Burmese Days


George Orwell

BUT as a matter of fact, Ko S’la’s alarm was premature. After knowing Elizabeth for ten days, Flory was scarcely more intimate with her than on the day when he had first met her.

As it happened, he had her almost to himself during these ten days, most of the Europeans being in the jungle. Flory himself had no right to be loitering in headquarters, for at this time of year the work of timber-extraction was in full swing, and in his absence everything went to pieces under the incompetent Eurasian overseer. But he had stayed—pretext, a touch of fever—while despairing letters came almost every day from the overseer, telling of disasters. One of the elephants was ill, the engine of the light railway that was used for carrying teak logs to the river had broken down, fifteen of the coolies had deserted. But Flory still lingered, unable to tear himself away from Kyauktada while Elizabeth was there, and continually seeking—never, as yet, to much purpose—to recapture that easy and delightful friendship of their first meeting.

They met every day, morning and evening, it was true. Each evening they played a single of tennis at the Club—Mrs Lackersteen was too limp and Mr Lackersteen too liverish for tennis at this time of year—and afterwards they would sit in the lounge, all four together, playing bridge and talking. But though Flory spent hours in Elizabeth’s company, and often they were alone together, he was never for an instant at his ease with her. They talked—so long as they talked of trivialities—with the utmost freedom, yet they were distant, like strangers. He felt stiff in her presence, he could not forget his birthmark; his twice-scraped chin smarted, his body tortured him for whisky and tobacco—for he tried to cut down his drinking and smoking when he was with her. After ten days they seemed no nearer the relationship he wanted.

For somehow, he had never been able to talk to her as he longed to talk. To talk, simply to talk! It sounds so little, and how much it is! When you have existed to the brink of middle age in bitter loneliness, among people to whom your true opinion on every subject on earth is blasphemy, the need to talk is the greatest of all needs. Yet with Elizabeth serious talk seemed impossible. It was as though there had been a spell upon them that made all their conversation lapse into banality; gramophone records, dogs, tennis racquets—all that desolating Club-chatter. She seemed not to want to talk of anything but that. He had only to touch upon a subject of any conceivable interest to hear the evasion, the ‘I shan’t play’, coming into her voice. Her taste in books appalled him when he discovered it. Yet she was young, he reminded himself, and had she not drunk white wine and talked of Marcel Proust under the Paris plane trees? Later, no doubt, she would understand him and give him the companionship he needed. Perhaps it was only that he had not won her confidence yet.

He was anything but tactful with her. Like all men who have lived much alone, he adjusted himself better to ideas than to people. And so, though all their talk was superficial, he began to irritate her sometimes; not by what he said but by what he implied. There was an uneasiness between them, ill-defined and yet often verging upon quarrels. When two people, one of whom has lived long in the country while the other is a newcomer, are thrown together, it is inevitable that the first should act as cicerone to the second. Elizabeth, during these days, was making her first acquaintance with Burma; it was Flory, naturally, who acted as her interpreter, explaining this, commenting upon that. And the things he said, or the way he said them, provoked in her a vague yet deep disagreement. For she perceived that Flory, when he spoke of the ‘natives’, spoke nearly always in favour of them. He was forever praising Burmese customs and the Burmese character; he even went so far as to contrast them favourably with the English. It disquieted her. After all, natives were natives—interesting, no doubt, but finally only a ‘subject’ people, an inferior people with black faces. His attitude was a little too tolerant. Nor had he grasped, yet, in what way he was antagonizing her. He so wanted her to love Burma as he loved it, not to look at it with the dull, incurious eyes of a memsahib! He had forgotten that most people can be at ease in a foreign country only when they are disparaging the inhabitants.

He was too eager in his attempts to interest her in things Oriental. He tried to induce her, for instance, to learn Burmese, but it came to nothing. (Her aunt had explained to her that only missionary-women spoke Burmese; nice women found kitchen Urdu quite as much as they needed.) There were countless small disagreements like that. She was grasping, dimly, that his views were not the views an Englishman should hold. Much more clearly she grasped that he was asking her to be fond of the Burmese, even to admire them; to admire people with black faces, almost savages, whose appearance still made her shudder!

The subject cropped up in a hundred ways. A knot of Burmans would pass them on the road. She, with her still fresh eyes, would gaze after them, half curious and half repelled; and she would say to Flory, as she would have said to anybody:

‘How revoltingly ugly these people are, aren’t they?’

Are they? I always think they’re rather charming-looking, the Burmese. They have such splendid bodies! Look at that fellow’s shoulders—like a bronze statue. Just think what sights you’d see in England if people went about half naked as they do here!’

‘But they have such hideous-shaped heads! Their skulls kind of slope up behind like a tom-cat’s. And then the way their foreheads slant back—it makes them look so wicked. I remember reading something in a magazine about the shape of people’s heads; it said that a person with a sloping forehead is a criminal type.’

