Burmese Days


George Orwell

THAT evening Flory told Ko S’la to send for the barber—he was the only barber in the town, an Indian, and he made a living by shaving the Indian coolies at the rate of eight annas a month for a dry shave every other day. The Europeans patronized him for lack of any other. The barber was waiting on the veranda when Flory came back from tennis, and Flory sterilized the scissors with boiling water and Condy’s fluid and had his hair cut.

‘Lay out my best Palm Beach suit,’ he told Ko S’la, ‘and a silk shirt and my sambhur-skin shoes. Also that new tie that came from Rangoon last week.’

‘I have done so, thakin,’ said Ko S’la, meaning that he would do so. When Flory came into the bedroom he found Ko S’la waiting beside the clothes he had laid out, with a faintly sulky air. It was immediately apparent that Ko S’la knew why Flory was dressing himself up (that is, in hopes of meeting Elizabeth) and that he disapproved of it.

‘What are you waiting for?’ Flory said.

‘To help you dress, thakin.’

‘I shall dress myself this evening. You can go.’

He was going to shave—the second time that day—and he did not want Ko S’la to see him take shaving things into the bathroom. It was several years since he had shaved twice in one day. What providential luck that he had sent for that new tie only last week, he thought. He dressed himself very carefully, and spent nearly a quarter of an hour in brushing his hair, which was stiff and would never lie down after it had been cut.

Almost the next moment, as it seemed, he was walking with Elizabeth down the bazaar road. He had found her alone in the Club ‘library’, and with a sudden burst of courage asked her to come out with him; and she had come with a readiness that surprised him; not even stopping to say anything to her uncle and aunt. He had lived so long in Burma, he had forgotten English ways. It was very dark under the peepul trees of the bazaar road, the foliage hiding the quarter moon, but the stars here and there in a gap blazed white and low, like lamps hanging on invisible threads. Successive waves of scent came rolling, first the cloying sweetness of frangipani, then a cold putrid stench of dung or decay from the huts opposite Dr Veraswami’s bungalow. Drums were throbbing a little distance away.

As he heard the drums Flory remembered that a pwe was being acted a little farther down the road, opposite U Po Kyin’s house; in fact, it was U Po Kyin who had made arrangements for the pwe, though someone else had paid for it. A daring thought occurred to Flory. He would take Elizabeth to the pwe! She would love it—she must; no one with eyes in his head could resist a pwe-dance. Probably there would be a scandal when they came back to the Club together after a long absence; but damn it! what did it matter? She was different from that herd of fools at the Club. And it would be such fun to go to the pwe together! At this moment the music burst out with a fearful pandemonium—a strident squeal of pipes, a rattle like castanets and the hoarse thump of drums, above which a man’s voice was brassily squalling.

‘Whatever is that noise?’ said Elizabeth, stopping. ‘It sounds just like a jazz band!’

‘Native music. They’re having a pwe—that’s a kind of Burmese play; a cross between a historical drama and a revue, if you can imagine that. It’ll interest you, I think. Just round the bend of the road here.’

‘Oh,’ she said rather doubtfully.

They came round the bend into a glare of light. The whole road for thirty yards was blocked by the audience watching the pwe. At the back there was a raised stage, under humming petrol lamps, with the orchestra squalling and banging in front of it; on the stage two men dressed in clothes that reminded Elizabeth of Chinese pagodas were posturing with curved swords in their hands. All down the roadway it was a sea of white muslin backs of women, pink scarves flung round their shoulders and black hair-cylinders. A few sprawled on their mats, fast asleep. An old Chinese with a tray of peanuts was threading his way through the crowd, intoning mournfully, ‘Myaype! Myaype!’

‘We’ll stop and watch a few minutes if you like,’ Flory said.

The blaze of lights and the appalling din of the orchestra had almost dazed Elizabeth, but what startled her most of all was the sight of this crowd of people sitting in the road as though it had been the pit of a theatre.

‘Do they always have their plays in the middle of the road?’ she said.

‘As a rule. They put up a rough stage and take it down in the morning. The show lasts all night.’

‘But are they allowed to—blocking up the whole roadway?’

‘Oh yes. There are no traffic regulations here. No traffic to regulate, you see.’

It struck her as very queer. By this time almost the entire audience had turned round on their mats to stare at the ‘Ingaleikma’. There were half a dozen chairs in the middle of the crowd, where some clerks and officials were sitting. U Po Kyin was among them, and he was making efforts to twist his elephantine body round and greet the Europeans. As the music stopped the pock-marked Ba Taik came hastening through the crowd and shikoed low to Flory, with his timorous air.

