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George Orwell > Burmese Days > Chapter 4

Burmese Days

Chapter 4

Flory lay asleep, naked except for black Shan trousers, upon his
sweat-damp bed. He had been idling all day. He spent approximately
three weeks of every month in camp, coming into Kyauktada for a few
days at a time, chiefly in order to idle, for he had very little
clerical work to do.

The bedroom was a large square room with white plaster walls, open
doorways and no ceiling, but only rafters in which sparrows nested.
There was no furniture except the big four-poster bed, with its
furled mosquito net like a canopy, and a wicker table and chair and
a small mirror; also some rough bookshelves, containing several
hundred books, all mildewed by many rainy seasons and riddled by
silver fish. A tuktoo clung to the wall, flat and motionless like
a heraldic dragon. Beyond the veranda eaves the light rained down
like glistening white oil. Some doves in a bamboo thicket kept up
a dull droning noise, curiously appropriate to the heat--a sleepy
sound, but with the sleepiness of chloroform rather than a lullaby.

Down at Mr Macgregor's bungalow, two hundred yards away, a durwan,
like a living clock, hammered four strokes on a section of iron
rail. Ko S'la, Flory's servant, awakened by the sound, went into
the cookhouse, blew up the embers of the woodfire and boiled the
kettle for tea. Then he put on his pink gaungbaung and muslin
ingyi and brought the tea-tray to his master's bedside.

Ko S'la (his real name was Maung San Hla; Ko S'la was an
abbreviation) was a short, square-shouldered, rustic-looking Burman
with a very dark skin and a harassed expression. He wore a black
moustache which curved downwards round his mouth, but like most
Burmans he was quite beardless. He had been Flory's servant since
his first day in Burma. The two men were within a month of one
another's age. They had been boys together, had tramped side by
side after snipe and duck, sat together in machans waiting for
tigers that never came, shared the discomforts of a thousand camps
and marches; and Ko S'la had pimped for Flory and borrowed money
for him from the Chinese money-lenders, carried him to bed when he
was drunk, tended him through bouts of fever. In Ko S'la's eyes
Flory, because a bachelor, was a boy still; whereas Ko S'la had
married, begotten five children, married again and become one of
the obscure martyrs of bigamy. Like all bachelors' servants, Ko
S'la was lazy and dirty, and yet he was devoted to Flory. He would
never let anyone else serve Flory at table, or carry his gun or
hold his pony's head while he mounted. On the march, if they came
to a stream, he would carry Flory across on his back. He was
inclined to pity Flory, partly because he thought him childish and
easily deceived, and partly because of the birthmark, which he
considered a dreadful thing.

Ko S'la put the tea-tray down on the table very quietly, and then
went round to the end of the bed and tickled Flory's toes. He knew
by experience that this was the only way of waking Flory without
putting him in a bad temper. Flory rolled over, swore, and pressed
his forehead into the pillow.

'Four o'clock has struck, most holy god,' Ko S'la said. 'I have
brought two teacups, because THE WOMAN said that she was coming.'

THE WOMAN was Ma Hla May, Flory's mistress. Ko S'la always called
her THE WOMAN, to show his disapproval--not that he disapproved of
Flory for keeping a mistress, but he was jealous of Ma Hla May's
influence in the house.

'Will the holy one play tinnis this evening?' Ko S'la asked.

'No, it's too hot,' said Flory in English. 'I don't want anything
to eat. Take this muck away and bring some whisky.'

Ko S'la understood English very well, though he could not speak it.
He brought a bottle of whisky, and also Flory's tennis racquet,
which he laid in a meaning manner against the wall opposite the
bed. Tennis, according to his notions, was a mysterious ritual
incumbent on all Englishmen, and he did not like to see his master
idling in the evenings.

Flory pushed away in disgust the toast and butter that Ko S'la had
brought, but he mixed some whisky in a cup of tea and felt better
after drinking it. He had slept since noon, and his head and all
his bones ached, and there was a taste like burnt paper in his
mouth. It was years since he had enjoyed a meal. All European
food in Burma is more or less disgusting--the bread is spongy stuff
leavened with palm-toddy and tasting like a penny bun gone wrong,
the butter comes out of a tin, and so does the milk, unless it is
the grey watery catlap of the dudh-wallah. As Ko S'la left the
room there was a scraping of sandals outside, and a Burmese girl's
high-pitched voice said, 'Is my master awake?'