‘Oh, come, that’s a bit sweeping! Round about half the people in the world have that kind of forehead.’

‘Oh, well, if you count coloured people, of course—!’

Or perhaps a string of women would pass, going to the well: heavy- set peasant-girls, copper-brown, erect under their water-pots with strong marelike buttocks protruded. The Burmese women repelled Elizabeth more than the men; she felt her kinship with them, and the hatefulness of being kin to creatures with black faces.

‘Aren’t they too simply dreadful? So coarse-looking; like some kind of animal. Do you think anyone could think those women attractive?’

‘Their own men do, I believe.’

‘I suppose they would. But that black skin—I don’t know how anyone could bear it!’

‘But, you know, one gets used to the brown skin in time. In fact they say—I believe it’s true—that after a few years in these countries a brown skin seems more natural than a white one. And after all, it is more natural. Take the world as a whole, it’s an eccentricity to be white.’

‘You do have some funny ideas!’

And so on and so on. She felt all the while an unsatisfactoriness, an unsoundness in the things he said. It was particularly so on the evening when Flory allowed Mr Francis and Mr Samuel, the two derelict Eurasians, to entrap him in conversation at the Club gate.

Elizabeth, as it happened, had reached the Club a few minutes before Flory, and when she heard his voice at the gate she came round the tennis-screen to meet him. The two Eurasians had sidled up to Flory and cornered him like a pair of dogs asking for a game. Francis was doing most of the talking. He was a meagre, excitable man, and as brown as a cigar-leaf, being the son of a South Indian woman; Samuel, whose mother had been a Karen, was pale yellow with dull red hair. Both were dressed in shabby drill suits, with vast topis beneath which their slender bodies looked like the stalks of toadstools.

Elizabeth came down the path in time to hear fragments of an enormous and complicated autobiography. Talking to white men— talking, for choice, about himself—was the great joy of Francis’s life. When, at intervals of months, he found a European to listen to him, his life-history would pour out of him in unquenchable torrents. He was talking in a nasal, sing-song voice of incredible rapidity:

‘Of my father, sir, I remember little, but he was very choleric man and many whackings with big bamboo stick all knobs on both for self, little half-brother and two mothers. Also how on occasion of bishop’s visit little half-brother and I dress in longyis and sent among the Burmese children to preserve incognito. My father never rose to be bishop, sir. Four converts only in twenty-eight years, and also too great fondness for Chinese rice-spirit very fiery noised abroad and spoil sales of my father’s booklet entitled The Scourge of Alcohol, published with the Rangoon Baptist Press, one rupee eight annas. My little half-brother die one hot weather, always coughing, coughing,’ etc., etc.

The two Eurasians perceived the presence of Elizabeth. Both doffed their topis with bows and brilliant displays of teeth. It was probably several years since either of them had had a chance of talking to an Englishwoman. Francis burst out more effusively than ever. He was chattering in evident dread that he would be interrupted and the conversation cut short.

‘Good evening to you, madam, good evening, good evening! Most honoured to make your acquaintance, madam! Very sweltering is the weather these days, is not? But seasonable for April. Not too much you are suffering from prickly heat, I trust? Pounded tamarind applied to the afflicted spot is infallible. Myself I suffer torments each night. Very prevalent disease among we Europeans.’

He pronounced it Europian, like Mr Chollop in Martin Chuzzlewit. Elizabeth did not answer. She was looking at the Eurasians somewhat coldly. She had only a dim idea as to who or what they were, and it struck her as impertinent that they should speak to her.

‘Thanks, I’ll remember about the tamarind,’ Flory said.

‘Specific of renowned Chinese doctor, sir. Also, sir-madam, may I advise to you, wearing only Terai hat is not judicious in April, sir. For the natives all well, their skulls are adamant. But for us sunstroke ever menaces. Very deadly is the sun upon European skull. But is it that I detain you, madam?’

This was said in a disappointed tone. Elizabeth had, in fact, decided to snub the Eurasians. She did not know why Flory was allowing them to hold him in conversation. As she turned away to stroll back to the tennis court, she made a practice stroke in the air with her racquet, to remind Flory that the game was overdue. He saw it and followed her, rather reluctantly, for he did not like snubbing the wretched Francis, bore though he was.

‘I must be off,’ he said. ‘Good evening, Francis. Good evening, Samuel.’

‘Good evening, sir! Good evening, madam! Good evening, good evening!’ They receded with more hat flourishes.

‘Who are those two?’ said Elizabeth as Flory came up with her. ‘Such extraordinary creatures! They were in church on Sunday. One of them looks almost white. Surely he isn’t an Englishman?’

‘No, they’re Eurasians—sons of white fathers and native mothers. Yellow-bellies is our friendly nickname for them.’

