- Original post from the New York Times Magazine, Nov 13, 2013. Photos by Richard Mousse.
In Myanmar, a long-isolated nation now opening up to the world after decades of brutal military rule, one still finds romantic echoes of the former British colony that inspired the young author to pen his first novel, ‘Burmese Days.’
Wandering around Yangon, the former capital city of Myanmar, always makes me think of George Orwell. Yangon’s old British buildings have the look of Gothic ruins gone astray in a tropical forest that cannot accommodate their scale. They rise up under a monsoon moon, massive and darkened and ill placed — the High Court a Queen Anne-style brick castle with a gloomy clock tower, like a London railway station reproduced here by some demented committee. Seen after midnight, they recall the state prisons and labyrinths of “1984,” a novel that, like many of the works by a onetime Burma resident then known as Eric Blair, was once nominally banned here. Times, though, have changed: at the first Irrawaddy Literary Festival earlier this year, copies of Orwell books were handed out to participants, and the organizers of Britain’s Orwell Prize came to the country to celebrate their man’s Burmese past. Blair would have been amused.
It is strange to think of a young and unknown Orwell, who was born in India to a father who worked as an overseer of the colonial opium business, perhaps pacing around the ghostly Sule Pagoda 90 years ago and taking in this same view that I often enjoy when walking around the Maha Bandula park late at night. Back then, I suppose, on empty Sule Pagoda Road next to the park, gangs of boys did not play soccer under streetlamps, their naked backs glistening with sweat. The streets were probably swept free of garbage, and the dogs that swarm through them today would have been taken care of in brutal fashion. It was a different city, a famously wilder, greener place.
During a monsoon week, I lay in the Strand Hotel in proper British style, reading Orwell again, with a plan to find traces of his Burma in the cities of Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay — areas that are swiftly being renovated by the state to make Myanmar, long closed to the outside world, a mainstream tourist attraction.
The Strand, right on the river, is still a gateway to Yangon’s British past, with its high tea of mout lin mayar (rice-flour cakes) and dumplings stuffed with jaggery, its army of butlers and its high and noble bar. I read “Burmese Days” with my 3 p.m. Earl Grey and scones, followed by a scented cheroot cigar — rain pounding the windows — and was surprised to find that it is the rare Orwell work in which a landscape is as powerfully depicted as the characters.
Published in 1934, “Burmese Days” was Orwell’s first novel, and although it reveals the insidious effect that his stint as a policeman in various small Burmese towns had had upon him (most famously recorded in his essay “Shooting an Elephant“), it also demonstrates his sensitivity to an underlying way of life — the rhythms of the Irrawaddy, the culture’s supernatural undercurrents, the grace and secrecy and stoicism of a “native” population that had no voice. It also contains surely the best description of a traditional slapstick zat pwe dance performance ever committed to paper, down to the young dancer moving the two halves of her derrière to a complex rhythm.
The hero of “Burmese Days,” the young John Flory, has many traits in common with the quiet, withdrawn 20-something bookworm Eric Blair. Both protagonist and author had to co-exist with an array of exasperated and maddening colonial types. Of course, Flory, after being rejected by a shallow English socialite, ends up killing himself with a pistol, while Blair enjoyed a happier future, returning to England to become George Orwell. But the two share a host of irritations, rages and sadnesses, and I suspect a dark love of the Burmese forests. (There is a wonderful scene, in fact, during the first monsoon rains, in which Flory wanders naked into the forest and lets the downpour heal his heat rashes.)
“Your whole life is a life of lies,” the narrator rebukes himself. “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.”
What was the real extent of Burma’s spell over Orwell’s mind? It was explored in depth by Emma Larkin in her book “Finding George Orwell in Burma,” in which she makes a sinisterly compelling argument. Orwell’s great trilogy of novels (“Burmese Days,” “Animal Farm” and “1984″), she contends, presciently track the development of Burma — a colonial society transformed, through independence and the socialist military coup in 1962, into a version of “Animal Farm,” and then “1984.” Fortunately, the evolution continues with recent reforms and the 2010 release from house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, the famous dissident and now opposition leader.
Orwell was posted to the Irrawaddy Delta in 1924 and spent his days doing crime-scene forensics and surveillance work, a job that gave him an invaluable insight into how police states work. But the monotonous, disorienting plains may also have shaped him in darker ways. Burma was one of the most violent parts of the British Raj. Dacoits, or armed gangs, roamed its waterways, visiting terror on the populace.
As I wandered every night through the heart of Burma’s old colonial city — known in Orwell’s day as Rangoon — down the length of Merchant Road and the wide avenues dripping with interwoven trees, I sensed how that long-dead society with its secret police and its neurotic surveillance bureaucracy had given rise directly both to the authoritarian government of today and Orwell’s masterpiece of yesterday.
But the verdant capital, to which officials like Orwell longed to return after lengthy stints in the jungle, remains alluring. “Oh, the joy of those Rangoon trips!” as Flory puts it in “Burmese Days.” “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!”
