DIRTY WORK OF EMPIRE
Efforts are afoot to preserve the traces of George Orwell’s Burmese days, writes Sian Powell.
NOW sadly shabby, the two-storey red house in the remote northern Myanmar town of Katha was once an imposing edifice, a wood and brick statement of colonial power. Ghosts of former grandeur can be seen in the building’s substantial teak staircase, lofty ceilings and brick fireplace. Deserted, with a rusting tin roof and stained walls, the house appears remarkably structurally sound. Riotous vegetation has spread through the grounds, but the tiled floors are cool and the windows are flung open to catch the breeze.
The house has become internationally celebrated as the one-time home of George Orwell, the author whose works have so influenced the thinking of generations. He may not have lived there, but he would certainly have known it well.
As a young officer in the Imperial Indian Police in the 1920s, Orwell lived in the British colony then known as Burma. Arriving in the national capital of Rangoon when he was 19, he stayed in the country for five years. He soon came to despise the casual bigotry of overlords and their wholesale exploitation of the Burmese: ‘‘ the dirty work of Empire’’.
Run down by a bout of dengue fever, the man then known as Eric Blair finally resigned from the police force. He later vented his disgust in the bleak novel Burmese Days, written under his pen name George Orwell.
In the novel, Orwell describes a small river town in heat-soaked Upper Burma where seven Caucasians rule over nearly 4000 Burmese, a few hundred Indians and a few score Chinese. This fictional town of ‘‘Kyauktada’’ is based on Katha, a huddle of houses and shops on the mighty Irrawaddy River, 250km north of Mandalay. Orwell was the stern white face of police authority in Katha between 1926 and 1927 — his last posting in colonial Burma.
A filthy stream of bigotry runs through Burmese Days. Asians, or ‘‘Orientals’’, are routinely referred to as niggers by Ellis, a timber company manager and one of the book’s nastier characters. Ellis loses his temper when he reads a proposal to permit the first Asian to join the town’s hitherto whites-only European Club. ‘‘Little pot-bellied niggers breathing garlic in your face over the bridge table,’’ he rages. ‘‘Christ, to think it!’’
British colonialists were often prickly about their clubs. Orwell describes these social gathering places as the whites’ ‘‘spiritual citadel, the real seat of the British power, the nirvana for which native officials and millionaires pine in vain’’. Ellis can’t bear to think of the club in Kyauktada polluted by other races, by ‘‘black stinking swine’’.
None of Ellis’s fellow club members takes him to task for his bigoted tirade. Mr Westfield, the district superintendent of police in the novel (Orwell was assistant district superintendent in Katha), is philosophical about the proposed invasion by an Asian.
‘‘Got to put up with it I suppose,’’ Westfield says. ‘‘B.....s of natives are getting into all the Clubs nowadays.’’ While a force in isolated Kyauktada, Westfield was not as powerful as the town’s deputy commissioner, Mr Macgregor, the official who had proposed opening the doors of the club to other races. Deputy commissioners in colonial Burma enjoyed quasi-regal rule over huge tracts of territory.
Burmese Days is not aimed solely at the iniquities of the foreign rulers. One of the more malignant characters is a Burmese magistrate, U Po Kyin. An almost comically evil creation, he is monstrously fat and hugely corrupt.
Painstaking research by an amateur historian in Katha has revealed Orwell probably never lived in the imposing red house. Rather, amateur historian Nyo Ko Naing says, the house was allocated to the town’s deputy commissioner (Mr Macgregor in Orwell’s novel).
Nyo Ko Naing has recently obtained a colonial map of Katha dating from 1911 that includes one plot with the careful lettering: ‘‘DC’s House’’. The location of the plot, he says, corresponds with that of the vast red house.
The large map, which is in good condition, also includes references to: ‘‘Mile Post’’, ‘‘Pagoda’’, ‘‘Demarcation Post’’, ‘‘Survey Mark’’, ‘‘Brick Boundary’’ and ‘‘Railway Line’’. One plot is labelled ‘‘Polo Ground’’.
A graphic artist and cartoonist, Nyo Ko Naing has long been fascinated by Orwell and his connection to Katha. As a high-school student in the metropolis of Mandalay in the 1990s, he heard of Orwell from foreign visitors.
‘‘Many foreigners talked to me about this book [ Burmese Days] but I didn’t know it then,’’ says the 42-year-old. ‘‘Katha is my native town, so I was interested.’’