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
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