I couldn’t find Anderson’s and its beefsteaks — it has long disappeared, or perhaps it has been renamed. Still, the British buildings remain, with their curious resemblance to the fictional London slums described in the opening pages of “1984,” “sordid colonies of wooden dwellings like chicken houses” — except that they are also monumental, lovely and haunted. Often painted aquamarine and dark liver-red, garnished with creeping moss and ferns, and adorned with dripping laundry, they are the ruins of an older city that is still alive — accidentally beautiful things preserved by failure.
Around the corner from the Strand, I often passed a pale gray columned classical European building, flying a state flag out front and bearing the Orwellian label Bureau of Special Investigations. A man was asleep on the porch, his head resting on a tray of cauliflowers.
One night, I made a time-consuming trek to find a Muslim shrine I had always wanted to visit, the tomb of the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, which today lies on a deserted back street not far from the Shwedagon Pagoda. Zafar was exiled by the British to Rangoon in 1858 after the failed Sepoy Rebellion and died there four years later. The shrine that now houses his remains is spare and unvisited, and a lone guardian comes to the locked metal gates to admit the curious. Standing there in pouring rain, at the edge of an unlit alley, I wondered at the way my own people had busily gone about terminating dynasties — and histories — that might threaten their own new order. The guardian showed me around, and then we stood under the pasty portrait of Zafar himself pinned to the outside wall. “First visitor this month,” he said sadly, but with an ineffable defiance.
How quickly memory is effaced. The work of empire, indeed, is the work of memory effacement. On another night I went to have dinner at the home of a 90-year-old British Army veteran named Tancy McDonald. A retired minister of the Anglican church who was married to a Burmese woman for many years, he lives in a neighborhood near the airport called Insein, quiet as a rural hamlet in the jungle, and over tea and jaggery he remembered with perfect clarity the society Orwell had described in his book — the world of the “pukka sahib,” or the aloof, impeccably gentlemanly British administrator. Like Orwell’s mother, Tancy’s British father owned a rubber plantation in the south, and it’s possible they knew each other.
“The Burmese always had to call every British person ‘Sir,’ ” he recalled. “It was appalling. But then again, I also remember Rangoon as a beautiful place — a population of 400,000, clean, orderly. You can’t imagine how nice it was. The mistake we made after the war was to get rid of the British administration. It was a disaster. India and Malaysia didn’t make that mistake.”
“How about the changing of the country’s name?”
“Actually, I prefer Myanmar to Burma. It’s more authentic.”
“But it’s a variation of the same word,” I objected. “Both are valid.”
There was a canny smile in return.
Tancy remembered the war. The British were virtually unarmed, and the Japanese entered Rangoon easily. Separated from his artillery unit, Tancy simply walked to India with three friends, where he joined a new unit. He was happy to fight for the British.
He asked me if I’d be taking the “road to Mandalay,” so named, of course, after Kipling’s rousing poem.
“It’s a bit of cliché,” I said.
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!
Kipling is a tough and formidable poet, but like Orwell, I cannot stand his failed attempt to render working-class soldier patois. In fact, Orwell both loathed and admired Kipling, the “good bad poet,” as he called him. And yet, the intense vibration that the very word “Mandalay” sets up in the English-speaking mind is a remarkable thing. Didn’t Frank Sinatra do a version of Kipling’s ditty?
“Maybe it’s all a cliché, as you say,” Tancy replied. “But Mandalay is still Mandalay. At least they didn’t change the name. It’s filled with businessmen now — you might find it somewhat unromantic.”
In Kipling’s and indeed Orwell’s time, one traveled from Rangoon to Mandalay by paddle steamer on the Irrawaddy, a journey of several days. Via the new recently completed express road, it takes about nine hours. On the way, one can stop to visit the nation’s new capital city of Nay Pyi Taw, which was created out of nothing beginning in 2004 to replace Yangon.
The Indian journalist Siddharth Varadarajan noted on a visit to Myanmar’s capital that it is “the ultimate insurance against regime change, a masterpiece of urban planning designed to defeat any putative ‘colour revolution’ — not by tanks or water cannons, but by geography and cartography.” The whole thing is lit up at night like a wedding with no guests. It’s a utopia with no guiding principle, and a capital city with no diplomats, since they refuse to leave the comforts and karaoke clubs of Yangon. And yet it is filled with imperial longings and references. The name means “Abode of Kings”: an attempt, then, to start yet another new history.
Before continuing on to Mandalay, I headed east to Bagan, where I stayed a couple of nights at a new resort called the Aureum Palace, which has been opened inside the archaeological zone, among more than 2,000 temples ranging from the 11th to the 13th centuries. There can be no more astute positioning of a contemporary resort, something the Chinese honeymooners in the temple-view pool surely appreciated.
Restored as a “Burmese Angkor Wat,” Bagan is an inevitable stop on the tourist circuit. Where Nay Pyi Taw is a postmodern utopia, Bagan is a modern vision of an ancient one. Its thousands of pagodas spread across a parklike plain have been restored in strange and inauthentic ways, a gaudy mix of the 12th century and the 21st. It’s beautiful, moving and only half convincing.
