Dirty work of empire

THEAUSTRALIANlogoNow sadly shabby, the two-storey red house in the remote northern Myanmar town of Katha was once an imposing edifice, a wood and brick statement of colonial power. Ghosts of former grandeur can be seen in the building’s substantial teak staircase, lofty ceilings and brick fireplace. Deserted, with a rusting tin roof and stained walls, the house appears to be remarkably structurally sound. Riotous vegetation has spread through the grounds, but the tiled floors are cool and the windows are flung open to catch the breath of a breeze. The house has become internationally celebrated as the one-time home of George Orwell, the author whose works have so influenced the thinking of generations. He may not have lived there, but he would certainly have known it well.

Nyo Ko Naing, an amateur historian in Katha, with a colonial era map. Photo: Sian Powell

Nyo Ko Naing, an amateur historian in Katha, with a colonial era map. Photo: Sian Powell

As a young officer in the Imperial Indian Police in the 1920s, Orwell lived in the British colony then known as Burma. Arriving in the national capital of Rangoon when he was 19, he stayed in the country for five years. He soon came to despise the casual bigotry of overlords and their wholesale exploitation of the Burmese: “the dirty work of Empire”.


Run down by a bout of dengue fever, the man then known as Eric Blair finally resigned from the police force. He later vented his disgust in the bleak novel “Burmese Days”, written under his pen name George Orwell.


In the novel, Orwell describes a small river town in heat-soaked Upper Burma, where seven Caucasians rule over nearly four thousand Burmese, a few hundred Indians and a few score Chinese. This fictional town of “Kyauktada” is based on Katha, a huddle of houses and shops on the mighty Irrawaddy river, 250 kilometres north of Mandalay. Orwell was the stern white face of police authority in Katha between 1926 and 1927 – his last posting in colonial Burma.


A filthy stream of bigotry runs through “Burmese Days”. Asians, or “Orientals”, are routinely referred to as niggers by Ellis, a timber company manager and one of the book’s nastier characters. Ellis loses his temper when he reads a proposal to permit the first Asian to join the town’s hitherto whites-only European Club. “Little pot-bellied niggers breathing garlic in your face over the bridge table,” he rages. “Christ, to think it!”.


British colonialists were often prickly about their clubs. Orwell describes these social gathering places as the whites’ “spiritual citadel, the real seat of the British power, the nirvana for which native officials and millionaires pine in vane”. Ellis can’t bear to think of the club in Kyauktada polluted by other races, by “black stinking swine”.


None of Ellis’s fellow Club members takes him to task for his bigoted tirade. Mr Westfield, the District Superintendent of Police in the novel (Orwell was Assistant District Superintendent in remote Katha), was philosophical about the proposed invasion by an Asian. “Got to put up with it I suppose,” Westfield says. “B—–s of natives are getting into all the Clubs nowadays.”


While a force in isolated Kyauktada, Westfield was not as powerful as the town’s Deputy Commissioner, Mr Macgregor, the official who had proposed opening the doors of the club to other races. Deputy Commissioners in colonial Burma enjoyed quasi-regal rule over huge tracts of territory.


“Burmese Days” is not aimed solely at the iniquities of the nation’s foreign rulers. One of the book’s more malignant characters is a scheming Burmese magistrate, U Po Kyin. One of Orwell’s almost comically-evil creations, U Po Kyin is both monstrously fat and hugely corrupt: plotting to wreak emotional havoc without a second thought.


Painstaking research by an amateur historian in Katha has revealed that Orwell probably never lived in the imposing red house. Rather, historian Nyo Ko Naing says, the house was allocated to the town’s all-important Deputy Commissioner (Mr Macgregor in Orwell’s novel).


Nyo Ko Naing has recently obtained a colonial map of Katha dating from 1911 that includes one plot with the careful lettering: “D.C.s House”. The location of the plot, he says, corresponds with the location of the vast red house plot. The large map, which is in good condition, also includes references to: “Mile Post”, “Pagoda”, “Demarcation Post”, “Survey Mark”, “Brick Boundary” and “Railway Line”. One plot is labelled “Polo ground”.


A graphic artist and cartoonist by profession, Nyo Ko Naing has long been fascinated by Orwell and his connection to Katha. As a high school student in the metropolis of Mandalay in the 1990s, he heard of Orwell from foreign visitors. “Many foreigners talked to me about this book (“Burmese Days”) but I didn’t know it then,” says the 42-year-old. “Katha is my native town, so I was interested.”


Orwell was not well known in modern Myanmar. His best-known novel, “1984” was long banned, no doubt because it scythed a little too close to home for the nation’s military dictators.


While in the west Orwell’s books are considered classics on the dystopian theme and routinely set as required reading by schools, on a bizarre Orwellian riff, they have been regularly banned by the world’s more extreme dictatorial regimes, including the Soviet Union, Cuba and North Korea.


Every time a scandal emerges about state intrusion into private lives, “1984” is again the news. Following whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s revelations earlier this year concerning wholesale surveillance by the National Security Agency in the United States, “1984” again became a routinely-cited reference. Sales of the book soared.


Australians have become so familiar with “1984”’s terminology that it hardly requires explanation – it has passed into daily language. Big Brother, the thought police, newspeak: all terms that have been used to describe various tactics or policies around the world and, in an eerie geographic coincidence, all terms that can be used to describe Myanmar’s former military regime, rulers in the nation where Orwell’s social conscience was first engaged.


