The Complete Works of



George Orwell > Burmese Days > Chapter 5

Burmese Days

Chapter 5

In spite of the whisky he had drunk at the Club, Flory had little
sleep that night. The pariah curs were baying the moon--it was
only a quarter full and nearly down by midnight, but the dogs slept
all day in the heat, and they had begun their moon-choruses
already. One dog had taken a dislike to Flory's house, and had
settled down to bay at it systematically. Sitting on its bottom
fifty yards from the gate, it let out sharp, angry yelps, one to
half a minute, as regularly as a clock. It would keep this up for
two or three hours, until the cocks began crowing.

Flory lay turning from side to side, his head aching. Some fool
has said that one cannot hate an animal; he should try a few nights
in India, when the dogs are baying the moon. In the end Flory
could stand it no longer. He got up, rummaged in the tin uniform
case under his bed for a rifle and a couple of cartridges, and went
out on to the veranda.

It was fairly light in the quarter moon. He could see the dog, and
he could see his foresight. He rested himself against the wooden
pillar of the veranda and took aim carefully; then, as he felt the
hard vulcanite butt against his bare shoulder, he flinched. The
rifle had a heavy kick, and it left a bruise when one fired it.
The soft flesh of his shoulder quailed. He lowered the rifle.
He had not the nerve to fire it in cold blood.

It was no use trying to sleep. Flory got his jacket and some
cigarettes, and began to stroll up and down the garden path,
between the ghostly flowers. It was hot, and the mosquitoes found
him out and came droning after him. Phantoms of dogs were chasing
one another on the maidan. Over to the left the gravestones of the
English cemetery glittered whitish, rather sinister, and one could
see the mounds near by, that were the remains of old Chinese tombs.
The hillside was said to be haunted, and the Club chokras cried
when they were sent up the road at night.

'Cur, spineless cur,' Flory was thinking to himself; without heat,
however, for he was too accustomed to the thought. 'Sneaking,
idling, boozing, fornicating, soul-examining, self-pitying cur.
All those fools at the Club, those dull louts to whom you are so
pleased to think yourself superior--they are all better than you,
every man of them. At least they are men in their oafish way. Not
cowards, not liars. Not half-dead and rotting. But you--'

He had reason to call himself names. There had been a nasty, dirty
affair at the Club that evening. Something quite ordinary, quite
according to precedent; but still dingy, cowardly, dishonouring.

When Flory had arrived at the Club only Ellis and Maxwell were
there. The Lackersteens had gone to the station with the loan of
Mr Macgregor's car, to meet their niece, who was to arrive by the
night train. The three men were playing three-handed bridge fairly
amicably when Westfield came in, his sandy face quite pink with
rage, bringing a copy of a Burmese paper called the Burmese
Patriot. There was a libellous article in it, attacking Mr
Macgregor. The rage of Ellis and Westfield was devilish. They
were so angry that Flory had the greatest difficulty in pretending
to be angry enough to satisfy them. Ellis spent five minutes in
cursing and then, by some extraordinary process, made up his mind
that Dr Veraswami was responsible for the article. And he had
thought of a counterstroke already. They would put a notice on the
board--a notice answering and contradicting the one Mr Macgregor
had posted the day before. Ellis wrote it out immediately, in his
tiny, clear handwriting:

'In view of the cowardly insult recently offered to our Deputy
commissioner, we the undersigned wish to give it as our opinion
that this is the worst possible moment to consider the election of
niggers to this Club,' etc ,etc.

Westfield demurred to 'niggers'. It was crossed out by a single
thin line and 'natives' substituted. The notice was signed
'R. Westfield, P. W. Ellis, C. W. Maxwell, J. Flory.'

Ellis was so pleased with his idea that quite half of his anger
evaporated. The notice would accomplish nothing in itself, but the
news of it would travel swiftly round the town, and would reach Dr
Veraswami tomorrow. In effect, the doctor would have been publicly
called a nigger by the European community. This delighted Ellis.
For the rest of the evening he could hardly keep his eyes from the
notice-board, and every few minutes he exclaimed in glee, 'That'll
give little fat-belly something to think about, eh? Teach the
little sod what we think of him. That's the way to put 'em in
their place, eh?' etc.

