Wednesday, October 17, 2007

VII. George Orwell [The Burma of George Orwell]


3. The Burma of George Orwell
It was very sad to find out the Burma in Burmese Days was so inferior under British Administration.

In Burmese Days George Orwell described the city, Mandalay, as being dusty, hot and famous for having “Five main products all beginning with P, namely, pagodas, pariahs, pigs, priests and prostitutes.” The pagodas are still there as are the Buddhist monks who tend them, but the prostitutes, pigs and pariahs(an old, Anglo-Indian term for stray dogs) as keeping a low profile in modern Mandalay.

After Burma gained independence in 1948, it was the first nation to successfully break free from the British Empire since the U.S. did so in 1776, all the consequences from Colonial age were narrowed down.

Mandalay has its own very unique culture unlike Rangoon, the capital city of Myanmar nowadays. In fact, Mandalay was a capital city before Rangoon. Every month of the year has its own appropriate festival and Burmese people tend to enjoying and relaxing to those events through out the whole year. After spending 13 months in Mandalay learning the duties of a colonial policeman, those seasonal festivals would have been familiar to George Orwell.

He would even have the experience watching the traditional entertainment, pwe, usually held during the months of October to December. Pwe can be ranked as the Japanese kabuki show but only as the costume and dialog using in the show are portrayed to Burmese imperial fashion in the Palace. The stages are settled in public blocking the street and standing face to the open road. Everyone can watch the show standing or with early reserved seats. It usually consists of singing, dancing and comedy skits. Orwell described one such performance in Burmese Days:
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 … The
music changed its tempo, and the girl began to sing in a
brassy voice…[she] turned round and danced with her
buttocks protruding to wards the audience. Her silk longyi
[sarong] 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 buttocks independently in time with the music.
Burmese Days, 108.

The pwe lasts all night, with the final curtain descending at dawn, but in Orwell’s day there was no mountain of speakers on either side of the stage blasting music and voices over a wide radius of neighborhood. Modern musical instruments and arrangements have been set up in pwe these days.

In an essay written in 1936 titled Shooting an Elephant, Orwell related how, as a policeman going about his duties, the Burmese often baited him. “The insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance got badly on my nerves,” he wrote. At the time Orwell served his stint, anti-British sentiment was on the rise, so much so that, as he described it, “If a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress.” Buddhist monks were the vanguards of this hectoring form of resistance and, according to Orwell, “None of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on the street corners and jeer at Europeans.”

Much of this discontent was caused by what the British termed the Shoe Questions- that is, the Europeans’ steadfast refusal to remove their shoes upon entering a Buddhist temple or other holy places. So insistent were the British upon retaining their footwear that when they found they were unable to coax Burmese bystanders into carrying them piggyback over the consecrated ground, many resorted to a boycott of touring the temples altogether. Challenge to British authority and a perceived loss of prestige drove the colonials to rule with a paranoid ruthlessness.

Burma had the highest rate of crime of all the colonies in the British Empire, and so the largest prison in the empire as built near Rangoon. Often the line blurred between true criminals and those motivated by a desire for Burmese independence. It was in this atmosphere of tension that Orwell went about his duties. What is surprising, and a ringing testament to Orwell’s sense of fairness, was that he didn’t blame the Burmese for their actions. In fact, he actually sympathized with them, In Shooting an Elephant Orwell wrote:
I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil
thing that the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it
the better. Theoretically- and secretly of course- I was all
for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British.
As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can
perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work
of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling
in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the gray, cowed faces
of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men
who had been bogged with bamboos-all the oppressed me
with an intolerable sense of guilt. Shooting an Elephant:
Collected Essays,15.

Yet Orwell was human and his emotions were in conflict. On the one hand he clearly shared the sentiments of his Burmese Days character John Flory, whose estrangement from his own kind drove him to “long for a native uprising to drown their Empire in blood.” Yet on the other hand, Orwell admitted to feeling the base urge to strike back at his Burmese tormenters, or as he frankly put it in Shooting an Elephant, “I thought the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts.” In the end, no doubt fearing the loss of his own sanity, Orwell quit the imperial police and, once back in England, began writing about his experiences.

In Burma, since colonial age until now, three major masses of people forming the Burmese social activities- monks, students, military. During the uprising against to British Colony, those three major masses allied together in order to strike back British Colony. They all boycotted and against all the Imperial services and British men.

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