‘But what are they doing here? Where do they live? Do they do any work?’

‘They exist somehow or other in the bazaar. I believe Francis acts as clerk to an Indian money-lender, and Samuel to some of the pleaders. But they’d probably starve now and then if it weren’t for the charity of the natives.’

‘The natives! Do you mean to say—sort of cadge from the natives?’

‘I fancy so. It would be a very easy thing to do, if one cared to. The Burmese won’t let anyone starve.’

Elizabeth had never heard of anything of this kind before. The notion of men who were at least partly white living in poverty among ‘natives’ so shocked her that she stopped short on the path, and the game of tennis was postponed for a few minutes.

‘But how awful! I mean, it’s such a bad example! It’s almost as bad as if one of us was like that. Couldn’t something be done for those two? Get up a subscription and send them away from here, or something?’

‘I’m afraid it wouldn’t help much. Wherever they went they’d be in the same position.’

‘But couldn’t they get some proper work to do?’

‘I doubt it. You see, Eurasians of that type—men who’ve been brought up in the bazaar and had no education—are done for from the start. The Europeans won’t touch them with a stick, and they’re cut off from entering the lower-grade Government services. There’s nothing they can do except cadge, unless they chuck all pretension to being Europeans. And really you can’t expect the poor devils to do that. Their drop of white blood is the sole asset they’ve got. Poor Francis, I never meet him but he begins telling me about his prickly heat. Natives, you see, are supposed not to suffer from prickly heat—bosh, of course, but people believe it. It’s the same with sunstroke. They wear those huge topis to remind you that they’ve got European skulls. A kind of coat of arms. The bend sinister, you might say.’

This did not satisfy Elizabeth. She perceived that Flory, as usual, had a sneaking sympathy with the Eurasians. And the appearance of the two men had excited a peculiar dislike in her. She had placed their type now. They looked like dagoes. Like those Mexicans and Italians and other dago people who play the mauvais role in so many a film.

‘They looked awfully degenerate types, didn’t they? So thin and weedy and cringing; and they haven’t got at all honest faces. I suppose these Eurasians are very degenerate? I’ve heard that half-castes always inherit what’s worst in both races. Is that true?’

‘I don’t know that it’s true. Most Eurasians aren’t very good specimens, and it’s hard to see how they could be, with their upbringing. But our attitude towards them is rather beastly. We always talk of them as though they’d sprung up from the ground like mushrooms, with all their faults ready-made. But when all’s said and done, we’re responsible for their existence.’

‘Responsible for their existence?’

‘Well, they’ve all got fathers, you see.’

‘Oh . . . Of course there’s that. . . . But after all, you aren’t responsible. I mean, only a very low kind of man would—er—have anything to do with native women, wouldn’t he?’

‘Oh, quite. But the fathers of both those two were clergymen in holy orders, I believe.’

He thought of Rosa McFee, the Eurasian girl he had seduced in Mandalay in 1913. The way he used to sneak down to the house in a gharry with the shutters down; Rosa’s corkscrew curls; her withered old Burmese mother, giving him tea in the dark living-room with the fern pots and the wicker divan. And afterwards, when he had chucked Rosa, those dreadful, imploring letters on scented note-paper, which, in the end, he had ceased opening.

Elizabeth reverted to the subject of Francis and Samuel after tennis.

‘Those two Eurasians—does anyone here have anything to do with them? Invite them to their houses or anything?’

‘Good gracious, no. They’re complete outcasts. It’s not considered quite the thing to talk to them, in fact. Most of us say good morning to them—Ellis won’t even do that.’

‘But you talked to them.’

‘Oh well, I break the rules occasionally. I meant that a pukka sahib probably wouldn’t be seen talking to them. But you see, I try—just sometimes, when I have the pluck—not to be a pukka sahib.’

It was an unwise remark. She knew very well by this time the meaning of the phrase ‘pukka sahib’ and all it stood for. His remark had made the difference in their viewpoint a little clearer. The glance she gave him was almost hostile, and curiously hard; for her face could look hard sometimes, in spite of its youth and its flower-like skin. Those modish tortoise-shell spectacles gave her a very self-possessed look. Spectacles are queerly expressive things—almost more expressive, indeed, than eyes.

As yet he had neither understood her nor quite won her trust. Yet on the surface, at least, things had not gone ill between them. He had fretted her sometimes, but the good impression that he had made that first morning was not yet effaced. It was a curious fact that she scarcely noticed his birthmark at this time. And there were some subjects on which she was glad to hear him talk. Shooting, for example—she seemed to have an enthusiasm for shooting that was remarkable in a girl. Horses, also; but he was less knowledgeable about horses. He had arranged to take her out for a day’s shooting, later, when he could make preparations. Both of them were looking forward to the expedition with some eagerness, though not entirely for the same reason.

Burmese Days Index    |    11

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