Wednesday, October 17, 2007

VI. George Orwell [The Characteristics of Burmese Days]


2. The Characteristics of Burmese Days
One of the most surprising factors in Burmese Days was that George Orwell described his amazing ability to understanding of local spoken languages. It always amazed to present Burmese readers when they found out that some words using in Burmese Days are still valid to the present time. In fact, not all the words are actual Burmese words.

During the British colonization in Burma, the country has been influenced by the culture of Indian, Chinese and English men. Indian workers were almost everywhere. Chinese businessmen took the every opportunity of business in Burma. And British administration and people are playing major role during this era in Burma.

British colony brought Indian cheap labors into Burma under its law and regulation in order to replace the position held by Burmese people. The consequence was that Burma naturally adopted certain words from those new intruders in her daily life style. It impacted the evolution of Burmese language and culture. Burmese people are still using some words without awareness of its origin as its own mother words inheritance from Indian, Chinese and English until now.

George Orwell used the mixture of Burmese and Indian original words in his Burmese days. Those words occurred quite frequently using it to describe person, character or scene. The question is why he used those words without altering or converting into English words and so it would make every kind of readers able to understand the meaning.

By reading the mixture of those words in Burmese Days, his novel is shouting the voice of culture combination in Burma under British Administration. One can easily draw the picture of general life style and how people communicate at certain extent during that time. Even in Burmese Days, people of Indian, Burmese, Chinese and English are playing proportionally in different role.

It would be just the fact that he wrote it as a steam of water flow naturally influenced by local spoken language in his daily life or he was very keen to express the precise description of actual characters and environments. At any rate, it was quite impressive that his ability adapting properly to foreign language.

It occurred to Burmese readers that he was a man of truly understanding not only to the usage of languages but also to the culture and the political relation among English, Indian and Burmese people. Burmese Days also gave the impression of how English and Indian people saw and interpreted the culture of Burma by that time.

He used the words “shikoed” in past tense verb form at “As Ba Taik advanced he shikoed” Burmese Days, p.4 l.24, one will not able to find that word in any kind of English dictionary. He might had been invented the new English word from Burmese.

In Burmese “shikoe” means paying respect to elderly person, monks or Buddhist statue by putting palms together and slightly bend the body gesture forward.

When English men came and colonized Burma, they took the advantage of Burmese’s greeting culture, and even elder and respectful Burmese people were forced to “shikoe” English young men in a way of suppressing more than greeting. When Burmese people, especially Burmese Patriots, see other Burmese are in that sort of situation, it became one of the driving gears to uprising of anti-colony movement.

It was not only about forcing Burmese people to “shikoe” English men but also forcing to call “thakin”. Burmese word “thakin” means “master” in English. No Burmese people ever call others “thakin” even they are serving as servant. From the point of view of English people, they wanted to be called as “thakin”, master, but Burmese people tend not to call. In Burmese Days George Orwell had been expressed that sort of usage in the dialog of Ko S’la, Mr Flory’s servant, whenever he speak of Mr.Flory.

During the days of British Colony in Burma because of suppressing in manners and languages, a group of university student organized to form “thakin” organization and started putting “thakin” in front of their name. The philosophy of “thakin” organization was that Burmese are “thakin” because they were born and grow and live in Burma. So English men are not “thakin” in Burma. They even condemned the people who call “thakin” to English men. Later that for those who put “thakin” in front of their name was sentenced to 6 months in prison by British law.

As George Orwell was an English man and imperial police sergeant, he must have been called “thakin” during those days in Burma. He must also have a sense that Burmese people would not like the fact that the describing unbalance situation between local and foreign people in his Burmese Days but it was the reality of society in those days. And those realistic descriptions attracted people politically and historically in recent days.

Much of the book’s beauty comes from Orwell’s eye for detail. Perhaps more though-provoking are Orwell’s snatches of dialogue, so disturbing that they could only have been taken from real-life examples and so it was. Consider this exchange between a member of the club and the club butler:
“Butler!”
“Yes, master?”
“How much ice have we got left?”
“About 20 pounds, master. Will only last today, I think.
I find it very difficult to keep ice cool now.”
“Don’t you talk like that, damn you-‘I find it very difficult!’
Have you swallowed a dictionary? ‘Please, master, can’t keeping
ice cool’-that’s how you ought to talk. We shall have to sack this
fellow if he gets to talk English too well. I can’t stick with
servants who talk English. D’you hear, butler?” Burmese Days, 23.