“Then where does the past exist . . . ?” Winston’s interrogator, O’Brien, inquired in “1984,” still a good question.
The most interesting of the great Bagan pagodas is the forbiddingly massive Dhammayangyi, built by King Narathu around 1170 to atone for the sin of murdering both his brother and his father, Alaungsithu. Its interior is windowless and gloomy, the inner sanctuary walled off for centuries as if its contents had been a state secret that even succeeding generations would not be allowed to see. According to popular legend, the evil king demanded that the stones be mortared together so finely that a blade could not pass between them, decreeing that any workman who failed to do so would be relieved of his arm immediately. As I wandered around the half-lit galleries admiring the frescoes of elephants, a young girl in yellow thanaka face paint approached, holding a cellophaned book for sale to tourists: “Burmese Days.” She led me to the slotted stones where the arm severing is thought to have happened and made me place one of my arms in the groove. It fit perfectly. She then said that Narathu was assassinated “by Indians,” making a chopping motion on her own tiny arm.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“Is it true?”
“Buy Orwell, one dolla.”
I drove to Mandalay on the road that winds alongside the Irrawaddy. It’s a long, lulling drive through lowland paddies and bamboo thatch villages. In the distance, I could make out the great brooding river flashing between low hills and scattered gold pagodas, where flocks of goats wandered with boys in bamboo cloche hats.
The outskirts of Mandalay came upon me gradually, strangely anachronistic: chimneys of little factories puffing black smoke, like the piecemeal industrial landscapes of the 19th century; wide waterways of hyacinth and sugar palms, still more gold pagodas, white-horned cows everywhere, men hacking at logs, and horses tethered under kapoks.
“Mandalay is rather a disagreeable town — ” complained the narrator of “Burmese Days,” “it is dusty and intolerably hot, and it is said to have five main products all beginning with P, namely, pagodas, pariahs, pigs, priests and prostitutes.”
The pagodas are still here, if the other four “products” are less in evidence (though the latter might be more familiar to the aforementioned businessmen). Mandalay is one of the few places in Myanmar where a foreigner can ride a motorbike, and on mine I went through the town’s chaotic temple neighborhoods, past the teak U Bein bridge at dusk, where the monks sit along the lakefront on weathered terraces. I visited the jetty at the end of a long, tree-shaded road, where the boat leaves for Inwa, the old ruined capital that was destroyed by an earthquake in 1839.
From my hotel, the Sedona, at the edge of the vast moat that surrounds the Mandalay Palace, I could walk the mile to the East Gate — the only one that foreigners are allowed to use. Above this gate hangs a shrill sign courtesy of the army, which is called the Tatmadaw in Burmese: TATMADAW AND THE PEOPLE, COOPERATE AND CRUSH ALL THOSE HARMING THE UNION. Ironic to think that Orwell did his police training less than a mile away.
The Palace itself possesses something of the moated grandeur of the Forbidden City in Beijing, with its teak-roofed towers rising above the gates. It is mostly a military base now, off-limits to visitors, but that was the case under the British as well. The wooden palace, where Burma’s last two kings, Mindon and his son Thibaw, ruled in the quarter century before the arrival of the British, is a modern reconstruction of the 1859 original, which was burned down during World War II.
To walk the now bare-bones rooms of the “Famed Royal Emerald Palace” during the rains, when they are empty, is haunting indeed, what with their dark red wooden columns and their life-size models of the two kings and their consorts sitting on replica thrones. One sees Thibaw’s dainty royal bed surrounded by four glass-encrusted columns, and vitrines full of imperial regalia, including the ruby-covered royal sandals. A whole arcane, intricate world of ritual reduced to a single glass case of dusty relics.
Where does the past live, then, as Winston was asked? Nearby, in the Kuthodaw Pagoda, is the so-called world’s largest book, its inscribed stone tablets housed in 729 whitewashed stupas arranged in lines, each tablet bearing a page of the Buddhist canon. Walking through the star-flower trees between the stupas, among families enjoying open-air picnics, one is bound to think yet again of Orwell, who would have known this place well.
The British maintained a garrison here until 1890, and they are thought to have stripped all the gold lettering from the texts (as well as stealing 6,000 bronze bells). But a physical stone book of such size is far less easy to ban than mere paperback copies of “1984,” or for that matter the paper books that had disappeared from Orwell’s imaginary future. The tablets might have been either an inspiration or a warning to the young police officer who wandered here almost a century ago, or perhaps they left no impression on him at all. In the end Burma was utterly alien to Orwell. He described the place, sometimes lovingly, but ultimately its warmth and beauty eluded him. Perhaps he could not see his way past the colonial machinery in which he was implicated. Out of its oppressive heat, cruelty and beauty, however, he made not one great novel but three.
This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: November 24, 2013
An article last Sunday about Myanmar and the writer George Orwell referred incorrectly to his novel “Burmese Days.” It was his first novel — not his first book, which was “Down and Out in Paris and London,” a nonfiction work.
Editor’s Note: OW offers small group tours as well a s private custom tours to Myanmar.