Burmese Days


George Orwell

IN THE sticky, sleepy heat of the living-room, almost dark because of the beaded curtain, U Po Kyin was marching slowly up and down, boasting. From time to time he would put a hand under his singlet and scratch his sweating breasts, huge as a woman’s with fat. Ma Kin was sitting on her mat, smoking slender white cigars. Through the open door of the bedroom one could see the corner of U Po Kyin’s huge square bed, with carved teak posts, like a catafalque, on which he had committed many and many a rape.

Ma Kin was now hearing for the first time of the ‘other affair’ which underlay U Po Kyin’s attack on Dr Veraswami. Much as he despised her intelligence, U Po Kyin usually let Ma Kin into his secrets sooner or later. She was the only person in his immediate circle who was not afraid of him, and there was therefore a pleasure in impressing her.

‘Well, Kin Kin,’ he said, ‘you see how it has all gone according to plan! Eighteen anonymous letters already, and every one of them a masterpiece. I would repeat some of them to you if I thought you were capable of appreciating them.’

‘But supposing the Europeans take no notice of your anonymous letters? What then?’

‘Take no notice? Aha, no fear of that! I think I know something about the European mentality. Let me tell you, Kin Kin, that if there is one thing I can do, it is to write an anonymous letter.’

This was true. U Po Kyin’s letters had already taken effect, and especially on their chief target, Mr Macgregor.

Only two days earlier than this, Mr Macgregor had spent a very troubled evening in trying to make up his mind whether Dr Veraswami was or was not guilty of disloyalty to the Government. Of course, it was not a question of any overt act of disloyalty—that was quite irrelevant. The point was, was the doctor the kind of man who would hold seditious opinions? In India you are not judged for what you do, but for what you are. The merest breath of suspicion against his loyalty can ruin an Oriental official. Mr Macgregor had too just a nature to condemn even an Oriental out of hand. He had puzzled as late as midnight over a whole pile of confidential papers, including the five anonymous letters he had received, besides two others that had been forwarded to him by Westfield, pinned together with a cactus thorn.

It was not only the letters. Rumours about the doctor had been pouring in from every side. U Po Kyin fully grasped that to call the doctor a traitor was not enough in itself; it was necessary to attack his reputation from every possible angle. The doctor was charged not only with sedition, but also with extortion, rape, torture, performing illegal operations, performing operations while blind drunk, murder by poison, murder by sympathetic magic, eating beef, selling death certificates to murderers, wearing his shoes in the precincts of the pagoda and making homosexual attempts on the Military Police drummer boy. To hear what was said of him, anyone would have imagined the doctor a compound of Machiavelli, Sweeny Todd and the Marquis de Sade. Mr Macgregor had not paid much attention at first. He was too accustomed to this kind of thing. But with the last of the anonymous letters U Po Kyin had brought off a stroke that was brilliant even for him.

It concerned the escape of Nga Shwe O, the dacoit, from Kyauktada jail. Nga Shwe O, who was in the middle of a well-earned seven years, had been preparing his escape for several months past, and as a start his friends outside had bribed one of the Indian warders. The warder received his hundred rupees in advance, applied for leave to visit the death-bed of a relative and spent several busy days in the Mandalay brothels. Time passed, and the day of the escape was postponed several times—the warder, meanwhile, growing more and more homesick for the brothels. Finally he decided to earn a further reward by betraying the plot to U Po Kyin. But U Po Kyin, as usual, saw his chance. He told the warder on dire penalties to hold his tongue, and then, on the very night of the escape, when it was too late to do anything, sent another anonymous letter to Mr Macgregor, warning him that an escape was being attempted. The letter added, needless to say, that Dr Veraswami, the superintendent of the jail, had been bribed for his connivance.

In the morning there was a hullabaloo and a rushing to and fro of warders and, policemen at the jail, for Nga Shwe O had escaped. (He was a long way down the river, in a sampan provided by U Po Kyin.) This time Mr Macgregor was taken aback. Whoever had written the letter must have been privy to the plot, and was probably telling the truth about the doctor’s connivance. It was a very serious matter. A jail superintendent who will take bribes to let a prisoner escape is capable of anything. And therefore—perhaps the logical sequence was not quite clear, but it was clear enough to Mr Macgregor—therefore the charge of sedition, which was the main charge against the doctor, became much more credible.

U Po Kyin had attacked the other Europeans at the same time. Flory, who was the doctor’s friend and his chief source of prestige, had been scared easily enough into deserting him. With Westfield it was a little harder. Westfield, as a policeman, knew a great deal about U Po Kyin and might conceivably upset his plans. Policemen and magistrates are natural enemies. But U Po Kyin had known how to turn even this fact to advantage. He had accused the doctor, anonymously of course, of being in league with the notorious scoundrel and bribe-taker U Po Kyin. That settled Westfield. As for Ellis, no anonymous letters were needed in his case; nothing could possibly make him think worse of the doctor than he did already.

