleamed in the lamplight like a chalk mask with live eyes behind it ... The music changed its tempo, and the girl began to sing in a brassy voice ... [she] turned round and danced with her buttocks protruding towards the audience. Her silk longyi [sarong] gleamed like metal. With hands and elbows still rotating she wagged her posterior from side to side. Then — astonishing feat, quite visible through the longyi — she began to wriggle her buttocks independently in time with the music.” [B. D. Chapter 8, par. 32]
The pwe lasts all night, with the final curtain descending at dawn, but in Orwell's day there was no mountain of speakers on either side of the stage blasting music and voices over a wide radius of neighborhood. From my hotel in Mandalay, I could hear the cacophony of no less than three of these shows reverberating through the walls. At first I found the amplified strains and alien tongues pleasing to my sense of the exotic, but after two nights of fitful sleep, I began to loathe Mandalay's taste in entertainment.
Actually, a third category of noise can be added to this list, though it falls far behind the other two in terms of pervasiveness: noise associated with religion. Steeples and minarets compete with stupas for the skyline of Mandalay, the result of Indian immigration and Christian missionizing, and from these houses of worship pour the noises of faith: gongs, hymns, bells and the call of the muezzin. These sounds would have been familiar to 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.
After a week there, I boarded a train and set off for Katha, the northern town where Orwell was stationed from December 1926 to June 1927. 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. What I did discover after some days in Mandalay was that local impressions of the past were quite different from what was portrayed in the books about Burma that I had brought along to read, such as Paul Theroux's Great Railway Bazaar and A.T.Q. Stewart's The Pagoda War. The tendency to romanticize this period in history seems almost universal among English-language writers. Rare is the book about Burma that doesn't gush the obligatory line or two of Kipling — “Come you back you British soldier, come you back to Mandalay!” I saw children reading comic books depicting Burmese warriors and their struggle to keep the Royal Palace in Mandalay from falling into the hands of British troops.
All this I pondered on the 12-hour train ride to Katha. Politically, Burma is one of the world's most reviled countries, but it may also be one of the most misunderstood. When Burma gained independence in 1948, it was the first nation to successfully break free from the British Empire since the U.S. did so in 1776. So bad was the colonial aftertaste in Burma's mouth, it flatly refused Britain's offer of membership in the Commonwealth of Nations. When held to the light of Burma's current state of affairs, these historical footnotes cause many Western observers to shake their heads condescendingly, as if the present is just desserts for irrational acts in the past. But perhaps the relevant works of George Orwell are the only writings by a witness that give a hint as to why Burma is what it is today.
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.
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:
“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:
“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.
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.
Upon arriving at the hotel, I inspected a $2 room and the toilet and bathing facilities out back. It was merely a formality, though, as I had already gathered that there was no other accommodation in town. Although it was only mid-morning, I was exhausted from the sleepless train ride. I stretched out onto the bed and, without bothering to unfurl the mosquito net, immediately drifted off to sleep. When I awoke the room was flooded with the warm hues of a sunset that, in my muddled state, I momentarily mistook to be a sunrise. Sitting on the edge of the bed, I stared at my haggard visage in the mirror on the wall while waiting for the grogginess to diminish. Difficult travel in a strange setting tempts one to let standards of personal appearance slide, but in image-conscious Southeast Asia, to do so would invite local scorn. Before rushing out to catch the waning light, I went downstairs and splashed cool water onto my face in an effort to obscure the creases that the long nap had branded across my cheeks.
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. Some of the locals had the habit of calling out “Hello!” behind my back in a tone that sounded more like a challenge than a greeting. Invariably, whenever I turned to answer, no one was willing to meet my gaze. Perhaps they were just shy, but after this had occurred a few times, I began to feel a bit like a fish in an aquarium surrounded by glass-tapping kids.
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.”
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.
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. As Orwell had admitted to his editor, there was no cemetery next to the church, so for hours I wandered the streets looking for clues and ignoring the disembodied hellos that seemed to follow me everywhere. By midday my optimism had evaporated with the morning fog, and I contemplated leaving the unremarkable Katha and taking a boat upriver to Bhamo, a town reputed to be surrounded by ancient walls and a moat. It was around this time that a beckoning voice asked, “Can I help you?”
