Burmese Days, by George Orwell

Chapter 13

As Flory came through the gate of the hospital compound four ragged sweepers passed him, carrying some dead coolie, wrapped in sackcloth, to a foot-deep grave in the jungle. Flory crossed the brick-like earth of the yard between the hospital sheds. All down the wide verandas, on sheetless charpoys, rows of grey-faced men lay silent and moveless. Some filthy-looking curs, which were said to devour amputated limbs, dozed or snapped at their fleas among the piles of the buildings. The whole place wore a sluttish and decaying air. Dr Veraswami struggled hard to keep it clean, but there was no coping with the dust and the bad water-supply, and the inertia of sweepers and half-trained Assistant Surgeons.

Flory was told that the doctor was in the out-patients’ department. It was a plaster-walled room furnished only with a table and two chairs, and a dusty portrait of Queen Victoria, much awry. A procession of Burmans, peasants with gnarled muscles beneath their faded rags, were filing into the room and queueing up at the table. The doctor was in shirt-sleeves and sweating profusely. He sprang to his feet with an exclamation of pleasure, and in his usual fussy haste thrust Flory into the vacant chair and produced a tin of cigarettes from the drawer of the table.

‘What a delightful visit, Mr Flory! Please to make yourself comfortable — that iss, if one can possibly be comfortable in such a place ass this, ha, ha! Afterwards, at my house, we will talk with beer and amenities. Kindly excuse me while I attend to the populace.’

Flory sat down, and the hot sweat immediately burst out and drenched his shirt. The heat of the room was stifling. The peasants steamed garlic from all their pores. As each man came to the table the doctor would bounce from his chair, prod the patient in the back, lay a black ear to his chest, fire off several questions in villainous Burmese, then bounce back to the table and scribble a prescription. The patients took the prescriptions across the yard to the Compounder, who gave them bottles filled with water and various vegetable dyes. The Compounder supported himself largely by the sale of drugs, for the Government paid him only twenty-five rupees a month. However, the doctor knew nothing of this.

On most mornings the doctor had not time to attend to the out-patients himself, and left them to one of the Assistant Surgeons. The Assistant Surgeon’s methods of diagnosis were brief. He would simply ask each patient, ‘Where is your pain? Head, back or belly?’ and at the reply hand out a prescription from one of three piles that he had prepared beforehand. The patients much preferred this method to the doctor’s. The doctor had a way of asking them whether they had suffered from venereal diseases — an ungentlemanly, pointless question — and sometimes he horrified them still more by suggesting operations. ‘Belly-cutting’ was their phrase for it. The majority of them would have died a dozen times over rather than submit to ‘belly-cutting’.

As the last patient disappeared the doctor sank into his chair, fanning his face with the prescription-pad.

‘Ach, this heat! Some mornings I think that never will I get the smell of garlic out of my nose! It iss amazing to me how their very blood becomes impregnated with it. Are you not suffocated, Mr Flory? You English have the sense of smell almost too highly developed. What torments you must all suffer in our filthy East!’

‘Abandon your noses, all ye who enter here, what? They might write that up over the Suez Canal. You seem busy this morning?’

‘Ass ever. Ah but, my friend, how discouraging iss the work of a doctor in this country! These villagers — dirty, ignorant savages! Even to get them to come to hospital iss all we can do, and they will die of gangrene or carry a tumour ass large ass a melon for ten years rather than face the knife. And such medicines ass their own so-called doctors give to them! Herbs gathered under the new moon, tigers’ whiskers, rhinoceros horn, urine, menstrual blood! How men can drink such compounds iss disgusting.’

‘Rather picturesque, all the same. You ought to compile a Burmese pharmacopoeia, doctor. It would be almost as good as Culpeper.’

‘Barbarous cattle, barbarous cattle,’ said the doctor, beginning to struggle into his white coat. ‘Shall we go back to my house? There iss beer and I trust a few fragments of ice left. I have an operation at ten, strangulated hernia, very urgent. Till then I am free.’

‘Yes. As a matter of fact there’s something I rather wanted to talk to you about.’

They recrossed the yard and climbed the steps of the doctor’s veranda. The doctor, having felt in the ice-chest and found that the ice was all melted to tepid water, opened a bottle of beer and called fussily to the servants to set some more bottles swinging in a cradle of wet straw. Flory was standing looking over the veranda rail, with his hat still on. The fact was that he had come here to utter an apology. He had been avoiding the doctor for nearly a fortnight — since the day, in fact, when he had set his name to the insulting notice at the Club. But the apology had got to be uttered. U Po Kyin was a very good judge of men, but he had erred in supposing that two anonymous letters were enough to scare Flory permanently away from his friend.

