Based on Orwell’s experiences as a policeman in Burma, George Orwell’s first novel presents a devastating picture of British colonial rule. It describes corruption and imperial bigotry in a society where, ‘after all, natives were natives – interesting, no doubt, but finally … an inferior people’. When Flory, a white timber merchant, befriends Indian Dr Veraswami, he defies this orthodoxy. The doctor is in danger: U Po Kyin, a corrupt magistrate, is plotting his downfall.
The only thing that can save him is membership of the all-white Club, and Flory can help.
Flory’s life is changed further by the arrival of beautiful Elizabeth Lackersteen from Paris, who offers an escape from loneliness and the ‘lie’ of colonial life. For Said, controversy about the postcolonial discourse begins with the term of re-presentation which gives the Westerners upper-hand as a “genuine creator, whose life-giving power represents, animates, constitutes, the otherwise silent and dangerous space beyond familiar boundaries” .
This representation is so powerful which brought the concept of the Orient, first of all in Western academics, “then Western consciousness, and later Western empire.
” The effect of this representation is the creation of binary opposition of the self and other which posits the former in the privileged position that permits himself to define, describe and articulate the Orient as she wishes, and the former in the position of a silent, disabled object of study. Said continues that one cannot make any distinction between representation and misrepresentation and the difference is matter of degree.
Burmese Days is commonly referred to as an anti-imperialist novel which closes down ‘the entire genre of imperial heroics’.
It is true that Orwell has created a novel which is distinguished from earlier colonial writings, such as those Kipling and Forster by, but as it has been mentioned before, ‘it lacks a firm commitment to antiaimperialism’, both on the part of Flory and his author’s or as Boehmer points out appropriately Burmese Days ‘does not diverge significantly from a colonialist semiotic’and it is an ‘ambivalent text’ .
As Edward Said says that Intruders control the fiction and all types of writings and misrepresent the natives. They indirectly convey their message. Similarly Burma is viewed through a Westerner’s lens and functions just as a setting with its fauna and flora. The novel focuses on the White community and they are at the center and Burmans are totally marginalized in the novel. There is no hint of their culture, lifestyle, customs and etc. nd the novel concentrates on a Flory’s loneliness rather than a critique of imperialism and ‘the novel deals not so much with the problems of the Burmese as with the problems of the English in Burma’. Orwell is trapped in the role of Westerner’s representer by an ‘Orientalist mindset’ and personified in Flory who is torn between loyalty to British Raj and sentimental sympathy for the natives, ‘doubleness between membership among the dominant and an affinity for the dominated’. ‘He did not speak of his sympathy for the Burmese’ and follows the ‘White man’s code of silence in the East’.
Holderness et al assert that if one takes the novel as a critique of imperialism, one cannot ‘find in this text a critique of racist assumptions’. For Orwell, anti-imperialism and anti-racism are two different things. Racism and racial bigotry are not criticized by the narrator and as Blyemel states, ‘Orwell’s exposure of extremist color prejudice is unsettling’. Edward Said in his essay talked about the misrepresentation of the natives. The natives are being stereotyped by associating animal imagery with them.
In this novel ‘Unironic use of adjectives’ for natives is very unsettling too, when the narrator calls the Burmese as swines, ticks, black coolies, the sneaking, cowardly hounds, bloody sods, damned and smelly natives,gutless curs, yellow bellies, evil and unclean Orientals, greasy little babus, little pot-bellied dirty niggers,those with the scents and stench of coconut oil, sandalwood, garlic, cinnamon, turmeric, sweat, and those with black skins, brown, malicious and epicene faces and filthy black lips.
Orientalism is closely related to the concept of the Self and the Other because as Said points out in his second definition of Orientalism, it makes a distinction between the Occident, i. e. self and the Orient, i. e. the Other. Since the analysis of the relationship of the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ is at the heart of Postcolonialism and many define Postcolonialism in terms of the relationship of the self and the Other. For instance, Boehmer emphasizes that ‘Postcolonial theories swivel the conventional axis of interaction between the colonizer and colonized or the self and the Other’.
The Self and the Other can be translated to the Occident / Orient, us /them, The West /the rest, center/margin, metropolitan/colonial subjects, vocal/silent. In all these cases Western literary and cultural canon defines “its other” in relation to himself, the other is an alien and alter ago, to and of the self, as the inferior reflection of Europe. By the process of Othering, the colonizers treat the colonized as ‘not fully human’, and as a result, it dehumanizes natives. Othering codifies and fixes the self as the true human and the other as other than human.
The Colonizers consider themselves as the embodiment of “proper self” while label the colonized as “savages”. Said focuses on the Myth of purity- which states that everything should be pure,there is no mixing of the language, tradition, culture etc. so the westerns create binary oppositions. “Burmese Days” revolves around the binary opposition of the Self and the Other, and the very essence of the Club is to make the distinction between the whites and non-whites more conspicuous.
Hence, all the characters of the novel lay fitly on two categories: The natives and non-natives, the whites and non-whites, the Indians and Anglo-Indians, the familiar or stranger, the civilized and uncivilized or barbaric, the European and Asian, the us and them, and the Self and the Other. In addition, a set of stereotypes and cliches are attributed to the natives that have contributed to Orientalize them. The Orient and Orientals are stamped with an otherness says Said, and this otherness is a threat that should be avoided.
In all colonial novels, some negative attitudes and a set of fixed cliches are ascribed to this otherness. Edward Said underscores that the starting point for all Orientalists is to recognize these stereotypes. It is not a difficult task to see; to some extent these images come true in “Burmese Days”. For instance, all the natives particularly the servants are lazy and lethargic, as Mrs. Lackersteen complains about the laziness of the servants , or Ko S’la, Flory’s servant is lazy and dirty, and his ex-wife as ‘a fat, lazy cat’ .
