Sometimes I think that in two hundred years all this...will be gone—forests, villages, monasteries, pagodas, all vanished. And instead, pink villas 50 yards apart; all over those hills, as far as you can see, villa after villa…," Flory tells his friend Veraswami. Flory is the protagonist of Burmese Days, George Orwell’s book about life in a colonial outpost set against the backdrop of a village in northern Myanmar called Katha. Published in 1934, Burmese Days is also the India-born British writer’s first work of fiction, marking the beginning of his literary career as a novelist.

Flory’s prophecy, however, hasn’t quite come true. The villas that Flory foresaw never materialized. In the years since the British army and administration crumbled under the attack of the Japanese forces in 1942, during World War II, Myanmar came under Japanese rule for a brief, conflict-ridden period—until 1945. Another brief period of democracy ensued, until a coup installed military rule in 1962 and the country’s development stalled, leaving it decades behind its neighbours.

The house where Orwell lived in Katha. Photographs: Prathap Nair

In a sense, nothing much has changed from Orwell’s time. In Burmese Days, the editor of the Burmese Patriot was accused of sedition for writing a libellous article against Mr Macgregor, the deputy commissioner of the district. In present day Myanmar, a freelance journalist, Ko Aung Kyaw Naing, died in custody on 4 October. On 27 October, protesters went ahead with a candlelight march. Subsequently, the military declared that people who took part in the silent protests would face one year in jail for unlawful demonstration.

*****

Trains were inordinately late—the day I was supposed to take a train to Katha at 4am, the train arrived at 1pm and left at 3pm. The 11-hour delay was accepted without so much as a murmur of protest. People only spoke Burmese, making conversation difficult, even with gestures. Very often, I found myself explaining things twice, even thrice, with my extremely limited Burmese vocabulary.

*****

St Paul’s Church.

Burmese Days had painted a melancholic picture of the protagonist Flory and the landscape, the descriptions of which I carried around in my mind long after I had finished reading the book.

Orwell, of course, is better known for the dystopian novels 1984 and Animal Farm. His other books haven’t got the same attention. But the tragic love story of Burmese Days was inspired by Katha, Kyauktada in the book. Vestiges of the places and buildings mentioned in the book still stand.

I was introduced to Animal Farm when I was in high school. I came upon the rest of Orwell’s oeuvre during college. It might have been the cynical eye Orwell employed (in one scene in Burmese Days, Flory says, “We’ve never taught a single useful manual trade to the Indians.") that pulled me to his writing. His books ran the risk of being considered pessimistic—and which college youth, brimming with teenage angst and so on, isn’t drawn to pessimism? I read and reread his essay collections—and his candid piece, Reflections On Gandhi, in which he admits Mahatma Gandhi did not make an impression on him.

Yet it was Burmese Days that held my attention longer than most books on colonial life have. Without literary embellishments, Orwell brings to life the story of the middle-aged Flory, a teak merchant, and his life in the Myanmar countryside.

After I’d read the book, I knew I had to visit Katha.

*****

A busy market in Katha

I found myself heading to Katha in a taxi, shared with a group of locals. One of them looked suspiciously like the novel’s villain—the overweight, scheming U Po Kyin. The other two, longyi-clad, had mufflers around their heads—they sat in the rattling taxi, bracing themselves as they were thrown against each other. It was a 13-mile (around 20km) ride on barely-there roads and wooden bridges, along gushing streams that took a little more than an hour.

Only three of Katha’s hotels are allowed to accommodate foreign tourists. I knocked on the Ayarwady Guest House facing the river on Strand Road. The housekeeper was happy to show me what he said was the only free room. It turned out to be a tiny capsule with a single bed and a side table with a rotating table fan on it. It had no attached toilet or bath. At the end of the corridor were a couple of squat toilets adjacent to a bathroom, three-fourths of its surface area occupied by a concrete tank filled with water.

*****

A flower seller
A flower seller

I finally found myself in the town I had waited so long to see. I started with a walk on Strand Road, which runs along the Irrawaddy and is lined with Burmese Padauk trees—it finds prominent mention in the book.

It was 7 and the town was still waking up to the rhythms of the morning. Women were carrying flowers in baskets dangling from a pole on their shoulders. Fresh catch was being unloaded and carted to the market. Two women wearing the natural sun-block paste thanaka sat cross-legged, peeling a pile of dead crickets, removing the wings—preparing them to be fried later into a local delicacy.

The crowd thickened in the market as I reached Klablan Street, also known as Club Road. In the novel, enamoured by the British girl Elizabeth, Flory takes her to the market to show her around. As I walked around the market, I could see why the British-born Elizabeth would have felt stifled there. The market, with its narrow alleys, sells everything from heaps of rice to vegetables and curious-looking eatables floating in yogurt-like sauces. I asked about them, pointing towards them and raising my hands in a questioning gesture—but no help was forthcoming. Clearly, neither my gestures nor my limited language skills had improved.

I walked the length of the road that I presumed was Klablan Street. Finally, I reached St Paul’s Church. This is where Flory was disgraced when his concubine, Ma Hla May, walked in during a service and announced that he had abandoned her. I walked through its bamboo gates and had a chat with the pastor, Say Htan.

Say Htan showed me around town. We stopped at what must have been Orwell’s house—this is now occupied by the district commissioner of police. The overgrown trees in front of the house hide it from view, but it looks grand in a Burmese sort of way—it is a large wooden structure with tall pillars, a rusty tin roof and bamboo window blinds.

Say Htan took me to the tennis club, and the tennis court. “Have you read the book?" I asked him. “No," he said, “poor English." He claimed the town gets its share of tourists interested in literature. That day, however, I seemed to be the only one.

A thanaka streaked child

Katha hasn’t remained aloof from civilization. Two-wheelers are a common mode of commute—and cars aren’t uncommon.

Orwell fans might not like the dust and heat of the riverside town, or the food (I ordered an egg salad and what arrived was a dish that contained the Burmese equivalent of the century egg). But the monuments to his imagination stand as they did decades ago, evoking a sense of life as it must have been—and still is.

That day, I sat on Strand Road for a second time, under the ample shade of trees, watching tiny boats ferrying passengers across the Irrawaddy. I could see what Orwell had described: “The Irrawaddy flowed huge and ochreous, glittering like diamonds in the patches that caught the sun."

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