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George Orwell > Burmese Days > Chapter 8

Burmese Days

Chapter 8

That evening Flory told Ko S'la to send for the barber--he was the
only barber in the town, an Indian, and he made a living by shaving
the Indian coolies at the rate of eight annas a month for a dry
shave every other day. The Europeans patronized him for lack of
any other. The barber was waiting on the veranda when Flory came
back from tennis, and Flory sterilized the scissors with boiling
water and Condy's fluid and had his hair cut.

'Lay out my best Palm Beach suit,' he told Ko S'la, 'and a silk
shirt and my sambhur-skin shoes. Also that new tie that came from
Rangoon last week.'

'I have done so, thakin,' said Ko S'la, meaning that he would do
so. When Flory came into the bedroom he found Ko S'la waiting
beside the clothes he had laid out, with a faintly sulky air. It
was immediately apparent that Ko S'la knew why Flory was dressing
himself up (that is, in hopes of meeting Elizabeth) and that he
disapproved of it.

'What are you waiting for?' Flory said.

'To help you dress, thakin.'

'I shall dress myself this evening. You can go.'

He was going to shave--the second time that day--and he did not
want Ko S'la to see him take shaving things into the bathroom.
It was several years since he had shaved twice in one day. What
providential luck that he had sent for that new tie only last week,
he thought. He dressed himself very carefully, and spent nearly a
quarter of an hour in brushing his hair, which was stiff and would
never lie down after it had been cut.

Almost the next moment, as it seemed, he was walking with Elizabeth
down the bazaar road. He had found her alone in the Club 'library',
and with a sudden burst of courage asked her to come out with him;
and she had come with a readiness that surprised him; not even
stopping to say anything to her uncle and aunt. He had lived so
long in Burma, he had forgotten English ways. It was very dark
under the peepul trees of the bazaar road, the foliage hiding the
quarter moon, but the stars here and there in a gap blazed white and
low, like lamps hanging on invisible threads. Successive waves of
scent came rolling, first the cloying sweetness of frangipani, then
a cold putrid stench of dung or decay from the huts opposite Dr
Veraswami's bungalow. Drums were throbbing a little distance away.

As he heard the drums Flory remembered that a pwe was being acted a
little farther down the road, opposite U Po Kyin's house; in fact,
it was U Po Kyin who had made arrangements for the pwe, though
someone else had paid for it. A daring thought occurred to Flory.
He would take Elizabeth to the pwe! She would love it--she must;
no one with eyes in his head could resist a pwe-dance. Probably
there would be a scandal when they came back to the Club together
after a long absence; but damn it! what did it matter? She was
different from that herd of fools at the Club. And it would be
such fun to go to the pwe together! At this moment the music burst
out with a fearful pandemonium--a strident squeal of pipes, a
rattle like castanets and the hoarse thump of drums, above which a
man's voice was brassily squalling.

'Whatever is that noise?' said Elizabeth, stopping. 'It sounds
just like a jazz band!'

'Native music. They're having a pwe--that's a kind of Burmese
play; a cross between a historical drama and a revue, if you can
imagine that. It'll interest you, I think. Just round the bend of
the road here.'

'Oh,' she said rather doubtfully.

They came round the bend into a glare of light. The whole road for
thirty yards was blocked by the audience watching the pwe. At the
back there was a raised stage, under humming petrol lamps, with the
orchestra squalling and banging in front of it; on the stage two
men dressed in clothes that reminded Elizabeth of Chinese pagodas
were posturing with curved swords in their hands. All down the
roadway it was a sea of white muslin backs of women, pink scarves
flung round their shoulders and black hair-cylinders. A few
sprawled on their mats, fast asleep. An old Chinese with a tray of
peanuts was threading his way through the crowd, intoning
mournfully, 'Myaype! Myaype!'

'We'll stop and watch a few minutes if you like,' Flory said.

The blaze of lights and the appalling din of the orchestra had
almost dazed Elizabeth, but what startled her most of all was the
sight of this crowd of people sitting in the road as though it had
been the pit of a theatre.

'Do they always have their plays in the middle of the road?' she

'As a rule. They put up a rough stage and take it down in the
morning. The show lasts all night.'

'But are they ALLOWED to--blocking up the whole roadway?'

'Oh yes. There are no traffic regulations here. No traffic to
regulate, you see.'

It struck her as very queer. By this time almost the entire
audience had turned round on their mats to stare at the 'Ingaleikma'.
There were half a dozen chairs in the middle of the crowd, where
some clerks and officials were sitting. U Po Kyin was among them,
and he was making efforts to twist his elephantine body round and
greet the Europeans. As the music stopped the pock-marked Ba Taik
came hastening through the crowd and shikoed low to Flory, with his
timorous air.