'Come in,' said Flory rather bad temperedly.

Ma Hla May came in, kicking off red-lacquered sandals in the
doorway. She was allowed to come to tea, as a special privilege,
but not to other meals, nor to wear her sandals in her master's

Ma Hla May was a woman of twenty-two or -three, and perhaps five
feet tall. She was dressed in a longyi of pale blue embroidered
Chinese satin, and a starched white muslin ingyi on which several
gold lockets hung. Her hair was coiled in a tight black cylinder
like ebony, and decorated with jasmine flowers. Her tiny,
straight, slender body was a contourless as a bas-relief carved
upon a tree. She was like a doll, with her oval, still face the
colour of new copper, and her narrow eyes; an outlandish doll and
yet a grotesquely beautiful one. A scent of sandalwood and coco-
nut oil came into the room with her.

Ma Hla May came across to the bed, sat down on the edge and put her
arms rather abruptly round Flory. She smelled at his cheek with
her flat nose, in the Burmese fashion.

'Why did my master not send for me this afternoon?' she said.

'I was sleeping. It is too hot for that kind of thing.'

'So you would rather sleep alone than with Ma Hla May? How ugly
you must think me, then! Am I ugly, master?'

'Go away,' he said, pushing her back. 'I don't want you at this
time of day.'

'At least touch me with your lips, then. (There is no Burmese word
for to kiss.) All white men do that to their women.'

'There you are, then. Now leave me alone. Fetch some cigarettes
and give me one.'

'Why is it that nowadays you never want to make love to me? Ah,
two years ago it was so different! You loved me in those days.
You gave me presents of gold bangles and silk longyis from
Mandalay. And now look'--Ma Hla May held out one tiny muslin-clad
arm--'not a single bangle. Last month I had thirty, and now all of
them are pawned. How can I go to the bazaar without my bangles,
and wearing the same longyi over and over again? I am ashamed
before the other women.'

'Is it my fault if you pawn your bangles?'

'Two years ago you would have redeemed them for me. Ah, you do not
love Ma Hla May any longer!'

She put her arms round him again and kissed him, a European habit
which he had taught her. A mingled scent of sandalwood, garlic,
coco-nut oil and the jasmine in her hair floated from her. It was
a scent that always made his teeth tingle. Rather abstractedly he
pressed her head back upon the pillow and looked down at her queer,
youthful face, with its high cheekbones, stretched eyelids and
short, shapely lips. She had rather nice teeth, like the teeth of
a kitten. He had bought her from her parents two years ago, for
three hundred rupees. He began to stroke her brown throat, rising
like a smooth, slender stalk from the collarless ingyi.

'You only like me because I am a white man and have money,' he

'Master, I love you, I love you more than anything in the world.
Why do you say that? Have I not always been faithful to you?'

'You have a Burmese lover.'

'Ugh!' Ma Hla May affected to shudder at the thought. 'To think
of their horrible brown hands, touching me! I should die if a
Burman touched me!'


He put his hand on her breast. Privately, Ma Hla May did not like
this, for it reminded her that her breasts existed--the ideal of a
Burmese woman being to have no breasts. She lay and let him do as
he wished with her, quite passive yet pleased and faintly smiling,
like a cat which allows one to stroke it. Flory's embraces meant
nothing to her (Ba Pe, Ko S'la's younger brother, was secretly her
lover), yet she was bitterly hurt when he neglected them.
Sometimes she had even put love-philtres in his food. It was the
idle concubine's life that she loved, and the visits to her village
dressed in all her finery, when she could boast of her position as
a 'bo-kadaw'--a white man's wife; for she had persuaded everyone,
herself included, that she was Flory's legal wife.