I turned to find a large man — large for a Burmese anyway — incongruously dressed in a checked cotton lungi and a black leather jacket. His hair was pulled back into one of those severe little ponytails а la Steven Seagal but his face was amicable. To my surprise he smiled when I warily turned to acknowledge his greeting. His name was Myo Aung and he had been enjoying a cup of sweet Burmese tea and a plate of deep-fried curry puffs when I happened by. He pulled a miniature stool out from under one of the tea shop's knee-high tables of polished teak and motioned for me to sit. By this time I was both sore of feet and spirits, and was thankful for the invitation. As he ordered an additional cup of tea and more pastries, I fought the urge to launch an inquisition and instead fielded the icebreaking questions that customarily open such encounters: “Where are you from? What do you do? Are you married?” Myo Aung's English was rusty and, once I got around to asking about the cemetery, I had to open my notebook and doodle a line of graves and headstones.
“Ah!” he said. And then, “Wait.”
Fifteen minutes later we were standing outside a walled compound filled with thick ivy-like vegetation that rose into small hillocks at irregular intervals. I had passed it twice during my explorations but assumed it was a vacant lot. While Myo Aung looked on with mild alarm, I straddled the low wall and heaved myself into the knee-deep foliage. With some effort, I managed to pull the thick vines off a crude, concrete gravestone. The name on it was Burmese. Another tangled mound memorialized a Burmese Christian. Turning back to tell Myo Aung of my findings, I found myself being stared at by a crowd of about 20 people. One of them was a policeman, and he was asking Myo Aung just what it was that I was doing. Without hesitating, I let a brazen lie slip from my lips: “Tell him I'm looking for my dead uncle.”
My decision to tell a lie at that moment was not exactly spontaneous. Early on in my trip I had gathered that Burmese Days had never been translated into Burmese. 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. Whatever the case, I was loath to draw attention to myself. While in Mandalay I had given my dilemma some thought, and it was then that I decided that looking for a dead uncle was the best way to make my snooping around seem less intrusive.
As my fib was translated, heads began to nod in comprehension. 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. The problem was, nobody remembered where the new site was. Nevertheless, Myo Aung had a plan. He suggested we go to his house and get bicycles to cover ground more efficiently. I agreed and soon we were there, sipping tea and chatting with Myo Aung's sister while Myo Aung pumped air into the tires of a pair of ancient Raleighs.
Their house was a modest structure of concrete and wood but the sitting room was decorated with an impressive collection of posters. Among them was a concert shot of the Scorpions and, next to that, a classic of Bruce Lee that I hadn't seen since my youth: the scene from Enter the Dragon in which Bruce is sporting two dramatic claw marks across his chest, his mouth wide open mid-caterwaul. High up on the opposite wall was a shelflike shrine supporting the images of Jesus, Mary and the Buddha. Though I have spent the better part of two decades in Southeast Asia, this was the first time I had seen Christ and the Buddha share the same household altar. I was admiring the shrine when Myo Aung entered the room. “My father was Burman and my mother was Kachin. Burmans are always Buddhist but many Kachin are Christians.” I complimented him on the shrine, and we set out to meet one of his friends.
It wasn't until after we had arrived at a hut and were served tea that Myo Aung mentioned to me that our host was the local Baptist preacher. I wouldn't have known him from a farmer, so rustic was his abode, but as always the Burmese hospitality was impeccable. We sat and listened to the preacher's wife tell of a foray into the woods for medicinal herbs that had led her to stumble across a cemetery with Roman letters engraved into the stones. She offered to lead us up the trail but warned good-naturedly that it had been years since she had seen the graves.
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
Son of the Late
MR. P. MITCHELL
C.I.E. of Simla
Born 29th September 1869
Died 16th May 1892
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. As I jotted down the epitaphs, Myo Aung and the preacher's wife, apparently embarrassed at the neglected state of the graves, busied themselves with trampling the brambles as well as they could. I tried to stop them, then squirmed when I realized what they were doing. “Which one is your uncle?” Myo Aung asked solemnly.
“Uh,” I hesitated. And then, nodding downward, “this one.”
I was standing over Kenneth C. Mitchell's broken headstone. Myo Aung and the preacher's wife turned to each other and then looked over at the larger, more impressive pink granite affair. Somehow I got the distinct feeling they were slightly disappointed that my dear, dead uncle had been outmemorialized.
Riding the Raleighs back into town gave me time to think about what I had and hadn't found in the cemetery. There weren't any names from the novel but, of course, I hadn't really expected there to be. What I did have was ample justification for interest in a colonial policeman who once served in Katha. 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.
