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.