The most unflattering account of India and its people is there in ‘Burmese days’. The authenticity of the book is stunning. George Orwell saw things far more clearly than even Forster, who totally ignored Hindus for they appeared mysterious to him, besides noting passingly Dr. Godse.
On the reverse side, the Gorge Orwell’s book presents the colonials in even poorer light. The true nature of colonialism and its soul-sapping decadence and corrupting influence on both the parties is pity-provoking. You simply can not detest the British underclass, representing the face of colonials in India. They are capable of inflicting the severest violence on the natives to prove their loyalty to the Raj and win promotions, while they are distressed by their financial worries, children’s education or their future, once they complete their tenure in India.
For the ones not married yet, finding a suitable English match is almost out of question. At best they will find a woman who is considered too low in Britain and fit to be a servant only, or fit to marry a British man serving in India.
Then you have orphaned and destitute English young women coming to India looking for a husband.
(Such was the tyranny at home–Towards which he was drawn “Like a moth to a flame” in the words of BBC–and Orwell went out looking for it all over the places to begin his revolution.)
The prospects of joining the retirees’ ghetto of British-Indian servicemen in England is the another loathsome inevitability at the end of a such a career.
That is, if an uprising of natives does not annihilate them before that.
They drink and indulge excessively to keep their minds off the dirty work they are doing here in most cases. Then there is the fear of tropical diseases.
From the first sentence it holds you by your neck and hits you with brilliance almost relentlessly.
Orwell was disillusioned of his job and despaired as a writer to almost kill himself by smoking while writing 1984. He had weak lungs and TB and lived a life of exile mostly. For his writing rendered him an alien in Britain. To this day few writers have the courage to follow his legacy and Britain reads and produces occult-fiction or mommy porn mostly, if it not regales in foreign cultures. The concept of home guard he suggested and the government adopted during the WWII gave him a hope that a revolt will take place in Britain itself, with millions of armed civilians. But he failed to see that British people were incapable of it, being very tribal by nature. Before that he joined the Spanish civil war to fight the tyranny and got nearly killed. His personal life says that he was a born revolutionary with no true comrade. So writing was the last resort to him though it earned him very little to ever get settled in life. Today his works earn millions of pound in royalties.
What is most appealing about Burmese days is the intimate scenes between Flory and his Burmese mistress in the earlier part of the book. The hostility and mutual distrust among them is total. Flory needs her to relieve his carnal desires and she needs Flory to extort money. They hate each other as much as possible otherwise. Once this relationship fails the woman turns vindictive, prompted by the villain and finally destroys Flory. The villain is a Burmese in British civil service who is against Flory because Flory supports a South Indian doctor for the membership of the club, where only one Indian will be entered to make it look more egalitarian, as per orders from higher commands. It divides the members of the hitherto all white club, who sulk at the prospects of having an Indian now in a all white club. Now they want the one closer to them to join. It makes Flory an enemy of the rest of the whites and the other wannabe for the membership: the Burmese villain, for he clearly supports his friend the South Indian doctor for the membership.
It is the most forthcoming narrative of the writer where he doesn’t hide behind many symbols or allusions, save the birthmark of Flory, who a reader will never forget in his life; which is the case with his later work which was more celebrated than his first.
Though it is about Burma rather than India, it is almost about every country ever colonised.
The ending disappointed a bit. For neither Flory is that sensitive a soul to commit suicide after killing his pet dog when he was rejected by Elizabeth for the second time after his disposed Burmese mistress creates a scene in a church gathering. He was never that proud of his Englishness that the rejection of an English woman, who is an orphan and a destitute and is desperate to find a husband in India after finding none at home.
On the part of Elizabeth too, the second rejection of Flory is too much over done with. More so since she already rejected Flory for the same reason earlier and then accepted back after she herself was rejected by the military officer Varrell, who she and her aunt were prospecting for her husband. Flory was rejected first time as soon Varell arrives in the town and is accepted back as soon Varrell leaves without saying a goodbye to anyone after his month long stay in the town, during which he took out Elizabeth almost every evening but never proposed the marriage Elizabeth wanted from him so badly.
In the meanwhile the uncle who gives her shelter in Burma has repeatedly tried to rape her.
All British characters are too practical in the book for they are from the underclass at home and are out there to make a career in British Raj in India. When they appeared inordinately principled in the end of the book, it looked disingenuous to say the least.
If it was created to make the end dramatic it has failed completely. If it was done to uphold the uprightness and pride of British colonials it again fails miserably. For the book gave away a great deal earlier on that count.
(A doubt is, they were added to attenuate the venom of the book when it was finally published in England, after its first edition published in the USA was taken off the shelf briskly, though the book has already sold a few thousand copies in a little time after publication.)
Chandra K Bhatt lives in Kathmandu after migrating there from a remote district a long time ago. Reading has been a recourse to him. He is the author of Kathmandu Days: The Blight and Plight published by Niyogi Books.