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George Orwell > Burmese Days > Chapter 11

Burmese Days

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-

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

'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

'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

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

'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

'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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