'Most holy one, my master U Po Kyin asks whether you and the young
white lady will not come and watch our pwe for a few minutes. He
has chairs ready for you.'

'They're asking us to come and sit down,' Flory said to Elizabeth.
'Would you like to? It's rather fun. Those two fellows will clear
off in a moment and there'll be some dancing. If it wouldn't bore
you for a few minutes?'

Elizabeth felt very doubtful. Somehow it did not seem right or
even safe to go in among that smelly native crowd. However, she
trusted Flory, who presumably knew what was proper, and allowed him
to lead her to the chairs. The Burmans made way on their mats,
gazing after her and chattering; her shins brushed against warm,
muslin-clad bodies, there was a feral reek of sweat. U Po Kyin
leaned over towards her, bowing as well as he could and saying

'Kindly to sit down, madam! I am most honoured to make your
acquaintance. Good evening. Good morning, Mr Flory, sir! A most
unexpected pleasure. Had we known that you were to honour us with
your company, we would have provided whiskies and other European
refreshments. Ha ha!'

He laughed, and his betel-reddened teeth gleamed in the lamplight
like red tinfoil. He was so vast and so hideous that Elizabeth
could not help shrinking from him. A slender youth in a purple
longyi was bowing to her and holding out a tray with two glasses of
yellow sherbet, iced. U Po Kyin clapped his hands sharply, 'Hey
haung galay!' he called to a boy beside him. He gave some
instructions in Burmese, and the boy pushed his way to the edge of
the stage.

'He's telling them to bring on their best dancer in our honour,'
Flory said. 'Look, here she comes.'

A girl who had been squatting at the back of the stage, smoking,
stepped forward into the lamplight. She was very young, slim-
shouldered, breastless, dressed in a pale blue satin longyi that
hid her feet. The skirts of her ingyi curved outwards above her
hips in little panniers, according to the ancient Burmese fashion.
They were like the petals of a downward-pointing flower. She threw
her cigar languidly to one of the men in the orchestra, and then,
holding out one slender arm, writhed it as though to shake the
muscles loose.

The orchestra burst into a sudden loud squalling. There were pipes
like bagpipes, a strange instrument consisting of plaques of bamboo
which a man struck with a little hammer, and in the middle there
was a man surrounded by twelve tall drums of different sizes. He
reached rapidly from one to another, thumping them with the heel of
his hand. In a moment the girl began to dance. But at first it
was not a dance, it was a rhythmic nodding, posturing and twisting
of the elbows, like the movements of one of those jointed wooden
figures on an old-fashioned roundabout. The way her neck and
elbows rotated was precisely like a jointed doll, and yet
incredibly sinuous. Her hands, twisting like snakeheads with the
fingers close together, could lie back until they were almost along
her forearms. By degrees her movements quickened. She began to
leap from side to side, flinging herself down in a kind of curtsy
and springing up again with extraordinary agility, in spite of the
long longyi that imprisoned her feet. Then she danced in a
grotesque posture as though sitting down, knees bent, body leaned
forward, with her arms extended and writhing, her head also moving
to the beat of the drums. The music quickened to a climax. The
girl rose upright and whirled round as swiftly as a top, the
pannier of her ingyi flying out about her like the petals of a
snowdrop. Then the music stopped as abruptly as it had begun, and
the girl sank again into a curtsy, amid raucous shouting from the

Elizabeth watched the dance with a mixture of amazement, boredom
and something approaching horror. She had sipped her drink and
found that it tasted like hair oil. On a mat by her feet three
Burmese girls lay fast asleep with their heads on the same pillow,
their small oval faces side by side like the faces of kittens.
Under cover of the music Flory was speaking in a low voice into
Elizabeth's ear commenting on the dance.

'I knew this would interest you; that's why I brought you here.
You've read books and been in civilized places, you're not like the
rest of us miserable savages here. Don't you think this is worth
watching, in its queer way? Just look at that girl's movements--
look at that strange, bent-forward pose like a marionette, and the
way her arms twist from the elbow like a cobra rising to strike.
It's grotesque, it's even ugly, with a sort of wilful ugliness.
And there's something sinister in it too. There's a touch of the
diabolical in all Mongols. And yet when you look closely, what
art, what centuries of culture you can see behind it! Every
movement that girl makes has been studied and handed down through
innumerable generations. Whenever you look closely at the art of
these Eastern peoples you can see that--a civilization stretching
back and back, practically the same, into times when we were
dressed in woad. In some way that I can't define to you, the whole
life and spirit of Burma is summed up in the way that girl twists
her arms. When you see her you can see the rice fields, the
villages under the teak trees, the pagodas, the priests in their
yellow robes, the buffaloes swimming the rivers in the early
morning, Thibaw's palace--'

