Burmese Days, by George Orwell

Chapter 11

Flory and Elizabeth walked down the bazaar road. It was morning, but the air was so hot that to walk in it was like wading through a torrid sea. Strings of Burmans passed, coming from the bazaar, on scraping sandals, and knots of girls who hurried by four and five abreast, with short quick steps, chattering, their burnished hair gleaming. By the roadside, just before you got to the jail, the fragments of a stone pagoda were littered, cracked and overthrown by the strong roots of a peepul tree. The angry carved faces of demons looked up from the grass where they had fallen. Near by another peepul tree had twined itself round a palm, uprooting it and bending it backwards in a wrestle that had lasted a decade.

They walked on and came to the jail, a vast square block, two hundred yards each way, with shiny concrete walls twenty feet high. A peacock, pet of the jail, was mincing pigeon-toed along the parapet. Six convicts came by, head down, dragging two heavy handcarts piled with earth, under the guard of Indian warders. They were long-sentence men, with heavy limbs, dressed in uniforms of coarse white cloth with small dunces’ caps perched on their shaven crowns. Their faces were greyish, cowed and curiously flattened. Their leg-irons jingled with a clear ring. A woman came past carrying a basket of fish on her head. Two crows were circling round it and making darts at it, and the woman was flapping one hand negligently to keep them away.

There was a din of voices a little distance away. ‘The bazaar’s just round the corner,’ Flory said. ‘I think this is a market morning. It’s rather fun to watch.’

He had asked her to come down to the bazaar with him, telling her it would amuse her to see it. They rounded the bend. The bazaar was an enclosure like a very large cattle pen, with low stalls, mostly palm-thatched, round its edge. In the enclosure, a mob of people seethed, shouting and jostling; the confusion of their multi-coloured clothes was like a cascade of hundreds-and-thousands poured out of a jar. Beyond the bazaar one could see the huge, miry river. Tree branches and long streaks of scum raced down it at seven miles an hour. By the bank a fleet of sampans, with sharp beak-like bows on which eyes were painted, rocked at their mooring-poles.

Flory and Elizabeth stood watching for a moment. Files of women passed balancing vegetable baskets on their heads, and pop-eyed children who stared at the Europeans. An old Chinese in dungarees faded to sky-blue hurried by, nursing some unrecognizable, bloody fragment of a pig’s intestines.

‘Let’s go and poke around the stalls a bit, shall we?’ Flory said.

‘Is it all right going in among the crowd? Everything’s so horribly dirty.’

‘Oh, it’s all right, they’ll make way for us. It’ll interest you.’

Elizabeth followed him doubtfully and even unwillingly. Why was it that he always brought her to these places? Why was he forever dragging her in among the ‘natives’, trying to get her to take an interest in them and watch their filthy, disgusting habits? It was all wrong, somehow. However, she followed, not feeling able to explain her reluctance. A wave of stifling air met them; there was a reek of garlic, dried fish, sweat, dust, anise, cloves and turmeric. The crowd surged round them, swarms of stocky peasants with cigar-brown faces, withered elders with their grey hair tied in a bun behind, young mothers carrying naked babies astride the hip. Flo was trodden on and yelped. Low, strong shoulders bumped against Elizabeth, as the peasants, too busy bargaining even to stare at a white woman, struggled round the stalls.

‘Look!’ Flory was pointing with his stick to a stall, and saying something, but it was drowned by the yells of two women who were shaking their fists at each other over a basket of pineapples. Elizabeth had recoiled from the stench and din, but he did not notice it, and led her deeper into the crowd, pointing to this stall and that. The merchandise was foreign-looking, queer and poor. There were vast pomelos hanging on strings like green moons, red bananas, baskets of heliotrope-coloured prawns the size of lobsters, brittle dried fish tied in bundles, crimson chilis, ducks split open and cured like hams, green coco-nuts, the larvae of the rhinoceros beetle, sections of sugar-cane, dahs, lacquered sandals, check silk longyis, aphrodisiacs in the form of large, soap-like pills, glazed earthenware jars four feet high, Chinese sweetmeats made of garlic and sugar, green and white cigars, purple prinjals, persimmon-seed necklaces, chickens cheeping in wicker cages, brass Buddhas, heart-shaped betel leaves, bottles of Kruschen salts, switches of false hair, red clay cooking-pots, steel shoes for bullocks, papier-mache marionettes, strips of alligator hide with magical properties. Elizabeth’s head was beginning to swim. At the other end of the bazaar the sun gleamed through a priest’s umbrella, blood-red, as though through the ear of a giant. In front of a stall four Dravidian women were pounding turmeric with heavy stakes in a large wooden mortar. The hot-scented yellow powder flew up and tickled Elizabeth’s nostrils, making her sneeze. She felt that she could not endure this place a moment longer. She touched Flory’s arm.