‘Most holy one, my master U Po Kyin asks whether you and the young white lady will not come and watch our pwe for a few minutes. He has chairs ready for you.’

‘They’re asking us to come and sit down,’ Flory said to Elizabeth. ‘Would you like to? It’s rather fun. Those two fellows will clear off in a moment and there’ll be some dancing. If it wouldn’t bore you for a few minutes?’

Elizabeth felt very doubtful. Somehow it did not seem right or even safe to go in among that smelly native crowd. However, she trusted Flory, who presumably knew what was proper, and allowed him to lead her to the chairs. The Burmans made way on their mats, gazing after her and chattering; her shins brushed against warm, muslin-clad bodies, there was a feral reek of sweat. U Po Kyin leaned over towards her, bowing as well as he could and saying nasally:

‘Kindly to sit down, madam! I am most honoured to make your acquaintance. Good evening. Good morning, Mr Flory, sir! A most unexpected pleasure. Had we known that you were to honour us with your company, we would have provided whiskies and other European refreshments. Ha ha!’

He laughed, and his betel-reddened teeth gleamed in the lamplight like red tinfoil. He was so vast and so hideous that Elizabeth could not help shrinking from him. A slender youth in a purple longyi was bowing to her and holding out a tray with two glasses of yellow sherbet, iced. U Po Kyin clapped his hands sharply, ‘Hey haung galay!’ he called to a boy beside him. He gave some instructions in Burmese, and the boy pushed his way to the edge of the stage.

‘He’s telling them to bring on their best dancer in our honour,’ Flory said. ‘Look, here she comes.’

A girl who had been squatting at the back of the stage, smoking, stepped forward into the lamplight. She was very young, slim- shouldered, breastless, dressed in a pale blue satin longyi that hid her feet. The skirts of her ingyi curved outwards above her hips in little panniers, according to the ancient Burmese fashion. They were like the petals of a downward-pointing flower. She threw her cigar languidly to one of the men in the orchestra, and then, holding out one slender arm, writhed it as though to shake the muscles loose.

The orchestra burst into a sudden loud squalling. There were pipes like bagpipes, a strange instrument consisting of plaques of bamboo which a man struck with a little hammer, and in the middle there was a man surrounded by twelve tall drums of different sizes. He reached rapidly from one to another, thumping them with the heel of his hand. In a moment the girl began to dance. But at first it was not a dance, it was a rhythmic nodding, posturing and twisting of the elbows, like the movements of one of those jointed wooden figures on an old-fashioned roundabout. The way her neck and elbows rotated was precisely like a jointed doll, and yet incredibly sinuous. Her hands, twisting like snakeheads with the fingers close together, could lie back until they were almost along her forearms. By degrees her movements quickened. She began to leap from side to side, flinging herself down in a kind of curtsy and springing up again with extraordinary agility, in spite of the long longyi that imprisoned her feet. Then she danced in a grotesque posture as though sitting down, knees bent, body leaned forward, with her arms extended and writhing, her head also moving to the beat of the drums. The music quickened to a climax. The girl rose upright and whirled round as swiftly as a top, the pannier of her ingyi flying out about her like the petals of a snowdrop. Then the music stopped as abruptly as it had begun, and the girl sank again into a curtsy, amid raucous shouting from the audience.

Elizabeth watched the dance with a mixture of amazement, boredom and something approaching horror. She had sipped her drink and found that it tasted like hair oil. On a mat by her feet three Burmese girls lay fast asleep with their heads on the same pillow, their small oval faces side by side like the faces of kittens. Under cover of the music Flory was speaking in a low voice into Elizabeth’s ear commenting on the dance.

‘I knew this would interest you; that’s why I brought you here. You’ve read books and been in civilized places, you’re not like the rest of us miserable savages here. Don’t you think this is worth watching, in its queer way? Just look at that girl’s movements—look at that strange, bent-forward pose like a marionette, and the way her arms twist from the elbow like a cobra rising to strike. It’s grotesque, it’s even ugly, with a sort of wilful ugliness. And there’s something sinister in it too. There’s a touch of the diabolical in all Mongols. And yet when you look closely, what art, what centuries of culture you can see behind it! Every movement that girl makes has been studied and handed down through innumerable generations. Whenever you look closely at the art of these Eastern peoples you can see that—a civilization stretching back and back, practically the same, into times when we were dressed in woad. In some way that I can’t define to you, the whole life and spirit of Burma is summed up in the way that girl twists her arms. When you see her you can see the rice fields, the villages under the teak trees, the pagodas, the priests in their yellow robes, the buffaloes swimming the rivers in the early morning, Thibaw’s palace—’