Meanwhile, Flory had signed a public insult to his friend. He had
done it for the same reason as he had done a thousand such things
in his life; because he lacked the small spark of courage that was
needed to refuse. For, of course, he could have refused if he had
chosen; and, equally of course, refusal would have meant a row with
Ellis and Westfield. And oh, how he loathed a row! The nagging,
the jeers! At the very thought of it he flinched; he could feel
his birthmark palpable on his cheek, and something happening in his
throat that made his voice go flat and guilty. Not that! It was
easier to insult his friend, knowing that his friend must hear of

Flory had been fifteen years in Burma, and in Burma one learns not
to set oneself up against public opinion. But his trouble was
older than that. It had begun in his mother's womb, when chance
put the blue birthmark on his cheek. He thought of some of the
early effects of his birthmark. His first arrival at school, aged
nine; the stares and, after a few days, shouts of the other boys;
the nickname Blueface, which lasted until the school poet (now,
Flory remembered, a critic who wrote rather good articles in the
Nation) came out with the couplet:

New-tick Flory does look rum,
Got a face like a monkey's bum,

whereupon the nickname was changed to Monkey-bum. And the
subsequent years. On Saturday nights the older boys used to have
what they called a Spanish Inquisition. The favourite torture was
for someone to hold you in a very painful grip known only to a few
illuminati and called Special Togo, while someone else beat you
with a conker on a piece of string. But Flory had lived down
'Monkey-bum' in time. He was a liar, and a good footballer, the
two things absolutely necessary for success at school. In his last
term he and another boy held the school poet in Special Togo while
the captain of the eleven gave him six with a spiked running shoe
for being caught writing a sonnet. It was a formative period.

From that school he went to a cheap, third-rate public school. It
was a poor, spurious place. It aped the great public schools with
their traditions of High Anglicanism, cricket and Latin verses, and
it had a school song called 'The Scrum of Life' in which God
figured as the Great Referee. But it lacked the chief virtue of
the great public schools, their atmosphere of literary scholarship.
The boys learned as nearly as possible nothing. There was not
enough caning to make them swallow the dreary rubbish of the
curriculum, and the wretched, underpaid masters were not the kind
from whom one absorbs wisdom unawares. Flory left school a
barbarous young lout. And yet even then there were, and he knew
it, certain possibilities in him; possibilities that would lead to
trouble as likely as not. But, of course, he had suppressed them.
A boy does not start his career nicknamed Monkey-bum without
learning his lesson.

He was not quite twenty when he came to Burma. His parents, good
people and devoted to him, had found him a place in a timber firm.
They had had great difficulty in getting him the job, had paid a
premium they could not afford; later, he had rewarded them by
answering their letters with careless scrawls at intervals of
months. His first six months in Burma he had spent in Rangoon,
where he was supposed to be learning the office side of his
business. He had lived in a 'chummery' with four other youths who
devoted their entire energies to debauchery. And what debauchery!
They swilled whisky which they privately hated, they stood round
the piano bawling songs of insane filthiness and silliness, they
squandered rupees by the hundred on aged Jewish whores with the
faces of crocodiles. That too had been a formative period.

From Rangoon he had gone to a camp in the jungle, north of
Mandalay, extracting teak. The jungle life was not a bad one, in
spite of the discomfort, the loneliness, and what is almost the
worst thing in Burma, the filthy, monotonous food. He was very
young then, young enough for hero-worship, and he had friends among
the men in his firm. There were also shooting, fishing, and
perhaps once in a year a hurried trip to Rangoon--pretext, a visit
to the dentist. Oh, the joy of those Rangoon trips! The rush to
Smart and Mookerdum's bookshop for the new novels out from England,
the dinner at Anderson's with beefsteaks and butter that had
travelled eight thousand miles on ice, the glorious drinking-bout!
He was too young to realize what this life was preparing for him.
He did not see the years stretching out ahead, lonely, eventless,