U Po Kyin, more than anyone else stands for cunning, intrigue and flattery which were mentioned earlier. His brain though cunning was quite barbaric . For their distorted minds, Eliza mocks them for blocking up the roadway for spectacle, as Flory answered that ‘there are no traffic regulations here’ . Flory calls Ma Hla May a ‘liar’ when she said no brown hands touched me, however the readers know that she had an affair with a brown man. The Orientals have no nobility and grace except by accompanying and camaraderie with the occidentals.
U Po Kyin and Veraswami’s efforts for admission to the Club are for this nobility and prestige, as Dr. Veraswami pointed it in his example of barometer. For mistreatment to animals, one can remember the scene that ‘a fat yellow woman with her longyi hitched under her armpits was chasing a dog round a hut, smacking at it with a bamboo and laughing. ’ Recurring images do not confine to the above mentioned and many other labels such as superstition, strangeness, polygamy are also attributed to the Orientals.
The natives believe that the ‘strips of alligator hide’ has magical properties ; Ma Hla May sometimes puts love-philters in Flory’s food; “The Burmese bullock-cart drivers seldom grease their axles, probably because they believe that the screaming keeps away evil spirits” ; as the medicine, they eat and drink ‘herbs gathered under the new moon, tigers whiskers, rhinoceros horn, urine, menstrual blood! ’ And finally Weiksa or magician who distributes magic bullet-proof jackets. Edward Said points out that Oreint is always seen as mysterious and a muddle for the Occidents.
Burma is an exotic place for Westerners and Orientals, strangeness and exoticism generate from that exotic locale. Elizabeth is terrified by this ‘strangeness’, as Adela in “A Passage to India” did. Accordingly, the bushes are foreign-looking, rhythms of the tropical seasons and hollow cries are strange ; Eliza among the natives’ spectacle wishes to escape from this strange place to familiar one, i. e. the Club and she always barked at strange Orientals Ko S’la is an ‘obscure martyrs of bigamy’ and Li Yeik, the Chinese shopkeeper had two girls as his concubines.
In short, in Burmese Days like other colonial novels, a web of colonial images and cultural stereotypes are attributed to the Burmese which fix them in their inferior position. Elizabeth as a memsahib is also bigoted and she felt ‘the hatefulness of being kin to creatures with black faces’ . Eliza’s overt racism is also shown in two occasions: when Flory, assuming that ‘she was different from that herd of fools at the Club’ and she will appreciate native’s culture, took her to a pwe, a kind of Burmese play. Another occasion was when they paid a visit to bazaar.
At first she is shocked when she sees how they have blocked the road for their performance, and Flory answers that “there are no traffic regulations here. The native music is a ‘fearful ‘pandemonium, a strident squeal of pipes, a rattle like castanets and the hoarse thump of drums’ . Elizabeth felt insecure to go among ‘that smelly native crowd’ and she watches ‘the hideous and savage spectacle’ with tediousness and horror: It’s grotesque, it’s even ugly, with a sort of willful ugliness. And there’s something sinister in it too.
There’s a touch of the diabolical in all Mongols. And yet when you look closely, what art, what centuries of culture you can see behind it! …Whenever you look closely at the art of these Eastern peoples you can see that–a civilization stretching back and back, practically the same, into times when we were dressed in woad. Eliza comes from the ‘civilized places, and her superiority is blatantly expressed when she calls them with a very offensive term even in that time, Mongols. She considers the White racially and civilizationally superior to the Burmese.
The word woad signifies that the present-day Burma is less civilized than the ancient Briton (in that times, woad was used for painting their bodies). Furthermore, they are connected to devil and devil worship (as the term diabolical and sinister connote); besides, the dancer girl becomes a ‘demon’ figure for her. In the bazaar’s scene, Eliza once more humiliates the Orient and Orientals.
The bazaar is described as ‘large cattle pen’ by ‘a cold putrid stench of dung or decay’, and ‘Everything’s so horribly dirty’. Eliza becomes insecure and asked herself why Flory has brought her to ‘watch their filthy, disgusting habits’ (Ibid). The barbarity of the bazar and absolute savages was stifling her. The natives were ‘damnably dressed’. All the children are naked and one was ‘crawling like a large yellow frog’. The Chinese women practice deforming their insteps, a sign of being ‘behind the times’, an anachronism. She is too arrogant to say thank you to girls fanned them and poured out tea.
It is a ‘sort of infra dig’ to sit in their houses. At length Eliza cannot tolerate the ‘absolutely disgusting people’ and ‘beastly Oriental things’ and went out. Flory tries to calm her down that one should not expect all the people behave at the same manner, suppose, for instance, you were back in the Middle Ages. Flory, the protagonist of the novel, at the first look, is against British Empire and he hates the devotion to Pukka Sahib code. He is ashamed of themselves and wonders how they oppose to Veraswami’s admission in the club only for his black skin.
This seemingly animosity toward British Empire is revealed during a long conversation with Dr. Veraswami that he admits that we are here to “rub our dirt on them, and “wreck the whole Burmese national culture”. He goes further and prefers Thibaw, the last king of Burma to his white fellows. He believes that we do not have any “purpose except to steal”. What bothers Flory more than anything else is a lie,‘slimy white man’s burden humbug’, the pukka sahib pose. Flory knows that this lie corrupts not only the natives, but also the Whites themselves. The colonizers ‘build prison and call it progress’.