One would think that in a police state it would be quite easy to find a police station, but earlier that day I had been having trouble accomplishing even that. Most of my difficulties stemmed from the fact that all the government offices in Katha were signposted in Burmese only. I had brought along a Burmese phrase book and attempted to read signage by comparing them with Burmese script in the book. But to my untrained eye the letters of the Burmese alphabet, a seemingly random parade of Os and Cs and wide, lazy Ss, looked almost identical. (An American diplomat who was learning to read and write Burmese once remarked to me that the endeavor was “like trying to read a bowl of Cheerios.”)
Myo Aung sympathized with my plight, but raised his eyebrows when I mentioned wanting to visit the police station. Obviously this wasn't exactly his idea of a tourist destination, but Myo Aung's sense of hospitality would not allow him to say no. “I will show you to the police station, but I cannot show you inside,” he offered.
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. Yet something about the place made me decide it would be unwise to try to bluff my way inside. Besides not wanting to risk getting Myo Aung into trouble, I couldn't imagine there could be any souvenirs of Orwell's stint inside. Instead I asked Myo Aung about the jail. Orwell's map depicted it as a huge building opposite the bazaar on the edge of town. Again we mounted the bicycles and, passing a creaking bullock cart, headed off in that direction.
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?”
“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. She came out to greet Myo Aung and looked in my direction with mild surprise. After the introductions she led us inside amid a clutter of old wooden desks and chairs reminiscent of a primary school. Her name was Khin Saw Myint and she had worked for the cooperative for eight years. She graciously apologized for her lack of proficiency in English, and asked permission to let Myo Aung be her interpreter. 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.
On my third and final day in Katha I was awakened early by a soft knock on my hotel room door. I opened it to find Myo Aung standing there with a dah — a long, machete-like knife — in one hand, and a hoe in the other. “We must go to the market now. Soon it will finish,” he said gravely. The boat to Mandalay wasn't due to arrive until mid-afternoon. The dawn air was chilly and I could have easily spent a few more hours in bed, but I couldn't say no to Myo Aung, not after all his assistance. If he wanted to show me the market, I couldn't refuse. I lumbered downstairs and splashed cold water onto my face before hurriedly clawing my way into a wool sweater. Myo Aung was waiting out front with the Raleighs that he had walked through the morning bustle. Dawn brings a daily tremor of activity to the streets of Katha, and the market is its epicenter. Crowds poured in both directions through the market gates, and I followed Myo Aung in his wake as he pushed through the crush of shoppers haggling for merchandise that Orwell would have instantly recognized:
“Vast pomelos hanging on strings like green moons, red bananas, baskets of heliotrope-colored prawns the size of lobsters, brittle dried fish tied in bundles, crimson chilis, ducks split open and cured like hams, green coconuts, the larvae of the rhinoceros beetle, sections of sugarcane, dahs, lacquered sandals, check silk longyis, aphrodisiacs in the form of large, soap-like pills ...” [B. D. Chapter 11, par. 10]
As Myo Aung pushed through the crowds and began pausing in a section given over to flower vendors, it became apparent that this was not going to be a sightseeing tour. “What color do you like?” he asked while smiling down at the buckets of cut flowers.
“Uh, white, I think.”
Having grasped the reason for the dah and hoe, I began to feel uncomfortable. Myo Aung selected a bundle of whitish zinnias, waving me away when I tried to pay. The shameful scene was repeated when he bought a box of saffron-colored candles. We then made our exit through the market gate and, mounting the Raleighs, headed for the cemetery.
On an isolated hill a kilometer-and-a-half beyond the Kachin Baptist Church, we found the huddle of headstones just as we had left them. Myo Aung began swinging the dah and I gathered the collapsed branches. Once we had cleared the brush from the small enclosure, I placed the bundle of zinnias on Kenneth C. Mitchell's grave and stuck three lighted candles to the shattered marker. I looked down on the melancholic scene and wondered if Mitchell would have appreciated the gesture: an American and a Burmese performing some vaguely Papist ceremony over his grave. Were dry bones spinning in a dark cavity below? As it turned out, I needn't have worried. On the ride back into town, Myo Aung told me of word he had received from a friend who had witnessed the old graveyard being cleared years before. If the friend was to be believed, only the headstones had been relocated. The remains were still in their original graves, now resting under the concrete foundation of the restaurant where Myo Aung and I had enjoyed our lunch of curried beef.
Steven Martin: “Orwell”s Burma”
Published: Time Magazine ('Time Asia', 'Time Traveler'), USA, New York. — 2002.
E-text: 'Time Asia' E-mail: <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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Last modified on: 2012-11-27
‘Burmese Days’: [Index page]