He acclimatized himself to Burma. His body grew attuned to the
strange rhythms of the tropical seasons. Every year from February
to May the sun glared in the sky like an angry god, then suddenly
the monsoon blew westward, first in sharp squalls, then in a heavy
ceaseless downpour that drenched everything until neither one's
clothes, one's bed nor even one's food ever seemed to be dry. It
was still hot, with a stuffy, vaporous heat. The lower jungle
paths turned into morasses, and the paddy-fields were wastes of
stagnant water with a stale, mousy smell. Books and boots were
mildewed. Naked Burmans in yard-wide hats of palm-leaf ploughed
the paddy-fields, driving their buffaloes through knee-deep water.
Later, the women and children planted the green seedlings of paddy,
dabbing each plant into the mud with little three-pronged forks.
Through July and August there was hardly a pause in the rain. Then
one night, high overhead, one heard a squawking of invisible birds.
The snipe were flying southward from Central Asia. The rains
tailed off, ending in October. The fields dried up, the paddy
ripened, the Burmese children played hop-scotch with gonyin seeds
and flew kites in the cool winds. It was the beginning of the
short winter, when Upper Burma seemed haunted by the ghost of
England. Wild flowers sprang into bloom everywhere, not quite the
same as the English ones, but very like them--honeysuckle in thick
bushes, field roses smelling of pear-drops, even violets in dark
places of the forest. The sun circled low in the sky, and the
nights and early mornings were bitterly cold, with white mists that
poured through the valleys like the steam of enormous kettles. One
went shooting after duck and snipe. There were snipe in countless
myriads, and wild geese in flocks that rose from the jeel with a
roar like a goods train crossing an iron bridge. The ripening
paddy, breast-high and yellow, looked like wheat. The Burmans went
to their work with muffled heads and their arms clasped across
their breasts, their faces yellow and pinched with the cold. In
the morning one marched through misty, incongruous wilderness,
clearings of drenched, almost English grass and naked trees where
monkeys squatted in the upper branches, waiting for the sun. At
night, coming back to camp through the cold lanes, one met herds of
buffaloes which the boys were driving home, with their huge horns
looming through the mist like crescents. One had three blankets on
one's bed, and game pies instead of the eternal chicken. After
dinner one sat on a log by the vast camp-fire, drinking beer and
talking about shooting. The flames danced like red holly, casting
a circle of light at the edge of which servants and coolies
squatted, too shy to intrude on the white men and yet edging up to
the fire like dogs. As one lay in bed one could hear the dew
dripping from the trees like large but gentle rain. It was a good
life while one was young and need not think about the future or the

Flory was twenty-four, and due for home leave, when the War broke
out. He had dodged military service, which was easy to do and
seemed natural at the time. The civilians in Burma had a
comforting theory that 'sticking by one's job' (wonderful language,
English! 'Sticking BY'--how different from 'sticking TO') was the
truest patriotism; there was even a covert hostility towards the
men who threw up their jobs in order to join the Army. In reality,
Flory had dodged the War because the East already corrupted him,
and he did not want to exchange his whisky, his servants and his
Burmese girls for the boredom of the parade ground and the strain
of cruel marches. The War rolled on, like a storm beyond the
horizon. The hot, blowsy country, remote from danger, had a
lonely, forgotten feeling. Flory took to reading voraciously, and
learned to live in books when life was tiresome. He was growing
adult, tiring of boyish pleasures, learning to think for himself,
almost willy-nilly.

He celebrated his twenty-seventh birthday in hospital, covered from
head to foot with hideous sores which were called mud-sores, but
were probably caused by whisky and bad food. They left little pits
in his skin which did not disappear for two years. Quite suddenly
he had begun to look and feel very much older. His youth was
finished. Eight years of Eastern life, fever, loneliness and
intermittent drinking, had set their mark on him.