U Po Kyin had even sent one of his anonymous letters to Mrs Lackersteen, for he knew the power of European women. Dr Veraswami, the letter said, was inciting the natives to abduct and rape the European women—no details were given, nor were they needed. U Po Kyin had touched Mrs Lackersteen’s weak spot. To her mind the words ‘sedition’, ‘Nationalism,’, ‘rebellion’, ‘Home Rule’, conveyed one thing and one only, and that was a picture of herself being raped by a procession of jet-black coolies with rolling white eyeballs. It was a thought that kept her awake at night sometimes. Whatever good regard the Europeans might once have had for the doctor was crumbling rapidly.

‘So you see,’ said U Po Kyin with a pleased air, ‘you see how I have undermined him. He is like a tree sawn through at the base. One tap and down he comes. In three weeks or less I shall deliver that tap.’


‘I am just coming to that. I think it is time for you to hear about it. You have no sense in these matters, but you know how to hold your tongue. You have heard talk of this rebellion that is brewing near Thongwa village?’

‘Yes. 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.’

‘Of course. If there is any fighting it will be a massacre. But they are only a pack of superstitious peasants. They have put their faith in these absurd bullet-proof jackets that are being distributed to them. I despise such ignorance.’

‘Poor men! Why do you not stop them, Ko Po Kyin? There is no need to arrest anybody. You have only to go to the village and tell them that you know their plans, and they will never dare to go on.’

‘Ah well, I could stop them if I chose, of course. But then I do not choose. I have my reasons. You see, Kin Kin—you will please keep silent about this—this is, so to speak, my own rebellion. I arranged it myself.’


Ma Kin dropped her cigar. Her eyes had opened so wide that the pale blue white showed all round the pupil. She was horrified. She burst out:

‘Ko Po Kyin, what are you saying? You do not mean it! You, raising a rebellion—it cannot be true!’

‘Certainly it is true. And a very good job we are making of it. That magician whom I brought from Rangoon is a clever fellow. He has toured all over India as a circus conjurer. The bullet-proof jackets were bought at Whiteaway & Laidlaw’s stores, one rupee eight annas each. They are costing me a pretty penny, I can tell you.’

‘But, Ko Po Kyin! A rebellion! The terrible fighting and shooting, and all the poor men who will be killed! Surely you have not gone mad? Are you not afraid of being shot yourself?’

U Po Kyin halted in his stride. He was astonished. ‘Good gracious, woman, what idea have you got hold of now? You do not suppose that I am rebelling against the Government? I—a Government servant of thirty years’ standing! Good heavens, no! I said that I had started the rebellion, not that I was taking part in it. It is these fools of villagers who are going to risk their skins, not I. No one dreams that I have anything to do with it, or ever will, except Ba Sein and one or two others.’

‘But you said it was you who were persuading them to rebel?’

‘Of course. I have accused Veraswami of raising a rebellion against the Government. Well, I must have a rebellion to show, must I not?’

‘Ah, I see. And when the rebellion breaks out, you are going to say that Dr Veraswami is to blame for it. Is that it?’

‘How slow you are! I should have thought even a fool would have seen that I am raising the rebellion merely in order to crush it. I am—what is that expression Mr Macgregor uses? Agent provocateur— Latin, you would not understand. I am agent provocateur. First I persuade these fools at Thongwa to rebel, and then I arrest them as rebels. At the very moment when it is due to start, I shall pounce on the ringleaders and clap every one of them in jail. After that, I dare say there may possibly be some fighting. A few men may be killed and a few more sent to the Andamans. But, meanwhile, I shall be first in the field. U Po Kyin, the man who quelled a most dangerous rising in the nick of time! I shall be the hero of the district.’

U Po Kyin, justly proud of his plan, began to pace up and down the room again with his hands behind his back, smiling. Ma Kin considered the plan in silence for some time. Finally she said:

‘I still do not see why you are doing this, Ko Po Kyin. Where is it all leading? And what has it got to do with Dr Veraswami?’

‘I shall never teach you wisdom, Kin Kin! Did I not tell you at the beginning that Veraswami stands in my way? This rebellion is the very thing to get rid of him. Of course we shall never prove that he is responsible for it; but what does that matter? All the Europeans will take it for granted that he is mixed up in it somehow. That is how their minds work. He will be ruined for life. And his fall is my rise. The blacker I can paint him, the more glorious my own conduct will appear. Now do you understand?’

‘Yes, I do understand. And I think it is a base, evil plan. I wonder you are not ashamed to tell it me.’

‘Now, Kin Kin! Surely you are not going to start that nonsense over again?’

‘Ko Po Kyin, why is it that you are only happy when you are being wicked? Why is it that everything you do must bring evil to others? Think of that poor doctor who will be dismissed from his post, and those villagers who will be shot or flogged with bamboos or imprisoned for life. Is it necessary to do such things? What can you want with more money when you are rich already?’

‘Money! Who is talking about money? Some day, woman, you will realize that there are other things in the world besides money. Fame, for example. Greatness. Do you realize that the Governor of Burma will very probably pin an Order on my breast for my loyal action in this affair? Would not even you be proud of such an honour as that?’