‘This crowd — the heat is so dreadful. Do you think we could get into the shade?’

He turned round. To tell the truth, he had been too busy talking — mostly inaudibly, because of the din — to notice how the heat and stench were affecting her.

‘Oh, I say, I am sorry. Let’s get out of it at once. I tell you what, we’ll go along to old Li Yeik’s shop — he’s the Chinese grocer — and he’ll get us a drink of something. It is rather stifling here.’

‘All these spices — they kind of take your breath away. And what is that dreadful smell like fish?’

‘Oh, only a kind of sauce they make out of prawns. They bury them and then dig them up several weeks afterwards.’

‘How absolutely horrible!’

‘Quite wholesome, I believe. Come away from that!’ he added to Flo, who was nosing at a basket of small gudgeon-like fish with spines on their gills.

Li Yeik’s shop faced the farther end of the bazaar. What Elizabeth had really wanted was to go straight back to the Club, but the European look of Li Yeik’s shop-front — it was piled with Lancashire-made cotton shirts and almost incredibly cheap German clocks — comforted her somewhat after the barbarity of the bazaar. They were about to climb the steps when a slim youth of twenty, damnably dressed in a longyi, blue cricket blazer and bright yellow shoes, with his hair parted and greased ‘Ingaleik fashion’, detached himself from the crowd and came after them. He greeted Flory with a small awkward movement as though restraining himself from shikoing.

‘What is it?’ Flory said.

‘Letter, sir.’ He produced a grubby envelope.

‘Would you excuse me?’ Flory said to Elizabeth, opening the letter. It was from Ma Hla May — or rather, it had been written for her and she had signed it with a cross — and it demanded fifty rupees, in a vaguely menacing manner.

Flory pulled the youth aside. ‘You speak English? Tell Ma Hla May I’ll see about this later. And tell her that if she tries blackmailing me she won’t get another pice. Do you understand?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And now go away. Don’t follow me about, or there’ll be trouble.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘A clerk wanting a job,’ Flory explained to Elizabeth as they went up the steps. ‘They come bothering one at all hours.’ And he reflected that the tone of the letter was curious, for he had not expected Ma Hla May to begin blackmailing him so soon; however, he had not time at the moment to wonder what it might mean.

They went into the shop, which seemed dark after the outer air. Li Yeik, who was sitting smoking among his baskets of merchandise — there was no counter — hobbled eagerly forward when he saw who had come in. Flory was a friend of his. He was an old bent-kneed man dressed in blue, wearing a pigtail, with a chinless yellow face, all cheekbones, like a benevolent skull. He greeted Flory with nasal honking noises which he intended for Burmese, and at once hobbled to the back of the shop to call for refreshments. There was a cool sweetish smell of opium. Long strips of red paper with black lettering were pasted on the walls, and at one side there was a little altar with a portrait of two large, serene-looking people in embroidered robes, and two sticks of incense smouldering in front of it. Two Chinese women, one old, and a girl were sitting on a mat rolling cigarettes with maize straw and tobacco like chopped horsehair. They wore black silk trousers, and their feet, with bulging, swollen insteps, were crammed into red-heeled wooden slippers no bigger than a doll’s. A naked child was crawling slowly about the floor like a large yellow frog.

‘Do look at those women’s feet!’ Elizabeth whispered as soon as Li Yeik’s back was turned. ‘Isn’t it simply dreadful! How do they get them like that? Surely it isn’t natural?’

‘No, they deform them artificially. It’s going out in China, I believe, but the people here are behind the times. Old Li Yeik’s pigtail is another anachronism. Those small feet are beautiful according to Chinese ideas.’