When Flory had done with her he turned away, jaded and ashamed, and
lay silent with his left hand covering his birthmark. He always
remembered the birthmark when he had done something to be ashamed
of. He buried his face disgustedly in the pillow, which was damp
and smelt of coco-nut oil. It was horribly hot, and the doves
outside were still droning. Ma Hla May, naked, reclined beside
Flory, fanning him gently with a wicker fan she had taken from the

Presently she got up and dressed herself, and lighted a cigarette.
Then, coming back to the bed, she sat down and began stroking
Flory's bare shoulder. The whiteness of his skin had a fascination
for her, because of its strangeness and the sense of power it gave
her. But Flory twitched his shoulder to shake her hand away. At
these times she was nauseating and dreadful to him. His sole wish
was to get her out of his sight.

'Get out,' he said.

Ma Hla May took her cigarette from her mouth and tried to offer it
to Flory. 'Why is master always so angry with me when he has made
love to me?' she said.

'Get out,' he repeated.

Ma Hla May continued to stroke Flory's shoulder. She had never
learned the wisdom of leaving him alone at these times. She
believed that lechery was a form of witchcraft, giving a woman
magical powers over a man, until in the end she could weaken him to
a half-idiotic slave. Each successive embrace sapped Flory's will
and made the spell stronger--this was her belief. She began
tormenting him to begin over again. She laid down her cigarette
and put her arms round him, trying to turn him towards her and kiss
his averted face, reproaching him for his coldness.

'Go away, go away!' he said angrily. 'Look in the pocket of my
shorts. There is money there. Take five rupees and go.'

Ma Hla May found the five-rupee note and stuffed it into the bosom
of her ingyi, but she still would not go. She hovered about the
bed, worrying Flory until at last he grew angry and jumped up.

'Get out of this room! I told you to go. I don't want you in here
after I've done with you.'

'That is a nice way to speak to me! You treat me as though I were
a prostitute.'

'So you are. Out you go,' he said, pushing her out of the room by
her shoulders. He kicked her sandals after her. Their encounters
often ended in this way.

Flory stood in the middle of the room, yawning. Should he go down
to the Club for tennis after all? No, it meant shaving, and he
could not face the effort of shaving until he had a few drinks
inside him. He felt his scrubby chin and lounged across to the
mirror to examine it, but then turned away. He did not want to see
the yellow, sunken face that would look back at him. For several
minutes he stood slack-limbed, watching the tuktoo stalk a moth
above the bookshelves. The cigarette that Ma Hla May had dropped
burned down with an acrid smell, browning the paper. Flory took a
book from the shelves, opened it and then threw it away in
distaste. He had not even the energy to read. Oh God, God, what
to do with the rest of this bloody evening?

Flo waddled into the room, wagging her tail and asking to be taken
for a walk. Flory went sulkily into the little stone-floored
bathroom that gave on to the bedroom, splashed himself with
lukewarm water and put on his shirt and shorts. He must take some
kind of exercise before the sun went down. In India it is in some
way evil to spend a day without being once in a muck-sweat. It
gives one a deeper sense of sin than a thousand lecheries. In the
dark evening, after a quite idle day, one's ennui reaches a pitch
that is frantic, suicidal. Work, prayer, books, drinking, talking--
they are all powerless against it; it can only be sweated out
through the pores of the skin.

Flory went out and followed the road uphill into the jungle. It
was scrub jungle at first, with dense stunted bushes, and the only
trees were half-wild mangoes, bearing little turpentiny fruits the
size of plums. Then the road struck among taller trees. The
jungle was dried-up and lifeless at this time of year. The trees
lined the road in close, dusty ranks, with leaves a dull olive-
green. No birds were visible except some ragged brown creatures
like disreputable thrushes, which hopped clumsily under the bushes;
in the distance some other bird uttered a cry of 'AH ha ha! AH ha
ha!'--a lonely, hollow sound like the echo of a laugh. There was a
poisonous, ivy-like smell of crushed leaves. It was still hot,
though the sun was losing its glare and the slanting light was