Ma Kin shook her head, unimpressed. ‘When will you remember, Ko Po Kyin, that you are not going to live a thousand years? Consider what happens to those who have lived wickedly. There is such a thing, for instance, as being turned into a rat or a frog. There is even hell. I remember what a priest said to me once about hell, something that he had translated from the Pali scriptures, and it was very terrible. He said, “Once in a thousand centuries two red-hot spears will meet in your heart, and you will say to yourself, ‘Another thousand centuries of my torment are ended, and there is as much to come as there has been before.’” Is it not very dreadful to think of such things, Ko Po Kyin?’

U Po Kyin laughed and gave a careless wave of his hand that meant ‘pagodas’.

‘Well, I hope you may still laugh when it comes to the end. But for myself, I should not care to look back upon such a life.’

She relighted her cigar with her thin shoulder turned disapprovingly on U Po Kyin while he took several more turns up and down the room. When he spoke, it was more seriously than before, and even with a touch of diffidence.

‘You know, Kin Kin, there is another matter behind all this. Something that I have not told to you or to anyone else. Even Ba Sein does not know. But I believe I will tell it you now.’

‘I do not want to hear it, if it is more wickedness.’

‘No, no. You were asking just now what is my real object in this affair. You think, I suppose, that I am ruining Veraswami merely because I dislike him and his ideas about bribes as a nuisance. It is not only that. There is something else that is far more important, and it concerns you as well as me.’

‘What is it?’

‘Have you never felt in you, Kin Kin, a desire for higher things? Has it never struck you that after all our successes—all my successes, I should say—we are almost in the same position as when we started? I am worth, I dare say, two lakhs of rupees, and yet look at the style in which we live! Look at this room! Positively it is no better than that of a peasant. I am tired of eating with my fingers and associating only with Burmans—poor, inferior people—and living, as you might say, like a miserable Township Officer. Money is not enough; I should like to feel that I have risen in the world as well. Do you not wish sometimes for a way of life that is a little more—how shall I say—elevated?’

‘I do not know how we could want more than what we have already. When I was a girl in my village I never thought that I should live in such a house as this. Look at those English chairs—I have never sat in one of them in my life. But I am very proud to look at them and think that I own them.’

‘Ch! Why did you ever leave that village of yours, Kin Kin? You are only fit to stand gossiping by the well with a stone water-pot on your head. But I am more ambitious, God be praised. And now I will tell you the real reason why I am intriguing against Veraswami. It is in my mind to do something that is really magnificent. Something noble, glorious! Something that is the very highest honour an Oriental can attain to. You know what I mean, of course?’

‘No. What do you mean?’

‘Come, now! The greatest achievement of my life! Surely you can guess?’

‘Ah, I know! You are going to buy a motor-car. But oh, Ko Po Kyin, please do not expect me to ride in it!’

U Po Kyin threw up his hands in disgust. ‘A motor-car! You have the mind of a bazaar peanut-seller! I could buy twenty motor-cars if I wanted them. And what use would a motor-car be in this place? No, it is something far grander than that.’

‘What, then?’

‘It is this. I happen to know that in a month’s time the Europeans are going to elect one native member to their Club. They do not want to do it, but they will have orders from the Commissioner, and they will obey. Naturally, they would elect Veraswami, who is the highest native official in the district. But I have disgraced Veraswami. And so—’


U Po Kyin did not answer for a moment. He looked at Ma Kin, and his vast yellow face, with its broad jaw and numberless teeth, was so softened that it was almost child-like. There might even have been tears in his tawny eyes. He said in a small, almost awed voice, as though the greatness of what he was saying overcame him:

‘Do you not see, woman? Do you not see that if Veraswami is disgraced I shall be elected to the Club myself?’

The effect of it was crushing. There was not another word of argument on Ma Kin’s part. The magnificence of U Po Kyin’s project had struck her dumb.

And not without reason, for all the achievements of U Po Kyin’s life were as nothing beside this. It is a real triumph—it would be doubly so in Kyauktada—for an official of the lower ranks to worm his way into the European Club. The European Club, that remote, mysterious temple, that holy of holies far harder of entry than Nirvana! Po Kyin, the naked gutter-boy of Mandalay, the thieving clerk and obscure official, would enter that sacred place, call Europeans ‘old chap’, drink whisky and soda and knock white balls to and fro on the green table! Ma Kin, the village woman, who had first seen the light through the chinks of a bamboo hut thatched with palm-leaves, would sit on a high chair with her feet imprisoned in silk stockings and high-heeled shoes (yes, she would actually wear shoes in that place!) talking to English ladies in Hindustani about baby-linen! It was a prospect that would have dazzled anybody.

For a long time Ma Kin remained silent, her lips parted, thinking of the European Club and the splendours that it might contain. For the first time in her life she surveyed U Po Kyin’s intrigues without disapproval. Perhaps it was a feat greater even than the storming of the Club to have planted a grain of ambition in Ma Kin’s gentle heart.

Burmese Days Index    |    13

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