His voice stopped abruptly as the music stopped. There were certain things, and a pwe-dance was one of them, that pricked him to talk discursively and incautiously; but now he realized that he had only been talking like a character in a novel, and not a very good novel. He looked away. Elizabeth had listened to him with a chill of discomfort. What was the man talking about? was her first thought. Moreover, she had caught the hated word Art more than once. For the first time she remembered that Flory was a total stranger and that it had been unwise to come out with him alone. She looked round her, at the sea of dark faces and the lurid glare of the lamps; the strangeness of the scene almost frightened her. What was she doing in this place? Surely it was not right to be sitting among the black people like this, almost touching them, in the scent of their garlic and their sweat? Why was she not back at the Club with the other white people? Why had he brought her here, among this horde of natives, to watch this hideous and savage spectacle?

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. With that dead-white oval face and those wooden gestures she was monstrous, like a demon. The music changed its tempo, and the girl began to sing in a brassy voice. It was a song with a swift trochaic rhythm, gay yet fierce. The crowd took it up, a hundred voices chanting the harsh syllables in unison. Still in that strange bent posture the girl turned round and danced with her buttocks protruded towards the audience. Her silk longyi 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 two buttocks independently in time with the music.

There was a shout of applause from the audience. The three girls asleep on the mat woke up at the same moment and began clapping their hands wildly. A clerk shouted nasally ‘Bravo! Bravo!’ in English for the Europeans’ benefit. But U Po Kyin frowned and waved his hand. He knew all about European women. Elizabeth, however, had already stood up.

‘I’m going. It’s time we were back,’ she said abruptly. She was looking away, but Flory could see that her face was pink.

He stood up beside her, dismayed. ‘But, I say! Couldn’t you stay a few minutes longer? I know it’s late, but—they brought this girl on two hours before she was due, in our honour. Just a few minutes?’

‘I can’t help it, I ought to have been back ages ago. I don’t know what my uncle and aunt will be thinking.’

She began at once to pick her way through the crowd, and he followed her, with not even time to thank the pwe people for their trouble. The Burmans made way with a sulky air. How like these English people, to upset everything by sending for the best dancer and then go away almost before she had started! There was a fearful row as soon as Flory and Elizabeth had gone, the pwe girl refusing to go on with her dance and the audience demanding that she should continue. However, peace was restored when two clowns hurried on to the stage and began letting off crackers and making obscene jokes.

Flory followed the girl abjectly up the road. She was walking quickly, her head turned away, and for some moments she would not speak. What a thing to happen, when they had been getting on so well together! He kept trying to apologize.

‘I’m so sorry! I’d no idea you’d mind—’

‘It’s nothing. What is there to be sorry about? I only said it was time to go back, that’s all.’

‘I ought to have thought. One gets not to notice that kind of thing in this country. These people’s sense of decency isn’t the same as ours—it’s stricter in some ways—but—’

‘It’s not that! It’s not that!’ she exclaimed quite angrily.

He saw that he was only making it worse. They walked on in silence, he behind. He was miserable. What a bloody fool he had been! And yet all the while he had no inkling of the real reason why she was angry with him. It was not the pwe girl’s behaviour, in itself, that had offended her; it had only brought things to a head. But the whole expedition—the very notion of wanting to rub shoulders with all those smelly natives—had impressed her badly. She was perfectly certain that that was not how white men ought to behave. And that extraordinary rambling speech that he had begun, with all those long words—almost, she thought bitterly, as though he were quoting poetry! It was how those beastly artists that you met sometimes in Paris used to talk. She had thought him a manly man till this evening. Then her mind went back to the morning’s adventure, and how he had faced the buffalo barehanded, and some of her anger evaporated. By the time they reached the Club gate she felt inclined to forgive him. Flory had by now plucked up courage to speak again. He stopped, and she stopped too, in a patch where the boughs let through some starlight and he could see her face dimly.

‘I say. I say, I do hope you’re not really angry about this?’

‘No, of course I’m not. I told you I wasn’t.’

‘I oughtn’t to have taken you there. Please forgive me. Do you know, I don’t think I’d tell the others where you’ve been. Perhaps it would be better to say you’ve just been out for a stroll, out in the garden—something like that. They might think it queer, a white girl going to a pwe. I don’t think I’d tell them.’

‘Oh, of course I won’t!’ she agreed with a warmness that surprised him. After that he knew that he was forgiven. But what it was that he was forgiven, he had not yet grasped.