These often bizarrely eccentric military dictators ruled with impunity until recently: their opponents were usually hurled into jail, or, like Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, held for years under house arrest.


The regime’s generals waxed fat for decades, while the nation’s ordinary people sank into ever-deepening poverty. Once one of the wealthiest nations in Asia and the world’s largest rice exporters, Myanmar was financially ruined by military rule.


Beset by the moribund economy and increasing international pressure, the despotic generals finally staged a quasi-democratic election in 2010 (while making sure real power remained in military hands). Hundreds of political prisoners were released, the censors’ department was downgraded, and the long-shuttered nation began to welcome a stream of international visitors. Orwell’s most famous books were suddenly permissible reading.


Nyo Ko Naing has a copy of “1984” published in November last year in the language of Myanmar, along with editions of many of Orwell’s books in both English and the local language. And, last month (subs November 2013), according to the Irrawaddy news magazine, Myanmar’s information ministry announced the unabridged Burmese translation of “Burmese Days” had won a category in the nation’s 2012 National Literary Award.


“Burmese Days” inspired Nyo Ko Naing to find out as much as he could about his town’s colonial past. Sitting in his parents’ house in Katha, he unrolls maps and pores over a historic town clerk’s ledger. “It’s my town,” he says solemnly. “It has a place in literature in the world, and we will do all we can to prevent that being destroyed.”


A number of the notable buildings in “Burmese Days” still stand in the dusty streets of Katha. Orwell referred to a “huge, durable jail” in Kyauktada, the sort “the English have built everywhere between Gibraltar and Hong Kong”.


High ochre-coloured walls enclose Katha’s colonial-era jail these days, topped with coiled razor wire and bookended by watch towers. In recent years the jail has housed some of Myanmar’s many political prisoners: the military dictatorship locked people up for years for simply writing a book or making a speech or asking the wrong questions. The jail now sports a large sign, in English and the language of the nation, forbidding photography.


Adjacent to the jail, the golden spire of a Buddhist pagoda reaches into the sky, as it does in Orwell’s Kyauktada. In other echoes, Katha, too, clings to the edge of the “huge and ochreous” river, and pedestrians heading away from the river face a reasonably steep hill, as they do in “Burmese Days”.


Kyauktada’s European Club, where racism was rampant and whites swilled liquor before and after every meal, is pivotal in “Burmese Days”: a bastion of bigotry and booze.


Characters meet each other on the club’s steps; the English mail, with English newspapers, is distributed there; a butler brings brandy on a brass tray. Here the British rulers reinforce each other’s prejudices. The only character with any liberal tendencies appears to be the book’s protagonist, Flory who is in the timber trade and who has an Indian doctor friend. Unlike all the other Britons, Flory chafes inwardly as he listens to the bigoted rants in the Club.


“Each year Flory found himself less at home in the world of the sahibs, more liable to get into trouble when he talked on any subject whatever,” Orwell writes. “So he had learned to live inwardly, secretly, in books and secret thoughts that could not be uttered.”


Orwell, it seems, felt much the same way, and the hidebound racism became anathema to him. He resigned from the police force in Burma, he later wrote, because he “could not go on any longer serving an imperialism I had come to regard as very largely a racket”.


The club’s Katha equivalent, according to Nyo Ko Naing, is a squat and fairly mundane building, constructed from brick and the nation’s indestructible hardwood. Orwell describes the Kyauktada club as “dumpy one-storey wooden building” and the “real centre of town”. Katha’s club, set on a slope, has similar physical characteristics, but it’s no longer the centre of anything much. 


Now housing a cooperative enterprise, the Katha club has a front verandah and a back yard that faces towards the Irrawaddy. Nyo Ko Naing says that in the rainy season the swollen waterway’s shoreline lies just beyond the wire fence at the rear.


Inside, an older woman sits behind a desk, and the rooms are dim. Nyo Ko Naing shrugs his shoulders. “This is the club,” he says.


Married, with two children and a home of his own, the graphic designer has already helped fight one battle to save Katha’s Orwell heritage. “A businessman wanted to build a skate playground near the red house, in the courtyard,” he explains. “We don’t accept this. Now the businessman has gone.”


Tourists are now visiting isolated Katha to see Orwell’s colonial inspiration at first hand. Most come on organised river cruise tours. Katha is difficult to get to from the nearest city of Mandalay. By road it’s ten hours or so on a mini-bus (and expect at least one repair stop – the roads are poor and the rocks are sharp).  By rail, it’s roughly 13 hours. Locals often catch the fast ferries (at least 24 hours, with varying levels of discomfort, or the slower ferries (anything up to three days along the Irrawaddy).


Once in Katha, foreign visitors find only the most basic of accommodation: a few guesthouses, but no sit-down toilets, no showers. The rooms have walls made from plywood and chicken-wire, rendering every grunt and snore audible to all.


Still, Nyo Ko Naing hopes Myanmar’s usually conservative officials will recognise the tourism potential of the town’s colonial heritage and act to prevent any of the colonial-era buildings from being destroyed. Maybe, he says, the government will even provide funds for a museum.


“Now the divisional minister has come to see this house,” he says, referring to the government-owned red house, where a local non-government organisation has cleared some of the more rampant vegetation from the grounds. “We want to build a museum there,” he adds. “We are worried without maintenance it will fall down.”


The red house might not be where Orwell actually lived, but it was certainly central to Katha in the colonial years that inspired “Burmese Days”. 


“This place changed his life,” Nyo Ko Naing says, “it changed him from a colonial police officer to a writer.”