The common sense behind George Orwell’s realistic expression of conversation gave readers the picture of colonial environment.

His description:
In the living-room behind the curtain a table was already set out
with a huge bowl of rice and a dozen of plates containing
curries, dried prawns and sliced green mangoes. U Po Kyin
waddled to the table, sat down with a grunt and at once
threw himself on the food. Ma Khin, his wife, stood behind
him and served him ….. With the bowl close to his nose he
stuffed the food into himself with swift greasy fingers,
breathing fast. Burmese Days, 10.

It shows the typical Burmese breakfast table from certain region of the country. Generally, typical Burmese people eat big amount of rice in the morning as breakfast and mangoes are seasonal fruit, which is only available from the month of February until June. It is a period of hot season.

His description also symbolized the Burmese culture eating rice with hand, which is slightly changing the habit at the present time in most capital cities. But it is clear enough that George Orwell could describe the manner of one Burmese man at his breakfast table.

For the Burmese readers, usage like “Ingaleik fashion” Burmese Days page 11, line 8; “paso of Mandalay silk” Burmese Days page 11, line 16; are very specific description of the writing about Burmese items. It gives a good sense of real Burmese feeling to the Burmese readers.

Obviously the word “Ingaleik” means English, and Burmese people also pronounce “English” as “Ingaleik” in its own tongue. It sounds very typical pronouncing it as “Ingaleik” except some peculiar educated people.

George Orwell did his purpose successfully giving a picture of Burmese man’s room decoration into the eye of Burmese people vividly. He must have understood the degree of variation of certain Burmese words after living in the country half of decade.

And “paso of Mandalay silk” gave a vision of paso; Burmese wearing for men, usually made from Mandalay with good quality of silk which is still very popular until recent time. So one reader will easily pick up the idea of “paso of Mandalay silk” must be a quality wearing with decent pattern of embodies on it.

In fact, Mandalay has very unique custom, unlike any other cities in the country as it was the last dynasty of Burmese monarchy. The dialog, the traditional wearing and its design are still demonstrating the remaining characteristic of monarchy.

George Orwell referred “longyi” describing of woman wearing fashion instead of “paso”. The description:
Ma Hla May was a woman of twenty-two or –three, and
perhaps five feet tall. She was dressed in a longyi of pale
blue embroidered Chinese satin, and a starched white muslin
ingyi on which several gold lockets hung…” Burmese Days,
51.

In fact, the Burmese “longyi” a sarong-like nether garment is an integral part of the Burmese national dress worn by men as well as the fairer sex. It is basically a piece of cloth sown into a cylindrical tube, slipped over the head by men and stepped into by the women and tucked in at the waist. Men and women however fasten their “longyi” at the waist in different ways. Men fold the garment into two panels and knot it neatly at waist level. In George Orwell days the knot was tied neatly and sported a triangular flap. For the ladies it is a wrap-around skirt tucked in at the side of the waist. It may be wrapped from right to left, which is more common, or from left to right, depending on the comfort of the wearer. The term “longyi” refers to this nether garment in general for both men and women. To further differentiate between men and women wear, the garment for men is know as “paso”, as George Orwell’s description “paso” in U Po Kyin’s wearing, and for women ”htamein” but there were no “htamein” expression in Burmese Days except “longyi” referring to women. But it is still true to saying the word “longyi” for women wearing.

Understanding through this idea, George Orwell described his man, U Po Kyin, in his novel with the character of wearing expensive paso as he gave clear picture of a certain level of Burmese men would wear Mandalay paso since his time in Burma.