His voice stopped abruptly as the music stopped. There were
certain things, and a pwe-dance was one of them, that pricked him
to talk discursively and incautiously; but now he realized that he
had only been talking like a character in a novel, and not a very
good novel. He looked away. Elizabeth had listened to him with a
chill of discomfort. What WAS the man talking about? was her first
thought. Moreover, she had caught the hated word Art more than
once. For the first time she remembered that Flory was a total
stranger and that it had been unwise to come out with him alone.
She looked round her, at the sea of dark faces and the lurid glare
of the lamps; the strangeness of the scene almost frightened her.
What was she doing in this place? Surely it was not right to be
sitting among the black people like this, almost touching them, in
the scent of their garlic and their sweat? Why was she not back at
the Club with the other white people? Why had he brought her here,
among this horde of natives, to watch this hideous and savage

The music struck up, and the pwe girl began dancing again. Her
face was powdered so thickly that it gleamed in the lamplight like
a chalk mask with live eyes behind it. With that dead-white oval
face and those wooden gestures she was monstrous, like a demon.
The music changed its tempo, and the girl began to sing in a brassy
voice. It was a song with a swift trochaic rhythm, gay yet fierce.
The crowd took it up, a hundred voices chanting the harsh syllables
in unison. Still in that strange bent posture the girl turned
round and danced with her buttocks protruded towards the audience.
Her silk longyi gleamed like metal. With hands and elbows still
rotating she wagged her posterior from side to side. Then--
astonishing feat, quite visible through the longyi--she began to
wriggle her two buttocks independently in time with the music.

There was a shout of applause from the audience. The three girls
asleep on the mat woke up at the same moment and began clapping
their hands wildly. A clerk shouted nasally 'Bravo! Bravo!' in
English for the Europeans' benefit. But U Po Kyin frowned and
waved his hand. He knew all about European women. Elizabeth,
however, had already stood up.

'I'm going. It's time we were back,' she said abruptly. She was
looking away, but Flory could see that her face was pink.

He stood up beside her, dismayed. 'But, I say! Couldn't you stay
a few minutes longer? I know it's late, but--they brought this
girl on two hours before she was due, in our honour. Just a few

'I can't help it, I ought to have been back ages ago. I don't know
WHAT my uncle and aunt will be thinking.'

She began at once to pick her way through the crowd, and he
followed her, with not even time to thank the pwe people for their
trouble. The Burmans made way with a sulky air. How like these
English people, to upset everything by sending for the best dancer
and then go away almost before she had started! There was a
fearful row as soon as Flory and Elizabeth had gone, the pwe girl
refusing to go on with her dance and the audience demanding that
she should continue. However, peace was restored when two clowns
hurried on to the stage and began letting off crackers and making
obscene jokes.

Flory followed the girl abjectly up the road. She was walking
quickly, her head turned away, and for some moments she would not
speak. What a thing to happen, when they had been getting on so
well together! He kept trying to apologize.

'I'm so sorry! I'd no idea you'd mind--'

'It's nothing. What is there to be sorry about? I only said it
was time to go back, that's all.'

'I ought to have thought. One gets not to notice that kind of
thing in this country. These people's sense of decency isn't the
same as ours--it's stricter in some ways--but--'

'It's not that! It's not that!' she exclaimed quite angrily.

He saw that he was only making it worse. They walked on in
silence, he behind. He was miserable. What a bloody fool he had
been! And yet all the while he had no inkling of the real reason
why she was angry with him. It was not the pwe girl's behaviour,
in itself, that had offended her; it had only brought things to a
head. But the whole expedition--the very notion of WANTING to rub
shoulders with all those smelly natives--had impressed her badly.
She was perfectly certain that that was not how white men ought to
behave. And that extraordinary rambling speech that he had begun,
with all those long words--almost, she thought bitterly, as though
he were quoting poetry! It was how those beastly artists that you
met sometimes in Paris used to talk. She had thought him a manly
man till this evening. Then her mind went back to the morning's
adventure, and how he had faced the buffalo barehanded, and some of
her anger evaporated. By the time they reached the Club gate she
felt inclined to forgive him. Flory had by now plucked up courage
to speak again. He stopped, and she stopped too, in a patch where
the boughs let through some starlight and he could see her face

'I say. I say, I do hope you're not really angry about this?'

'No, of course I'm not. I told you I wasn't.'

'I oughtn't to have taken you there. Please forgive me. Do you
know, I don't think I'd tell the others where you've been. Perhaps
it would be better to say you've just been out for a stroll, out in
the garden--something like that. They might think it queer, a
white girl going to a pwe. I don't think I'd tell them.'

'Oh, of course I won't!' she agreed with a warmness that surprised
him. After that he knew that he was forgiven. But what it was
that he was forgiven, he had not yet grasped.