‘Look here, doctor, you know what I wanted to say?’

‘I? No.’

‘Yes, you do. It’s about that beastly trick I played on you the other week. When Ellis put that notice on the Club board and I signed my name to it. You must have heard about it. I want to try and explain — ’

‘No, no, my friend, no, no!’ The doctor was so distressed that he sprang across the veranda and seized Flory by the arm. ‘You shall NOT explain! Please never mention it! I understand perfectly — but most perfectly.’

‘No, you don’t understand. You couldn’t. You don’t realize just what KIND of pressure is put on one to make one do things like that. There was nothing to make me sign the notice. Nothing could have happened if I’d refused. There’s no law telling us to be beastly to Orientals — quite the contrary. But — it’s just that one daren’t be loyal to an Oriental when it means going against the others. It doesn’t DO. If I’d stuck out against signing the notice I’d have been in disgrace at the Club for a week or two. So I funked it, as usual.’

‘Please, Mr Flory, please! Possitively you will make me uncomfortable if you continue. Ass though I could not make all allowances for your position!’

‘Our motto, you know is, “In India, do as the English do”.’

‘Of course, of course. And a most noble motto. “Hanging together”, ass you call it. It iss the secret of your superiority to we Orientals.’

‘Well, it’s never much use saying one’s sorry. But what I did come here to say was that it shan’t happen again. In fact — ’

‘Now, now, Mr Flory, you will oblige me by saying no more upon this subject. It iss all over and forgotten. Please to drink up your beer before it becomes ass hot ass tea. Also, I have a thing to tell you. You have not asked for my news yet.’

‘Ah, your news. What is your news, by the way? How’s everything been going all this time? How’s Ma Britannia? Still moribund?’

‘Aha, very low, very low! But not so low ass I. I am in deep waters, my friend.’

‘What? U Po Kyin again? Is he still libelling you?’

‘If he iss libelling me! This time it iss — well, it iss something diabolical. My friend, you have heard of this rebellion that is supposed to be on the point of breaking out in the district?’

‘I’ve heard a lot of talk. Westfield’s been out bent on slaughter, but I hear he can’t find any rebels. Only the usual village Hampdens who won’t pay their taxes.’

‘Ah yes. Wretched fools! Do you know how much iss the tax that most of them have refused to pay? Five rupees! They will get tired of it and pay up presently. We have this trouble every year. But ass for the rebellion — the SO-CALLED rebellion, Mr Flory — I wish you to know that there iss more in it than meets the eye.’

‘Oh? What?’

To Flory’s surprise the doctor made such a violent gesture of anger that he spilled most of his beer. He put his glass down on the veranda rail and burst out:

‘It iss U Po Kyin again! That unutterable scoundrel! That crocodile deprived of natural feeling! That — that — ’

‘Go on. “That obscene trunk of humors, that swol’n parcel of dropsies, that bolting-hutch of beastliness” — go on. What’s he been up to now?’

‘A villainy unparalleled’ — and here the doctor outlined the plot for a sham rebellion, very much as U Po Kyin had explained it to Ma Kin. The only detail not known to him was U Po Kyin’s intention of getting himself elected to the European Club. The doctor’s face could not accurately be said to flush, but it grew several shades blacker in his anger. Flory was so astonished that he remained standing up.

‘The cunning old devil! Who’d have thought he had it in him? But how did you manage to find all this out?’

‘Ah, I have a few friends left. But now do you see, my friend, what ruin he iss preparing for me? Already he hass calumniated me right and left. When this absurd rebellion breaks out, he will do everything in his power to connect my name with it. And I tell you that the slightest suspicion of my loyalty could be ruin for me, ruin! If it were ever breathed that I were even a sympathizer with this rebellion, there iss an end of me.’

‘But, damn it, this is ridiculous! Surely you can defend yourself somehow?’

‘How can I defend myself when I can prove nothing? I know that all this iss true, but what use iss that? If I demand a public inquiry, for every witness I produce U Po Kyin would produce fifty. You do not realize the influence of that man in the district. No one dare speak against him.’

‘But why need you prove anything? Why not go to old Macgregor and tell him about it? He’s a very fair-minded old chap in his way. He’d hear you out.’

