Burmese Days

A holiday in Burma

      I’m in Katha where George Orwell set Burmese Days. It’s a bustling town, backed by distant mountains, on a bluff above the murky Irrawaddy where, days earlier, I’d glimpsed the rolling antics of a grey river dolphin.   Crimson flame trees border dusty, furrowed roads, tall palms dance in the breeze and dragonflies skim overhead under a cerulean sky. A bevy of raven-haired beauties sashays by wearing colourful tameins (wrap-around skirts) and balancing heavy loads on their heads, their cheeks smeared with ornate patches of thanaka- a white paste ground from the bark of thanaka trees and applied as a cosmetic cum sun- block cream.   I clamber  into a rickety  blue-painted wooden cart  drawn by a plump horse and  the beaming  driver, clad in a brown and red checked lunghi (sarong), leaps into his seat, hitches up the ragged canvas hood  and,  as trishaws weave round, we swing  past  a quartet  of elderly women puffing on fat cheroots, slumbering pi-dogs  and tonsured, saffron-robed monks.

There’s the lively chatter of women in the sprawling bazaar selling everything from gourds to jade, dried fish, herbal remedies, astrological charms (Saturday born, you’re a dragon) and tamarind lozenges. The percussive clang of a blacksmith in a back alley; the hot sparks of a soldering iron in a rice- thresher repair yard.  Atrophied rubber tyres are reincarnated into voluptuous black urns. Two men with betel stained teeth crouch over a chess board; motorbikes scorch by. A biker halts to refuel, plucks a bottle, one of several brimming with petrol, from a pavement table and tucks this Molotov cocktail into a jute bag.

I’ve reached the single tennis court standing behind a white fence. It’s deserted. Ahead, a rutted, tree- lined path leads to the tin roofed Club of the novel. Now an office, it’s sadly dilapidated. From the verandah where the punkah-wallah would have squatted,  I peer through a cracked window into what would have been the bar.  Is that shadowy figure Flory slumped in a chair?  Sidestepping a pink sow and her litter of curly-tailed piglets, I navigate a jungly compound to Orwell’s reputed house, its handsome colonial-style proportions ravaged by the elements and termites.

The mesmerising strains of a Burmese ballad beckon from a thatched roof tea shop. I perch on a low, ochre- painted wooden stool and tea arrives – sweetened with condensed milk and strong. I nibble a pineapple dumpling, watch a thin green snake wriggle away as butterflies flutter around and contemplate the Tropic of Cancer to whose satisfying coordinates a pilgrimage was made some days ago.  Pegged to a washing line are watercolours  of  rural life rendered with skill and delicacy and here’s an Impressionist, dipping a thin brush into coloured enamel and rounding off a drawing  by several swift strokes with a razor blade. The  sun bows out spectacularly  and, as temple bells ring, as the spirit medium departs  her shrine and a pungent smell of roasting ginger wafts across, the night market springs to life.


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