They went into the Club separately, by tacit consent. The expedition had been a failure, decidedly. There was a gala air about the Club lounge tonight. The entire European community were waiting to greet Elizabeth, and the butler and the six chokras, in their best starched white suits, were drawn up on either side of the door, smiling and salaaming. When the Europeans had finished their greetings the butler came forward with a vast garland of flowers that the servants had prepared for the ‘missiesahib’. Mr Macgregor made a very humorous speech of welcome, introducing everybody. He introduced Maxwell as ‘our local arboreal specialist’, Westfield as ‘the guardian of law and order and—ah—terror of the local banditti’, and so on and so forth. There was much laughter. The sight of a pretty girl’s face had put everyone in such a good humour that they could even enjoy Mr Macgregor’s speech—which, to tell the truth, he had spent most of the evening in preparing.

At the first possible moment Ellis, with a sly air, took Flory and Westfield by the arm and drew them away into the card-room. He was in a much better mood than usual. He pinched Flory’s arm with his small, hard fingers, painfully but quite amiably.

‘Well, my lad, everyone’s been looking for you. Where have you been all this time?’

‘Oh, only for a stroll.’

‘For a stroll! And who with?’

‘With Miss Lackersteen.’

‘I knew it! So you’re the bloody fool who’s fallen into the trap, are you? You swallowed the bait before anyone else had time to look at it. I thought you were too old a bird for that, by God I did!’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Mean! Look at him pretending he doesn’t know what I mean! Why, I mean that Ma Lackersteen’s marked you down for her beloved nephew-in-law, of course. That is, if you aren’t bloody careful. Eh, Westfield?’

‘Quite right, ol’ boy. Eligible young bachelor. Marriage halter and all that. They’ve got their eye on him.’

‘I don’t know where you’re getting this idea from. The girl’s hardly been here twenty-four hours.’

‘Long enough for you to take her up the garden path, anyway. You watch your step. Tom Lackersteen may be a drunken sot, but he’s not such a bloody fool that he wants a niece hanging round his neck for the rest of his life. And of course she knows which side her bread’s buttered. So you take care and don’t go putting your head into the noose.’

‘Damn it, you’ve no right to talk about people like that. After all, the girl’s only a kid—’

‘My dear old ass’—Ellis, almost affectionate now that he had a new subject for scandal, took Flory by the coat lapel—‘my dear, dear old ass, don’t you go filling yourself up with moonshine. You think that girl’s easy fruit: she’s not. These girls out from home are all the same. “Anything in trousers but nothing this side the altar”—that’s their motto, every one of them. Why do you think the girl’s come out here?’

‘Why? I don’t know. Because she wanted to, I suppose.’

‘My good fool! She come out to lay her claws into a husband, of course. As if it wasn’t well known! When a girl’s failed everywhere else she tries India, where every man’s pining for the sight of a white woman. The Indian marriage-market, they call it. Meat market it ought to be. Shiploads of ’em coming out every year like carcasses of frozen mutton, to be pawed over by nasty old bachelors like you. Cold storage. Juicy joints straight from the ice.’

‘You do say some repulsive things.’

‘Best pasture-fed English meat,’ said Ellis with a pleased air. ‘Fresh consignments. Warranted prime condition.’

He went through a pantomime of examining a joint of meat, with goatish sniffs. This joke was likely to last Ellis a long time; his jokes usually did; and there was nothing that gave him quite so keen a pleasure as dragging a woman’s name through mud.

Flory did not see much more of Elizabeth that evening. Everyone was in the lounge together, and there was the silly clattering chatter about nothing that there is on these occasions. Flory could never keep up that kind of conversation for long. But as for Elizabeth, the civilized atmosphere of the Club, with the white faces all round her and the friendly look of the illustrated papers and the ‘Bonzo’ pictures, reassured her after that doubtful interlude at the pwe.

When the Lackersteens left the Club at nine, it was not Flory but Mr Macgregor who walked home with them, ambling beside Elizabeth like some friendly saurian monster, among the faint crooked shadows of the gold mohur stems. The Prome anecdote, and many another, found a new home. Any newcomer to Kyauktada was apt to come in for rather a large share of Mr Macgregor’s conversation, for the others looked on him as an unparalleled bore, and it was a tradition at the Club to interrupt his stories. But Elizabeth was by nature a good listener. Mr Macgregor thought he had seldom met so intelligent a girl.

Flory stayed a little longer at the Club, drinking with the others. There was much smutty talk about Elizabeth. The quarrel about Dr Veraswami’s election had been shelved for the time being. Also, the notice that Ellis had put up on the previous evening had been taken down. Mr Macgregor had seen it during his morning visit to the Club, and in his fair-minded way he had at once insisted on its removal. So the notice had been suppressed; not, however, before it had achieved its object.

Burmese Days Index    |    9

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