Burmese Days is George Orwell’s debut novel (first published in 1934), set in the fictional Kyauktada in the 1920s during British Empire rule over Burma (now Myanmar). By juxtaposing relations between native Burmese and foreign Englishmen through the eyes of the book’s protagonist John Flory; Orwell exposes a society’s bigotry, hypocrisy and inequality in a captivating satirical tale.
Mr. Flory has been working as a white timber merchant while living in Burma for more than 15 years. Burma serves as his escape from his insecurities originating from childhood days of being bullied and mocked for the scar-ish birthmark across his face. Flory enjoys the company of fellow Europeans but secretly despises how they oppress the locals including his friend Dr. Veraswami, one of the senior natives.
The scorching temperatures, endless boredom and garlic-stinking natives are just but some of the things Europeans detest about Burma. The only escape from this seems to be a daily convergence at the Europeans Club for mindless chatter and propaganda, while enjoying some whisky and treasured ice cubes. But whisky, cigarettes and Flory’s beloved dog Flo is not enough to liven his otherwise lonely life. However, unlike the rest of the Europeans, Flory sees beyond Burma’s face value. He admires its beauty; from its assorted scented flowers, orange sunsets and wildlife to chaotic cultural festivals. All this makes Flory privy to life’s secret that “Beauty is meaningless until it is shared”—a revelation that convinces him that his solitude could only be cured by finding someone to love and to share with, everything and his impressions of Burma.
Elizabeth, a young English woman arrives in Kyauktada to live with her aunt and uncle (the Lackersteens) after losing her mother, a painter in Paris. She’s the life of a la mode and epitomizes the newness that Flory’s life craves. Her arrival even makes him dismiss his indignant Burmese mistress Ma Hla May. He dreams of marrying Elizabeth and sharing his life with her to counter Burma’s constant air of ennui. As the two hit it off, their point of views (mainly on preferences regarding Burmese culture/people) stay clashing.
Trouble starts building up in the British Empire following a directive allowing one native to be elected in the European’s Club. Flory’s friend Dr. Veraswami (responsible for saving the lives of many Burmese people) is the most probable choice for a nomination but no European except Flory can dare utter an okay to that. “Veraswami is a damn good fellow—a damned sight better than some white men I can think of. I am going to propose his name to the club when the general meeting comes,” says Flory at the club, surprising himself at the kind of row he is about to start. Dr. Veraswami’s enemies are determined to destroy his chances at the club at whatever cost, they accuse him of all crimes possible. And when his good character always saves the day; they decide to hit at Flory—Veraswami’s only pass into the club.
Flory’s romance with Elizabeth is on the other hand short-lasted as Verall, a new and younger British Honourable Officer arrives at Kyauktada. “Remember that though you will find men who are richer, and younger, and better in every way; it’s something to have one person in the world who loves you.” He cautions her and is suddenly torn between fighting for his life, friend and what he thought was the love of his life.
Based on Orwell’s five-year-long experience as a member of the British Indian Imperial military police in Burma, this is his use of satire in outlining societal interactions at its purity. Europeans have sexual relations with Burmese women but the natives are not allowed to marry Europeans. If by any chance a child by a Burmese woman is fathered by a European, they are considered an outcast in European circles, denied jobs and only employed by the government if they denounce their European blood—a useless leverage, still too costly to lose. The girl, who Flory tried so hard to impress, fell for the most discourteous Englishman in Kyauktada, who despises fellow Europeans almost as much as the natives. Flory risks his reputation by backing Veraswami’s election to the club in the name of friendship while the doctor is interested in the election more than anything yet if he were elected into the club, he would never attend any of the meetings but merely bask in the glory of status elevation.
I could on and on about how brilliant a Critical Satirist George Orwell is. There’s something about all his books atypical endings; without suspense or resolution. Just like in Orwell’s most celebrated work—1984; Burmese Days tells the reader: “If you let people step on you or life take its course on you—you will cease being who you were and what you believed in to become either anybody or nobody.” George Orwell presents satirical tales that enthrall, leaving you disillusioned and in some kind of zone; fully aware of the power we posses over our destiny.
BONUS: Another impressive read borrowed to never return from my late Dad’s library. He used to be a Literature teacher 🙂