Formerly top wear for the ladies consisted of a waist-length blouse known as an “ingyi” which George Orwell described quite frequently whenever he spoke of Burmese lady wearing. The blouse had a squarish flap that was buttoned at the side, somewhat like the top half of the Chinese Cheongsam. The blouse had no fixed buttons, just loops. Buttons of all shapes and colors would then be fastened on these loops. Each button had a ring through which the loop would be passed and then slipped over the button to keep it in place. There were always five loops for the set of five detachable buttons, one below at the front, three at the side and one at the neckline. The ladies could thus keep a variety of buttons and select them to match the skirt and blouse to be worn. Wealthy ladies wore buttons of gold and diamons, rubies, sapphires, pearls and other precious and semi-precious gems. George Orwell’s Ma Hla May in Burmese Days would be a symbol of wealthy women’s fashion from those days.

One may noticed that there were U Po Kyin, Ko S’la, Ma Khin, Ma Hla May of Burmese name were outstanding in George Orwell’s characters. “U” is used the honorable attention for the men of around 40 years and later ages. “At seventeen he had tried for a Government appointment,… Po Kyin (he was plain Po Kyin then: honorific U came years later)..” Burmese Days, p.2 l.18 “Ko” is used for calling somewhat friendly rank and to younger ages. “Ma” is used, in general, for calling to the girls or women by friends or same age people but referring to women by another people would be use “Daw”. So that sort of syllable is clearly described in George Orwell’s characters and playing synchronized position in each level. Almost every syllable has its meaning in Myanmar language. Names of towns, names of people, all have meanings.
And they are interesting. Example:
Myanmar NamesMeanings 
AungsucceedSunday born
HlabeautifulWednesday born
TaikdeserveSaturday born
KhinfriendlyMonday born
NyuntblossomTuesday born
Sangood fortuneTuesday born
WinbrightWednesday born
Yaminbeautiful dancing dollWednesday born
ZawoutstandingTuesday born

The table describes typical Burmese names which symbolize not only the meaningful description but also its standard for the day of week when the person was born. If you know the name of Burmese, you can easily tell when the person was born according to the sequence of Burmese alphabets. In the West, you may find a person with the last name "Edison" (Edi+son) like Thomas Edison. That means son of Edi or Edward. Jefferson will mean "son of Jeffery", and so on. Burmese has not last name but named by astrological circulation based upon the time, event and place of the person are born.

The beauties of George Orwell’s understanding of Burmese culture are not only in the characters of people but also in the way of their thinking and expression of fundamental Buddhist philosophy in Burma. Burmese Days readers will get an idea of how Buddhists though of incarnation and how to achieve good merit in next life by doing good things as building pagodas, offering foods to priests or buying alive fishes and set them free in the river. Burmese Days, p.3 l.31 and p.12 l.35.

Woman Fashion before Colonial timeMan Fashion before Colonial time


Woman Fashion during Colonial timeTypical Burmese men at Camp



Arrangement of “pwe” during Colonial time



Arrangement of “pwe” at present time


Greeting gestures(shikoe) of Buddha



Monk and woman “shikoe” to Buddha image



People “shikoe” to the monk


In general the characteristic of Burmese wives are very obedient to husband. As George Orwell portrayed U Po Kyin’s wife, Ma Khin, a very obedient housewife and pretty much tend to believing in religion and even persuaded her husband not to do evil things to others. Burmese Days, 12.

Some piece of his writings contains the sense of Burmese evoking expression: “Ah ma lay! These cuts are full of dirt” Burmese Days Page 196 line 8 described the exclamation coming out from Burmese man gave certain degree of Burmese expression and George Orwell used quite well in his writing.

It is not about he applied not only those Burmese words but also he did use certain Indian words in his Burmese Days. “mali” p.16 l.14, “chokra” p.23 l.23, “durwan” p.49 l.16, are pure Indian words which are generally used to call the Indian workers. Because of cheap Indian labors working among the English community, people are naturally referring to the particular type of Indian workers with its own language instead of using with neither English nor Burmese words. “mali” means the gardener, “chokras” means the young Indian boy, and “durwan” means the security guard at the entrance gate. It appeared to the fact that both English and Burmese people used those words as it was to referring to the person, and it became common words in evolution of Burmese language until the present time to calling someone with that particular type of job.

But it is for sure to saying that George Orwell has this amazing ability to absorb and apply the foreign language giving the taste and vision of the reality to the readers.

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