Since then, each year had been lonelier and more bitter than the
last. What was at the centre of all his thoughts now, and what
poisoned everything, was the ever bitterer hatred of the atmosphere
of imperialism in which he lived. For as his brain developed--you
cannot stop your brain developing, and it is one of the tragedies
of the half-educated that they develop late, when they are already
committed to some wrong way of life--he had grasped the truth about
the English and their Empire. The Indian Empire is a despotism--
benevolent, no doubt, but still a despotism with theft as its final
object. And as to the English of the East, the sahiblog, Flory had
come so to hate them from living in their society, that he was
quite incapable of being fair to them. For after all, the poor
devils are no worse than anybody else. They lead unenviable lives;
it is a poor bargain to spend thirty years, ill-paid, in an alien
country, and then come home with a wrecked liver and a pine-apple
backside from sitting in cane chairs, to settle down as the bore of
some second-rate Club. On the other hand, the sahiblog are not to
be idealized. There is a prevalent idea that the men at the
'outposts of Empire' are at least able and hardworking. It is a
delusion. Outside the scientific services--the Forest Department,
the Public Works Department and the like--there is no particular
need for a British official in India to do his job competently.
Few of them work as hard or as intelligently as the postmaster of a
provincial town in England. The real work of administration is
done mainly by native subordinates; and the real backbone of the
despotism is not the officials but the Army. Given the Army, the
officials and the businessmen can rub along safely enough even if
they are fools. And most of them ARE fools. A dull, decent
people, cherishing and fortifying their dullness behind a quarter
of a million bayonets.

It is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a
world in which every word and every thought is censored. In
England it is hard even to imagine such an atmosphere. Everyone is
free in England; we sell our souls in public and buy them back in
private, among our friends. But even friendship can hardly exist
when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free
speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted.
You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a
fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself. Your
opinion on every subject of any conceivable importance is dictated
for you by the pukka sahibs' code.

In the end the secrecy of your revolt poisons you like a secret
disease. Your whole life is a life of lies. Year after year you
sit in Kipling-haunted little Clubs, whisky to right of you,
Pink'un to left of you, listening and eagerly agreeing while
Colonel Bodger develops his theory that these bloody Nationalists
should be boiled in oil. You hear your Oriental friends called
'greasy little babus', and you admit, dutifully, that they ARE
greasy little babus. You see louts fresh from school kicking grey-
haired servants. The time comes when you burn with hatred of your
own countrymen, when you long for a native rising to drown their
Empire in blood. And in this there is nothing honourable, hardly
even any sincerity. For, au fond, what do you care if the Indian
Empire is a despotism, if Indians are bullied and exploited? You
only care because the right of free speech is denied you. You are
a creature of the despotism, a pukka sahib, tied tighter than a
monk or a savage by an unbreakable system of tabus.

Time passed and each year Flory found himself less at home in the
world of the sahibs, more liable to get into trouble when he talked
seriously on any subject whatever. So he had learned to live
inwardly, secretly, in books and secret thoughts that could not be
uttered. Even his talks with the doctor were a kind of talking to
himself; for the doctor, good man, understood little of what was
said to him. But it is a corrupting thing to live one's real life
in secret. One should live with the stream of life, not against
it. It would be better to be the thickest-skulled pukka sahib who
ever hiccuped over 'Forty years on', than to live silent, alone,
consoling oneself in secret, sterile worlds.

Flory had never been home to England. Why, he could not have
explained, though he knew well enough. In the beginning accidents
had prevented him. First there was the War, and after the War his
firm were so short of trained assistants that they would not let
him go for two years more. Then at last he had set out. He was
pining for England, though he dreaded facing it, as one dreads
facing a pretty girl when one is collarless and unshaven. When he
left home he had been a boy, a promising boy and handsome in spite
of his birthmark; now, only ten years later, he was yellow, thin,
drunken, almost middle-aged in habits and appearance. Still, he
was pining for England. The ship rolled westward over wastes of
sea like rough-beaten silver, with the winter trade wind behind
her. Flory's thin blood quickened with the good food and the smell
of the sea. And it occurred to him--a thing he had actually
forgotten in the stagnant air of Burma--that he was still young
enough to begin over again. He would live a year in a civilized
society, he would find some girl who did not mind his birthmark--
a civilized girl, not a pukka memsahib--and he would marry her and
endure ten, fifteen more years of Burma. Then they would retire--
he would be worth twelve or fifteen thousand pounds on retirement,
perhaps. They would buy a cottage in the country, surround
themselves with friends, books, their children, animals. They
would be free for ever of the smell of pukka sahibdom. He would
forget Burma, the horrible country that had come near ruining him.

When he reached Colombo he found a cable waiting for him. Three
men in his firm had died suddenly of black-water fever. The firm
were sorry, but would he please return to Rangoon at once? He
should have his leave at the earliest possible opportunity.

