Burmese Days, by George Orwell

Chapter 9

During the next fortnight a great deal happened.

The feud between U Po Kyin and Dr Veraswami was now in full swing. The whole town was divided into two factions, with every native soul from the magistrates down to the bazaar sweepers enrolled on one side or the other, and all ready for perjury when the time came. But of the two parties, the doctor’s was much the smaller and less efficiently libellous. The editor of the Burmese Patriot had been put on trial for sedition and libel, bail being refused. His arrest had provoked a small riot in Rangoon, which was suppressed by the police with the death of only two rioters. In prison the editor went on hunger strike, but broke down after six hours.

In Kyauktada, too, things had been happening. A dacoit named Nga Shwe O had escaped from the jail in mysterious circumstances. And there had been a whole crop of rumours about a projected native rising in the district. The rumours — they were very vague ones as yet — centred round a village named Thongwa, not far from the camp where Maxwell was girdling teak. A weiksa, or magician, was said to have appeared from nowhere and to be prophesying the doom of the English power and distributing magic bullet-proof jackets. Mr Macgregor did not take the rumours very seriously, but he had asked for an extra force of Military Police. It was said that a company of Indian infantry with a British officer in command would be sent to Kyauktada shortly. Westfield, of course, had hurried to Thongwa at the first threat, or rather hope, of trouble.

‘God, if they’d only break out and rebel properly for once!’ he said to Ellis before starting. ‘But it’ll be a bloody washout as usual. Always the same story with these rebellions — peter out almost before they’ve begun. Would you believe it, I’ve never fired my gun at a fellow yet, not even a dacoit. Eleven years of it, not counting the War, and never killed a man. Depressing.’

‘Oh, well,’ said Ellis, ‘if they won’t come up to the scratch you can always get hold of the ringleaders and give them a good bambooing on the Q.T. That’s better than coddling them up in our damned nursing homes of prisons.’

‘H’m, probably. Can’t do it though, nowadays. All these kid-glove laws — got to keep them, I suppose, if we’re fools enough to make ‘em.’

‘Oh, rot the laws. Bambooing’s the only thing that makes any impression on the Burman. Have you seen them after they’ve been flogged? I have. Brought out of the jail on bullock carts, yelling, with the women plastering mashed bananas on their backsides. That’s something they do understand. If I had my way I’d give it ‘em on the soles of the feet the same as the Turks do.’

‘Ah well. Let’s hope they’ll have the guts to show a bit of fight for once. Then we’ll call out the Military Police, rifles and all. Plug a few dozen of ‘em — that’ll clear the air.’

However, the hoped-for opportunity did not come. Westfield and the dozen constables he had taken with him to Thongwa — jolly round-faced Gurkha boys, pining to use their kukris on somebody — found the district depressingly peaceful. There seemed not the ghost of a rebellion anywhere; only the annual attempt, as regular as the monsoon, of the villagers to avoid paying the capitation tax.

The weather was growing hotter and hotter. Elizabeth had had her first attack of prickly heat. Tennis at the Club had practically ceased; people would play one languid set and then fall into chairs and swallow pints of tepid lime-juice — tepid, because the ice came only twice weekly from Mandalay and melted within twenty-four hours of arriving. The Flame of the Forest was in full bloom. The Burmese women, to protect their children from the sun, streaked their faces with yellow cosmetic until they looked like little African witch-doctors. Flocks of green pigeons, and imperial pigeons as large as ducks, came to eat the berries of the big peepul trees along the bazaar road.

Meanwhile, Flory had turned Ma Hla May out of his house.

A nasty, dirty job! There was a sufficient pretext — she had stolen his gold cigarette-case and pawned it at the house of Li Yeik, the Chinese grocer and illicit pawnbroker in the bazaar — but still, it was only a pretext. Flory knew perfectly well, and Ma Hla May knew, and all the servants knew, that he was getting rid of her because of Elizabeth. Because of ‘the Ingaleikma with dyed hair’, as Ma Hla May called her.