After two miles the road ended at the ford of a shallow stream.
The jungle grew greener here, because of the water, and the trees
were taller. At the edge of the stream there was a huge dead
pyinkado tree festooned with spidery orchids, and there were some
wild lime bushes with white waxen flowers. They had a sharp scent
like bergamot. Flory had walked fast and the sweat had drenched
his shirt and dribbled, stinging, into his eyes. He had sweated
himself into a better mood. Also, the sight of this stream always
heartened him; its water was quite clear, rarest of sights in a
miry country. He crossed the stream by the stepping stones, Flo
splashing after him, and turned into a narrow track he knew, which
led through the bushes. It was a track that cattle had made,
coming to the stream to drink, and few human beings ever followed
it. It led to a pool fifty yards upstream. Here a peepul tree
grew, a great buttressed thing six feet thick, woven of innumerable
strands of wood, like a wooden cable twisted by a giant. The roots
of the tree made a natural cavern, under which the clear greenish
water bubbled. Above and all around dense foliage shut out the
light, turning the place into a green grotto walled with leaves.

Flory threw off his clothes and stepped into the water. It was a
shade cooler than the air, and it came up to his neck when he sat
down. Shoals of silvery mahseer, no bigger than sardines, came
nosing and nibbling at his body. Flo had also flopped into the
water, and she swam round silently, otter-like, with her webbed
feet. She knew the pool well, for they often came here when Flory
was at Kyauktada.

There was a stirring high up in the peepul tree, and a bubbling
noise like pots boiling. A flock of green pigeons were up there,
eating the berries. Flory gazed up into the great green dome of
the tree, trying to distinguish the birds; they were invisible,
they matched the leaves so perfectly, and yet the whole tree was
alive with them, shimmering, as though the ghosts of birds were
shaking it. Flo rested herself against the roots and growled up at
the invisible creatures. Then a single green pigeon fluttered down
and perched on a lower branch. It did not know that it was being
watched. It was a tender thing, smaller than a tame dove, with
jade-green back as smooth as velvet, and neck and breast of
iridescent colours. Its legs were like the pink wax that dentists

The pigeon rocked itself backwards and forwards on the bough,
swelling out its breast feathers and laying its coralline beak upon
them. A pang went through Flory. Alone, alone, the bitterness of
being alone! So often like this, in lonely places in the forest,
he would come upon something--bird, flower, tree--beautiful beyond
all words, if there had been a soul with whom to share it. Beauty
is meaningless until it is shared. If he had one person, just one,
to halve his loneliness! Suddenly the pigeon saw the man and dog
below, sprang into the air and dashed away swift as a bullet, with
a rattle of wings. One does not often see green pigeons so closely
when they are alive. They are high-flying birds, living in the
treetops, and they do not come to the ground, or only to drink.
When one shoots them, if they are not killed outright, they cling
to the branch until they die, and drop long after one has given up
waiting and gone away.

Flory got out of the water, put on his clothes and recrossed the
stream. He did not go home by the road, but followed a foot-track
southward into the jungle, intending to make a detour and pass
through a village that lay in the fringe of the jungle not far from
his house. Flo frisked in and out of the undergrowth, yelping
sometimes when her long ears caught in the thorns. She had once
turned up a hare near here. Flory walked slowly. The smoke of his
pipe floated straight upwards in still plumes. He was happy and at
peace after the walk and the clear water. It was cooler now,
except for patches of heat lingering under the thicker trees, and
the light was gentle. Bullock-cart wheels were screaming
peacefully in the distance.

Soon they had lost their way in the jungle, and were wandering in a
maze of dead trees and tangled bushes. They came to an impasse
where the path was blocked by large ugly plants like magnified
aspidistras, whose leaves terminated in long lashes armed with
thorns. A firefly glowed greenish at the bottom of a bush; it was
getting twilight in the thicker places. Presently the bullock-cart
wheels screamed nearer, taking a parallel course.

'Hey, saya gyi, saya gyi!' Flory shouted, taking Flo by the collar
to prevent her running away.

'Ba le-de?' the Burman shouted back. There was the sound of
plunging hooves and of yells to the bullocks.

'Come here, if you please, O venerable and learned sir! We have
lost our way. Stop a moment, O great builder of pagodas!'

