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George Orwell > Burmese Days > Chapter 9

Burmese Days

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

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

'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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