‘Beautiful! They’re so horrible I can hardly look at them. These people must be absolute savages!’

‘Oh no! They’re highly civilized; more civilized than we are, in my opinion. Beauty’s all a matter of taste. There are a people in this country called the Palaungs who admire long necks in women. The girls wear broad brass rings to stretch their necks, and they put on more and more of them until in the end they have necks like giraffes. It’s no queerer than bustles or crinolines.’

At this moment Li Yeik came back with two fat, round-faced Burmese girls, evidently sisters, giggling and carrying between them two chairs and a blue Chinese teapot holding half a gallon. The two girls were or had been Li Yeik’s concubines. The old man had produced a tin of chocolates and was prising off the lid and smiling in a fatherly way, exposing three long, tobacco-blackened teeth. Elizabeth sat down in a very uncomfortable frame of mind. She was perfectly certain that it could not be right to accept these people’s hospitality. One of the Burmese girls had at once gone behind the chairs and begun fanning Flory and Elizabeth, while the other knelt at their feet and poured out cups of tea. Elizabeth felt very foolish with the girl fanning the back of her neck and the Chinaman grinning in front of her. Flory always seemed to get her into these uncomfortable situations. She took a chocolate from the tin Li Yeik offered her, but she could not bring herself to say ‘thank you’.

‘Is this ALL RIGHT?’ she whispered to Flory.

‘All right?’

‘I mean, ought we to be sitting down in these people’s house? Isn’t it sort of — sort of infra dig?’

‘It’s all right with a Chinaman. They’re a favoured race in this country. And they’re very democratic in their ideas. It’s best to treat them more or less as equals.’

‘This tea looks absolutely beastly. It’s quite green. You’d think they’d have the sense to put milk in it, wouldn’t you?’

‘It’s not bad. It’s a special kind of tea old Li Yeik gets from China. It has orange blossoms in it, I believe.’

‘Ugh! It tastes exactly like earth,’ she said, having tasted it.

Li Yeik stood holding his pipe, which was two feet long with a metal bowl the size of an acorn, and watching the Europeans to see whether they enjoyed his tea. The girl behind the chair said something in Burmese, at which both of them burst out giggling again. The one kneeling on the floor looked up and gazed in a naive admiring way at Elizabeth. Then she turned to Flory and asked him whether the English lady wore stays. She pronounced it s’tays.

‘Ch!’ said Li Yeik in a scandalized manner, stirring the girl with his toe to silence her.

‘I should hardly care to ask her,’ Flory said.

‘Oh, thakin, please do ask her! We are so anxious to know!’

There was an argument, and the girl behind the chair forgot fanning and joined in. Both of them, it appeared, had been pining all their lives to see a veritable pair of s’tays. They had heard so many tales about them; they were made of steel on the principle of a strait waistcoat, and they compressed a woman so tightly that she had no breasts, absolutely no breasts at all! The girls pressed their hands against their fat ribs in illustration. Would not Flory be so kind as to ask the English lady? There was a room behind the shop where she could come with them and undress. They had been so hoping to see a pair of s’tays.

Then the conversation lapsed suddenly. Elizabeth was sitting stiffly, holding her tiny cup of tea, which she could not bring herself to taste again, and wearing a rather hard smile. A chill fell upon the Orientals; they realized that the English girl, who could not join in their conversation, was not at her ease. Her elegance and her foreign beauty, which had charmed them a moment earlier, began to awe them a little. Even Flory was conscious of the same feeling. There came one of those dreadful moments that one has with Orientals, when everyone avoids everyone else’s eyes, trying vainly to think of something to say. Then the naked child, which had been exploring some baskets at the back of the shop, crawled across to where the European sat. It examined their shoes and stockings with great curiosity, and then, looking up, saw their white faces and was seized with terror. It let out a desolate wail, and began making water on the floor.

The old Chinese woman looked up, clicked her tongue and went on rolling cigarettes. No one else took the smallest notice. A pool began to form on the floor. Elizabeth was so horrified that she set her cup down hastily, and spilled the tea. She plucked at Flory’s arm.