Flory boarded the next boat for Rangoon, cursing his luck, and took
the train back to his headquarters. He was not at Kyauktada then,
but at another Upper Burma town. All the servants were waiting for
him on the platform. He had handed them over en bloc to his
successor, who had died. It was so queer to see their familiar
faces again! Only ten days ago he had been speeding for England,
almost thinking himself in England already; and now back in the old
stale scene, with the naked black coolies squabbling over the
luggage and a Burman shouting at his bullocks down the road.

The servants came crowding round him, a ring of kindly brown faces,
offering presents. Ko S'la had brought a sambhur skin, the Indians
some sweetmeats and a garland of marigolds, Ba Pe, a young boy
then, a squirrel in a wicker cage. There were bullock carts
waiting for the luggage. Flory walked up to the house, looking
ridiculous with the big garland dangling from his neck. The light
of the cold-weather evening was yellow and kind. At the gate an
old Indian, the colour of earth, was cropping grass with a tiny
sickle. The wives of the cook and the mali were kneeling in front
of the servants' quarters, grinding curry paste on the stone slab.

Something turned over in Flory's heart. It was one of those moments
when one becomes conscious of a vast change and deterioration in
one's life. For he had realized, suddenly, that in his heart he was
glad to be coming back. This country which he hated was now his
native country, his home. He had lived here ten years, and every
particle of his body was compounded of Burmese soil. Scenes like
these--the sallow evening light, the old Indian cropping grass, the
creak of the cartwheels, the streaming egrets--were more native to
him than England. He had sent deep roots, perhaps his deepest, into
a foreign country.

Since then he had not even applied for home leave. His father had
died, then his mother, and his sisters, disagreeable horse-faced
women whom he had never liked, had married and he had almost lost
touch with them. He had no tie with Europe now, except the tie of
books. For he had realized that merely to go back to England was
no remedy for loneliness; he had grasped the special nature of the
hell that is reserved for Anglo-Indians. Ah, those poor prosing
old wrecks in Bath and Cheltenham! Those tomb-like boarding-houses
with Anglo-Indians littered about in all stages of decomposition,
all talking and talking about what happened in Boggleywalah in '88!
Poor devils, they know what it means to have left one's heart in an
alien and hated country. There was, he saw clearly, only one way
out. To find someone who would share his life in Burma--but really
share it, share his inner, secret life, carry away from Burma the
same memories as he carried. Someone who would love Burma as he
loved it and hate it as he hated it. Who would help him to live
with nothing hidden, nothing unexpressed. Someone who understood
him: a friend, that was what it came down to.

A friend. Or a wife? That quite impossible she. Someone like Mrs
Lackersteen, for instance? Some damned memsahib, yellow and thin,
scandalmongering over cocktails, making kit-kit with the servants,
living twenty years in the country without learning a word of the
language. Not one of those, please God.

Flory leaned over the gate. The moon was vanishing behind the dark
wall of the jungle, but the dogs were still howling. Some lines
from Gilbert came into his mind, a vulgar silly jingle but
appropriate--something about 'discoursing on your complicated state
of mind'. Gilbert was a gifted little skunk. Did all his trouble,
then, simply boil down to that? Just complicated, unmanly
whinings; poor-little-rich-girl stuff? Was he no more than a
loafer using his idleness to invent imaginary woes? A spiritual
Mrs Wititterly? A Hamlet without poetry? Perhaps. And if so, did
that make it any more bearable? It is not the less bitter because
it is perhaps one's own fault, to see oneself drifting, rotting, in
dishonour and horrible futility, and all the while knowing that
somewhere within one there is the possibility of a decent human

Oh well, God save us from self-pity! Flory went back to the
veranda, took up the rifle, and wincing slightly, let drive at the
pariah dog. There was an echoing roar, and the bullet buried
itself in the maidan, wide of the mark. A mulberry-coloured bruise
sprang out on Flory's shoulder. The dog gave a yell of fright,
took to its heels, and then, sitting down fifty yards farther away,
once more began rhythmically baying.

< Back
Forward >

Index Index

  • Other Authors:    
> Charles Darwin
> Charles Dickens
> Mark Twain
> William Shakespeare

George Orwell. Copyright 2003,
Contact the webmaster
Disclaimer here. Privacy Policy here.