‘Useless, useless. You have not the mind of an intriguer, Mr Flory. Qui s’excuse, s’accuse, iss it not? It does not pay to cry that there iss a conspiracy against one.’

‘Well, what are you going to do, then?’

‘There iss nothing I can do. Simply I must wait and hope that my prestige will carry me through. In affairs like this, where a native official’s reputation iss at stake, there iss no question of proof, of evidence. All depends upon one’s standing with the Europeans. If my standing iss good, they will not believe it of me; if bad, they will believe it. Prestige iss all.’

They were silent for a moment. Flory understood well enough that ‘prestige iss all’. He was used to these nebulous conflicts, in which suspicion counts for more than proof, and reputation for more than a thousand witnesses. A thought came into his head, an uncomfortable, chilling thought which would never have occurred to him three weeks earlier. It was one of those moments when one sees quite clearly what is one’s duty, and, with all the will in the world to shirk it, feels certain that one must carry it out. He said:

‘Suppose, for instance, you were elected to the Club? Would that do your prestige any good?’

‘If I were elected to the Club! Ah, indeed, yes! The Club! It iss a fortress impregnable. Once there, and no one would listen to these tales about me any more than if it were about you, or Mr Macgregor, or any other European gentleman. But what hope have I that they will elect me after their minds have been poisoned against me?’

‘Well now, look here, doctor, I tell you what. I’ll propose your name at the next general meeting. I know the question’s got to come up then, and if someone comes forward with the name of a candidate, I dare say no one except Ellis will blackball him. And in the meantime — ’

‘Ah, my friend, my dear friend!’ The doctor’s emotion caused him almost to choke. He seized Flory by the hand. ‘Ah, my friend, that iss noble! Truly it iss noble! But it iss too much. I fear that you will be in trouble with your European friends again. Mr Ellis, for example — would he tolerate it that you propose my name?’

‘Oh, bother Ellis. But you must understand that I can’t promise to get you elected. It depends on what Macgregor says and what mood the others are in. It may all come to nothing.’

The doctor was still holding Flory’s hand between his own, which were plump and damp. The tears had actually started into his eyes, and these, magnified by his spectacles, beamed upon Flory like the liquid eyes of a dog.

‘Ah, my friend! If I should but be elected! What an end to all my troubles! But, my friend, ass I said before, do not be too rash in this matter. Beware of U Po Kyin! By now he will have numbered you among hiss enemies. And even for you hiss enmity can be a danger.’

‘Oh, good Lord, he can’t touch me. He’s done nothing so far — only a few silly anonymous letters.’

‘I would not be too sure. He hass subtle ways to strike. And for sure he will raise heaven and earth to keep me from being elected to the Club. If you have a weak spot, guard it, my friend. He will find it out. He strikes always at the weakest spot.’

‘Like the crocodile,’ Flory suggested.

‘Like the crocodile,’ agreed the doctor gravely. ‘Ah but, my friend, how gratifying to me if I should become a member of your European Club! What an honour, to be the associate of European gentlemen! But there iss one other matter, Mr Flory, that I did not care to mention before. It iss — I hope this iss clearly understood — that I have no intention of USING the Club in any way. Membership is all I desire. Even if I were elected, I should not, of course, ever presume to COME to the Club.’

‘Not come to the Club?’

‘No, no! Heaven forbid that I should force my society upon the European gentlemen! Simply I should pay my subscriptions. That, for me, iss a privilege high enough. You understand that, I trust?’

‘Perfectly, doctor, perfectly.’

Flory could not help laughing as he walked up the hill. He was definitely committed now to proposing the doctor’s election. And there would be such a row when the others heard of it — oh, such a devil of a row! But the astonishing thing was that it only made him laugh. The prospect that would have appalled him a month back now almost exhilarated him.

Why? And why had he given his promise at all? It was a small thing, a small risk to take — nothing heroic about it — and yet it was unlike him. Why, after all these years — the circumspect, pukka sahib-like years — break all the rules so suddenly?

He knew why. It was because Elizabeth, by coming into his life, had so changed it and renewed it that all the dirty, miserable years might never have passed. Her presence had changed the whole orbit of his mind. She had brought back to him the air of England — dear England, where thought is free and one is not condemned forever to dance the danse du pukka sahib for the edification of the lower races. Where is the life that late I led? he thought. Just by existing she had made it possible for him, she had even made it natural to him, to act decently.