The Burman left his cart and pushed through the jungle, slicing the
creepers with his dah. He was a squat middle-aged man with one
eye. He led the way back to the track, and Flory climbed on to the
flat, uncomfortable bullock cart. The Burman took up the string
reins, yelled to the bullocks, prodded the roots of their tails
with his short stick, and the cart jolted on with a shriek of
wheels. The Burmese bullock-cart drivers seldom grease their
axles, probably because they believe that the screaming keeps away
evil spirits, though when questioned they will say that it is
because they are too poor to buy grease.

They passed a whitewashed wooden pagoda, no taller than a man and
half hidden by the tendrils of creeping plants. Then the track
wound into the village, which consisted of twenty ruinous, wooden
huts roofed with thatch, and a well beneath some barren date-palms.
The egrets that roosted in the palms were streaming homewards over
the treetops like white flights of arrows. A fat yellow woman with
her longyi hitched under her armpits was chasing a dog round a hut,
smacking at it with a bamboo and laughing, and the dog was also
laughing in its fashion. The village was called Nyaunglebin--'the
four peepul trees'; there were no peepul trees there now, probably
they had been cut down and forgotten a century ago. The villagers
cultivated a narrow strip of fields that lay between the town and
the jungle, and they also made bullock carts which they sold in
Kyauktada. Bullock-cart wheels were littered everywhere under the
houses; massive things five feet across, with spokes roughly but
strongly carved.

Flory got off the cart and gave the driver a present of four annas.
Some brindled curs hurried from beneath the houses to sniff at Flo,
and a flock of pot-bellied, naked children, with their hair tied in
top-knots, also appeared, curious about the white man but keeping
their distance. The village headman, a wizened, leaf-brown old
man, came out of his house, and there were shikoings. Flory sat
down on the steps of the headman's house and relighted his pipe.
He was thirsty.

'Is the water in your well good to drink, thugyi-min?'

The headman reflected, scratching the calf of his left leg with his
right big toenail. 'Those who drink it, drink it, thakin. And
those who do not drink it, do not drink it.'

'Ah. That is wisdom.'

The fat woman who had chased the pariah brought a blackened
earthenware teapot and a handleless bowl, and gave Flory some pale
green tea, tasting of wood-smoke.

'I must be going, thugyi-min. Thank you for the tea.'

'God go with you, thakin.'

Flory went home by a path that led out on to the maidan. It was
dark now. Ko S'la had put on a clean ingyi and was waiting in the
bedroom. He had heated two kerosene tins of bath-water, lighted
the petrol lamps and laid out a clean suit and shirt for Flory.
The clean clothes were intended as a hint that Flory should shave,
dress himself and go down to the Club after dinner. Occasionally
he spent the evening in Shan trousers, loafing in a chair with a
book, and Ko S'la disapproved of this habit. He hated to see his
master behaving differently from other white men. The fact that
Flory often came back from the Club drunk, whereas he remained
sober when he stayed at home, did not alter Ko S'la's opinion,
because getting drunk was normal and pardonable in a white man.

'The woman has gone down to the bazaar,' he announced, pleased, as
he always was when Ma Hla May left the house. 'Ba Pe has gone with
a lantern, to look after her when she comes back.'

'Good,' Flory said.

She had gone to spend her five rupees--gambling, no doubt. 'The
holy one's bath-water is ready.'

'Wait, we must attend to the dog first. Bring the comb,' Flory

The two men squatted on the floor together and combed Flo's silky
coat and felt between her toes, picking out the ticks. It had to
be done every evening. She picked up vast numbers of ticks during
the day, horrible grey things that were the size of pin-heads when
they got on to her, and gorged themselves till they were as large
as peas. As each tick was detached Ko S'la put it on the floor and
carefully crushed it with his big toe.

Then Flory shaved, bathed, dressed, and sat down to dinner. Ko
S'la stood behind his chair, handing him the dishes and fanning him
with the wicker fan. He had arranged a bowl of scarlet hibiscus
flowers in the middle of the little table. The meal was pretentious
and filthy. The clever 'Mug' cooks, descendants of servants trained
by Frenchmen in India centuries ago, can do anything with food
except make it eatable. After dinner Flory walked down to the Club,
to play bridge and get three parts drunk, as he did most evenings
when he was in Kyauktada.

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