Pox Britannica

Share this

In November 1922, George Orwell (or Eric Blair, as he was then) arrived in Burma, to take up a post with the Indian Imperial Police. He was 19, not long out of Eton, which he had attended on a scholarship; his family could not afford to send him to university. He moved about: from hill station to frontier outpost, to the outskirts of Rangoon, eventually posted to the town of Katha, in Upper Burma. It was on this remote place that he based the town of Kyauktada, the setting for his first novel, Burmese Days. It was published in New York by Harper & Brothers in 1934, and then, in 1935, in London, by Victor Gollancz, who had – needlessly – been afraid of libel.

In 1934, my father, aged 22, arrived in the province of Bihar, in northern India. For five years he was to supervise the large district of a sugar plantation before serving in the Indian Army until the end of the war. This tenuous temporal connection between two utterly different men is what set me reading Burmese Days.

In my twenties I had read almost all of Orwell except, for no good reason, this novel. Decades later, steeped in my father’s tape-recorded stories of his time in India, and trying to write my own novel about the aftermath of his colonial experience, I was reading all things relevant, from Forster to Rushdie – and then, almost as an afterthought, Orwell. Everyone should read this novel, I think now.

Much darker than Forster, whose A Passage to India was published ten years earlier, and whose knowledge of India was as a gentle traveller, Burmese Days describes a country of ravishing beauty and squalor, with an intolerable climate, in which there is corruption in every sweating pore. And although it offers an unflinching portrait of the casual – and deliberate – cruelties of colonialism, its villain is Burmese. It burns with a clear-sighted anger, exploring all aspects of people and place in empire’s waning days – most poignantl

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

About the contributor

‘Indian Refugees from Burma’, the only poem Sue Gee’s father ever wrote, appears in her new novel, Coming Home, published in August.

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

Distraction-free
reading mode