Where is the life that late I led? he thought again as he came through the garden gate. He was happy, happy. For he had perceived that the pious ones are right when they say that there is salvation and life can begin anew. He came up the path, and it seemed to him that his house, his flowers, his servants, all the life that so short a time ago had been drenched in ennui and homesickness, were somehow made new, significant, beautiful inexhaustibly. What fun it could all be, if only you had someone to share it with you! How you could love this country, if only you were not alone! Nero was out on the path, braving the sun for some grains of paddy that the mali had dropped, taking food to his goats. Flo made a dash at him, panting, and Nero sprang into the air with a flurry and lighted on Flory’s shoulder. Flory walked into the house with the little red cock in his arms, stroking his silky ruff and the smooth, diamond-shaped feathers of his back.

He had not set foot on the veranda before he knew that Ma Hla May was in the house. It did not need Ko S’la to come hurrying from within with a face of evil tidings. Flory had smelled her scent of sandalwood, garlic, coco-nut oil and the jasmine in her hair. He dropped Nero over the veranda rail.

‘THE WOMAN has come back,’ said Ko S’la.

Flory had turned very pale. When he turned pale the birthmark made him hideously ugly. A pang like a blade of ice had gone through his entrails. Ma Hla May had appeared in the doorway of the bedroom. She stood with her face downcast, looking at him from beneath lowered brows.

‘Thakin,’ she said in a low voice, half sullen, half urgent.

‘Go away!’ said Flory angrily to Ko S’la, venting his fear and anger upon him.

‘Thakin,’ she said, ‘come into the bedroom here. I have a thing to say to you.’

He followed her into the bedroom. In a week — it was only a week — her appearance had degenerated extraordinarily. Her hair looked greasy. All her lockets were gone, and she was wearing a Manchester longyi of flowered cotton, costing two rupees eight annas. She had coated her face so thick with powder that it was like a clown’s mask, and at the roots of her hair, where the powder ended, there was a ribbon of natural-coloured brown skin. She looked a drab. Flory would not face her, but stood looking sullenly through the open doorway to the veranda.

‘What do you mean by coming back like this? Why did you not go home to your village?’

‘I am staying in Kyauktada, at my cousin’s house. How can I go back to my village after what has happened?’

‘And what do you mean by sending men to demand money from me? How can you want more money already, when I gave you a hundred rupees only a week ago?’

‘How can I go back?’ she repeated, ignoring what he had said. Her voice rose so sharply that he turned round. She was standing very upright, sullen, with her black brows drawn together and her lips pouted.

‘Why cannot you go back?’

‘After that! After what you have done to me!’

Suddenly she burst into a furious tirade. Her voice had risen to the hysterical graceless scream of the bazaar women when they quarrel.

‘How can I go back, to be jeered at and pointed at by those low, stupid peasants whom I despise? I who have been a bo-kadaw, a white man’s wife, to go home to my father’s house, and shake the paddy basket with old hags and women who are too ugly to find husbands! Ah, what shame, what shame! Two years I was your wife, you loved me and cared for me, and then without warning, without reason, you drove me from your door like a dog. And I must go back to my village, with no money, with all my jewels and silk longyis gone, and the people will point and say, “There is Ma Hla May who thought herself cleverer than the rest of us. And behold! her white man has treated her as they always do.” I am ruined, ruined! What man will marry me after I have lived two years in your house? You have taken my youth from me. Ah, what shame, what shame!’

He could not look at her; he stood helpless, pale, hang-dog. Every word she said was justified, and how tell her that he could do no other than he had done? How tell her that it would have been an outrage, a sin, to continue as her lover? He almost cringed from her, and the birthmark stood on his yellow face like a splash of ink. He said flatly, turning instinctively to money — for money had never failed with Ma Hla May:

‘I will give you money. You shall have the fifty rupees you asked me for — more later. I have no more till next month.’

This was true. The hundred rupees he had given her, and what he had spent on clothes, had taken most of his ready money. To his dismay she burst into a loud wail. Her white mask puckered up and the tears sprang quickly out and coursed down her cheeks. Before he could stop her she had fallen on her knees in front of him, and she was bowing, touching the floor with her forehead in the ‘full’ shiko of utter abasement.

‘Get up, get up!’ he exclaimed. The shameful, abject shiko, neck bent, body doubled up as though inviting a blow, always horrified him. ‘I can’t bear that. Get up this instant.’

She wailed again, and made an attempt to clasp his ankles. He stepped backwards hurriedly.

‘Get up, now, and stop that dreadful noise. I don’t know what you are crying about.’