‘That child! Do look what it’s doing! Really, can’t someone — it’s too awful!’ For a moment everyone gazed in astonishment, and then they all grasped what was the matter. There was a flurry and a general clicking of tongues. No one had paid any attention to the child — the incident was too normal to be noticed — and now they all felt horribly ashamed. Everyone began putting the blame on the child. There were exclamations of ‘What a disgraceful child! What a disgusting child!’ The old Chinese woman carried the child, still howling, to the door, and held it out over the step as though wringing out a bath sponge. And in the same moment, as it seemed, Flory and Elizabeth were outside the shop, and he was following her back to the road with Li Yeik and the others looking after them in dismay.

‘If THAT’S what you call civilized people —!’ she was exclaiming.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said feebly. ‘I never expected — ’

‘What absolutely DISGUSTING people!’

She was bitterly angry. Her face had flushed a wonderful delicate pink, like a poppy bud opened a day too soon. It was the deepest colour of which it was capable. He followed her past the bazaar and back to the main road, and they had gone fifty yards before he ventured to speak again.

‘I’m so sorry that this should have happened! Li Yeik is such a decent old chap. He’d hate to think that he’d offended you. Really it would have been better to stay a few minutes. Just to thank him for the tea.’

‘Thank him! After THAT!’

‘But honestly, you oughtn’t to mind that sort of thing. Not in this country. These people’s whole outlook is so different from ours. One has to adjust oneself. Suppose, for instance, you were back in the Middle Ages — ’

‘I think I’d rather not discuss it any longer.’

It was the first time they had definitely quarrelled. He was too miserable even to ask himself how it was that he offended her. He did not realize that this constant striving to interest her in Oriental things struck her only as perverse, ungentlemanly, a deliberate seeking after the squalid and the ‘beastly’. He had not grasped even now with what eyes she saw the ‘natives’. He only knew that at each attempt to make her share his life, his thoughts, his sense of beauty, she shied away from him like a frightened horse.

They walked up the road, he to the left of her and a little behind. He watched her averted cheek and the tiny gold hairs on her nape beneath the brim of her Terai hat. How he loved her, how he loved her! It was as though he had never truly loved her till this moment, when he walked behind her in disgrace, not even daring to show his disfigured face. He made to speak several times, and stopped himself. His voice was not quite ready, and he did not know what he could say that did not risk offending her somehow. At last he said, flatly, with a feeble pretence that nothing was the matter:

‘It’s getting beastly hot, isn’t it?’

With the temperature at 90 degrees in the shade it was not a brilliant remark. To his surprise she seized on it with a kind of eagerness. She turned to face him, and she was smiling again.

‘Isn’t it simply BAKING!’

With that they were at peace. The silly, banal remark, bringing with it the reassuring atmosphere of Club-chatter, had soothed her like a charm. Flo, who had lagged behind, came puffing up to them dribbling saliva; in an instant they were talking, quite as usual, about dogs. They talked about dogs for the rest of the way home, almost without a pause. Dogs are an inexhaustible subject. Dogs, dogs! thought Flory as they climbed the hot hillside, with the mounting sun scorching their shoulders through their thin clothes, like the breath of fire — were they never to talk of anything except dogs? Or failing dogs, gramophone records and tennis racquets? And yet, when they kept to trash like this, how easily, how amicably they could talk!

They passed the glittering white wall of the cemetery and came to the Lackersteens’ gate. Old mohur trees grew round it, and a clump of hollyhocks eight feet high, with round red flowers like blowsy girls’ faces. Flory took off his hat in the shade and fanned his face.

‘Well, we’re back before the worst of the heat comes. I’m afraid our trip to the bazaar wasn’t altogether a success.’

‘Oh, not at all! I enjoyed it, really I did.’

‘No — I don’t know, something unfortunate always seems to happen. — Oh, by the way! You haven’t forgotten that we’re going out shooting the day after tomorrow? I hope that day will be all right for you?’

‘Yes, and my uncle’s going to lend me his gun. Such awful fun! You’ll have to teach me all about shooting. I AM so looking forward to it.’

‘So am I. It’s a rotten time of year for shooting, but we’ll do our best. Goodbye for the present, then.’

‘Good-bye, Mr Flory.’

She still called him Mr Flory though he called her Elizabeth. They parted and went their ways, each thinking of the shooting trip, which, both of them felt, would in some way put things right between them.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 20:48