Ma Hla May made no violent scene at first. She stood sullenly listening while he wrote her a cheque for a hundred rupees — Li Yeik or the Indian chetty in the bazaar would cash cheques — and told her that she was dismissed. He was more ashamed than she; he could not look her in the face, and his voice went flat and guilty. When the bullock cart came for her belongings, he shut himself in the bedroom skulking till the scene should be over.

Cartwheels grated on the drive, there was the sound of men shouting; then suddenly there was a fearful uproar of screams. Flory went outside. They were all struggling round the gate in the sunlight. Ma Hla May was clinging to the gatepost and Ko S’la was trying to bundle her out. She turned a face full of fury and despair towards Flory, screaming over and over, ‘Thakin! Thakin! Thakin! Thakin! Thakin!’ It hurt him to the heart that she should still call him thakin after he had dismissed her.

‘What is it?’ he said.

It appeared that there was a switch of false hair that Ma Hla May and Ma Yi both claimed. Flory gave the switch to Ma Yi and gave Ma Hla May two rupees to compensate her. Then the cart jolted away, with Ma Hla May sitting beside her two wicker baskets, straight-backed and sullen, and nursing a kitten on her knees. It was only two months since he had given her the kitten as a present.

Ko S’la, who had long wished for Ma Hla May’s removal, was not altogether pleased now that it had happened. He was even less pleased when he saw his master going to church — or as he called it, to the ‘English pagoda’ — for Flory was still in Kyauktada on the Sunday of the padre’s arrival, and he went to church with the others. There was a congregation of twelve, including Mr Francis, Mr Samuel and six native Christians, with Mrs Lackersteen playing ‘Abide with Me’ on the tiny harmonium with one game pedal. It was the first time in ten years that Flory had been to church, except to funerals. Ko S’la’s notions of what went on in the ‘English pagoda’ were vague in the extreme; but he did know that church-going signified respectability — a quality which, like all bachelors’ servants, he hated in his bones.

‘There is trouble coming,’ he said despondently to the other servants. ‘I have been watching him (he meant Flory) these ten days past. He has cut down his cigarettes to fifteen a day, he has stopped drinking gin before breakfast, he shaves himself every evening — though he thinks I do not know it, the fool. And he has ordered half a dozen new silk shirts! I had to stand over the dirzi calling him bahinchut to get them finished in time. Evil omens! I give him three months longer, and then good-bye to the peace in this house!’

‘What, is he going to get married?’ said Ba Pe.

‘I am certain of it. When a white man begins going to the English pagoda, it is, as you might say, the beginning of the end.’

‘I have had many masters in my life,’ old Sammy said. ‘The worst was Colonel Wimpole sahib, who used to make his orderly hold me down over the table while he came running from behind and kicked me with very thick boots for serving banana fritters too frequently. At other times, when he was drunk, he would fire his revolver through the roof of the servants’ quarters, just above our heads. But I would sooner serve ten years under Colonel Wimpole sahib than a week under a memsahib with her kit-kit. If our master marries I shall leave the same day.’

‘I shall not leave, for I have been his servant fifteen years. But I know what is in store for us when that woman comes. She will shout at us because of spots of dust on the furniture, and wake us up to bring cups of tea in the afternoon when we are asleep, and come poking into the cookhouse at all hours and complain over dirty saucepans and cockroaches in the flour bin. It is my belief that these women lie awake at nights thinking of new ways to torment their servants.’

‘They keep a little red book,’ said Sammy, ‘in which they enter the bazaar-money, two annas for this, four annas for that, so that a man cannot earn a pice. They make more kit-kit over the price of an onion than a sahib over five rupees.’

‘Ah, do I not know it! She will be worse than Ma Hla May. Women!’ he added comprehensively, with a kind of sigh.

The sigh was echoed by the others, even by Ma Pu and Ma Yi. Neither took Ko S’la’s remarks as a stricture upon her own sex, Englishwomen being considered a race apart, possibly not even human, and so dreadful that an Englishman’s marriage is usually the signal for the flight of every servant in his house, even those who have been with him for years.

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