They went into the Club separately, by tacit consent. The expedition
had been a failure, decidedly. There was a gala air about the Club
lounge tonight. The entire European community were waiting to greet
Elizabeth, and the butler and the six chokras, in their best
starched white suits, were drawn up on either side of the door,
smiling and salaaming. When the Europeans had finished their
greetings the butler came forward with a vast garland of flowers
that the servants had prepared for the 'missiesahib'. Mr Macgregor
made a very humorous speech of welcome, introducing everybody. He
introduced Maxwell as 'our local arboreal specialist', Westfield as
'the guardian of law and order and--ah--terror of the local
banditti', and so on and so forth. There was much laughter. The
sight of a pretty girl's face had put everyone in such a good humour
that they could even enjoy Mr Macgregor's speech--which, to tell the
truth, he had spent most of the evening in preparing.

At the first possible moment Ellis, with a sly air, took Flory and
Westfield by the arm and drew them away into the card-room. He was
in a much better mood than usual. He pinched Flory's arm with his
small, hard fingers, painfully but quite amiably.

'Well, my lad, everyone's been looking for you. Where have you
been all this time?'

'Oh, only for a stroll.'

'For a stroll! And who with?'

'With Miss Lackersteen.'

'I knew it! So YOU'RE the bloody fool who's fallen into the trap,
are you? YOU swallowed the bait before anyone else had time to
look at it. I thought you were too old a bird for that, by God I

'What do you mean?'

'Mean! Look at him pretending he doesn't know what I mean! Why, I
mean that Ma Lackersteen's marked you down for her beloved nephew-
in-law, of course. That is, if you aren't bloody careful. Eh,

'Quite right, ol' boy. Eligible young bachelor. Marriage halter
and all that. They've got their eye on him.'

'I don't know where you're getting this idea from. The girl's
hardly been here twenty-four hours.'

'Long enough for you to take her up the garden path, anyway. You
watch your step. Tom Lackersteen may be a drunken sot, but he's
not such a bloody fool that he wants a niece hanging round his neck
for the rest of his life. And of course SHE knows which side her
bread's buttered. So you take care and don't go putting your head
into the noose.'

'Damn it, you've no right to talk about people like that. After
all, the girl's only a kid--'

'My dear old ass'--Ellis, almost affectionate now that he had a new
subject for scandal, took Flory by the coat lapel--'my dear, dear
old ass, don't you go filling yourself up with moonshine. You
think that girl's easy fruit: she's not. These girls out from home
are all the same. "Anything in trousers but nothing this side the
altar"--that's their motto, every one of them. Why do you think
the girl's come out here?'

'Why? I don't know. Because she wanted to, I suppose.'

'My good fool! She come out to lay her claws into a husband,
of course. As if it wasn't well known! When a girl's failed
everywhere else she tries India, where every man's pining for the
sight of a white woman. The Indian marriage-market, they call it.
Meat market it ought to be. Shiploads of 'em coming out every year
like carcasses of frozen mutton, to be pawed over by nasty old
bachelors like you. Cold storage. Juicy joints straight from the

'You do say some repulsive things.'

'Best pasture-fed English meat,' said Ellis with a pleased air.
'Fresh consignments. Warranted prime condition.'

He went through a pantomime of examining a joint of meat, with
goatish sniffs. This joke was likely to last Ellis a long time;
his jokes usually did; and there was nothing that gave him quite so
keen a pleasure as dragging a woman's name through mud.

Flory did not see much more of Elizabeth that evening. Everyone
was in the lounge together, and there was the silly clattering
chatter about nothing that there is on these occasions. Flory
could never keep up that kind of conversation for long. But as for
Elizabeth, the civilized atmosphere of the Club, with the white
faces all round her and the friendly look of the illustrated papers
and the 'Bonzo' pictures, reassured her after that doubtful
interlude at the pwe.

When the Lackersteens left the Club at nine, it was not Flory but
Mr Macgregor who walked home with them, ambling beside Elizabeth
like some friendly saurian monster, among the faint crooked shadows
of the gold mohur stems. The Prome anecdote, and many another,
found a new home. Any newcomer to Kyauktada was apt to come in for
rather a large share of Mr Macgregor's conversation, for the others
looked on him as an unparalleled bore, and it was a tradition at
the Club to interrupt his stories. But Elizabeth was by nature a
good listener. Mr Macgregor thought he had seldom met so
intelligent a girl.

Flory stayed a little longer at the Club, drinking with the others.
There was much smutty talk about Elizabeth. The quarrel about Dr
Veraswami's election had been shelved for the time being. Also,
the notice that Ellis had put up on the previous evening had been
taken down. Mr Macgregor had seen it during his morning visit to
the Club, and in his fair-minded way he had at once insisted on its
removal. So the notice had been suppressed; not, however, before
it had achieved its object.

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