She did not get up, but only rose to her knees and wailed at him anew. ‘Why do you offer me money? Do you think it is only for money that I have come back? Do you think that when you have driven me from your door like a dog it is only because of money that I care?’

‘Get up,’ he repeated. He had moved several paces away, lest she should seize him. ‘What do you want if it is not money?’

‘Why do you hate me?’ she wailed. ‘What harm have I done you? I stole your cigarette-case, but you were not angry at that. You are going to marry this white woman, I know it, everyone knows it. But what does it matter, why must you turn me away? Why do you hate me?’

‘I don’t hate you. I can’t explain. Get up, please get up.’

She was weeping quite shamelessly now. After all, she was hardly more than a child. She looked at him through her tears, anxiously, studying him for a sign of mercy. Then, a dreadful thing, she stretched herself at full length, flat on her face.

‘Get up, get up!’ he cried out in English. ‘I can’t bear that — it’s too abominable!’

She did not get up, but crept, wormlike, right across the floor to his feet. Her body made a broad ribbon on the dusty floor. She lay prostrate in front of him, face hidden, arms extended, as though before a god’s altar.

‘Master, master,’ she whimpered, ‘will you not forgive me? This once, only this once! Take Ma Hla May back. I will be your slave, lower than your slave. Anything sooner than turn me away.’

She had wound her arms round his ankles, actually was kissing his toes. He stood looking down at her with his hands in his pockets, helpless. Flo came ambling into the room, walked to where Ma Hla May lay and sniffed at her longyi. She wagged her tail vaguely, recognizing the smell. Flory could not endure it. He bent down and took Ma Hla May by the shoulders, lifting her to her knees.

‘Stand up, now,’ he said. ‘It hurts me to see you like this. I will do what I can for you. What is the use of crying?’

Instantly she cried out in renewed hope: ‘Then you will take me back? Oh, master, take Ma Hla May back! No one need ever know. I will stay here when that white woman comes, she will think I am one of the servants’ wives. Will you not take me back?’

‘I cannot. It’s impossible,’ he said, turning away again.

She heard finality in his tone, and uttered a harsh, ugly cry. She bent forward again in a shiko, beating her forehead against the floor. It was dreadful. And what was more dreadful than all, what hurt in his breast, was the utter gracelessness, the lowness of the emotion beneath those entreaties. For in all this there was not a spark of love for him. If she wept and grovelled it was only for the position she had once had as his mistress, the idle life, the rich clothes and dominion over servants. There was something pitiful beyond words in that. Had she loved him he could have driven her from his door with far less compunction. No sorrows are so bitter as those that are without a trace of nobility. He bent down and picked her up in his arms.

‘Listen, Ma Hla May,’ he said; ‘I do not hate you, you have done me no evil. It is I who have wronged you. But there is no help for it now. You must go home, and later I will send you money. If you like you shall start a shop in the bazaar. You are young. This will not matter to you when you have money and can find yourself a husband.’

‘I am ruined!’ she wailed again. ‘I shall kill myself. I shall jump off the jetty into the river. How can I live after this disgrace?’

He was holding her in his arms, almost caressing her. She was clinging close to him, her face hidden against his shirt, her body shaking with sobs. The scent of sandalwood floated into his nostrils. Perhaps even now she thought that with her arms around him and her body against his she could renew her power over him. He disentangled himself gently, and then, seeing that she did not fall on her knees again, stood apart from her.

‘That is enough. You must go now. And look, I will give you the fifty rupees I promised you.’

He dragged his tin uniform case from under the bed and took out five ten-rupee notes. She stowed them silently in the bosom of her ingyi. Her tears had ceased flowing quite suddenly. Without speaking she went into the bathroom for a moment, and came out with her face washed to its natural brown, and her hair and dress rearranged. She looked sullen, but not hysterical any longer.

‘For the last time, thakin: you will not take me back? That is your last word?’

‘Yes. I cannot help it.’

‘Then I am going, thakin.’

‘Very well. God go with you.’

Leaning against the wooden pillar of the veranda, he watched her walk down the path in the strong sunlight. She walked very upright, with bitter offence in the carriage of her back and head. It was true what she had said, he had robbed her of her youth. His knees were trembling uncontrollably. Ko S’la came behind him, silent-footed. He gave a little deprecating cough to attract Flory’s attention.

‘What’s the matter now?’

‘The holy one’s breakfast is getting cold.’

‘I don’t want any breakfast. Get me something to drink — gin.’

Where is the life that late I led?

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