An Incident in Rangoon

One of Orwell’s preliminary sketches for Burmese Days.

Here for awhile I abandon autobiography & commence fiction writer.˚ That is, the main facts of the story here told[1] are known to me, & I supplied the rest out of my imagination. I take so much[2] trouble because this chain of events led to my downfall; not however by any real poetic justice, but simply through coincidence. Nevertheless I am, after all, here in Nyaunglebin through my own fault, for if this mischance had not come my way, there was bound to have been some other. My own temperament & way of living had made sure that I would fall in any trap of this kind that fortune laid me.

One night, then, soon after I went to Kyauktada, I called for poker dice in the club. Lackersteen & I were arguing about who should call for drinks, each maintaining that it was his own turn.

“Very well,” said I, “We’ll toss for it. The winner calls. Boy, bringing poker dice.”

“No poker dice, sir.”

“What! No poker dice!”[3]

“No sir, Last secretary sahib stopping, sir. Secretary sahib telling me throwing away poker dice, sir.”

“A damned high handed action,” said I, & the next day I ordered a set from Rangoon. The evening of the day they arrived was an[4] evening of torrential rain, which hammered onto the roves with deafening & dreary persistence. It was the last onslaught of the wet weather. As I got into my car to go to [the] club I remembered the poker dice, & took them along with me.

I[5] found the club empty & spent a dismal hour smoking cigarettes & reading the shiny papers, while the stupid rain still poured down out of the skies. At eight[6] o’clock[7] it cleared up suddenly, & at a quarter past, when I was about to shout for my car, Thein Shwe came in, & we had a drink together. Thein Shwe began fingering the leather dice box;

“What is this for, please, Mr Flory?”

“It is a game,” I said, “designed for men whose minds are unequal to the strain of thought.”

“How do you play it, yes?”

I explained the game, & Thein Shwe began to tell me of how much he had wanted to go[8] to the Races in Rangoon on Saturday, & how much he feared that his father would never give him the money. Besides, his father was going to Rangoon himself tomorrow, (this was Wednesday,) & life altogether was difficult for the gay sons of pious fathers. Then he produced all the money he had in the world, which was five rupees, & we began to throw the dice at a rupee a throw. I had no money on me, but played with matches, & at the end sent Ko S’Hla[9] home in the car for money. Shwe Thein’s˚ luck was astounding, & he threw five aces more than a dozen times in the evening. When he had won thirty five rupees off me, I threw him double or quits, & he won again. After this we both went home.

How much I wish that I could tell this as the tale of a Young Man’s Ruin, & how I, the Tempter, sowed the Fatal Passion in his breast, & thereby reaped the bitter crop of my own undoing! It is so much more satisfying to trace one’s fate to a single[10] Sin, rather than to weakness & native idiocy. But a man’s acts are not thus significant & separable; & though in outward seeming they make up the history of his life, they are in truth only the by-products of the greater life which goes on[11] in his mind & spirit. The fact which matters is[12] not I supplied Shwe Thein˚ with money to gamble, & that his gambling led by chance to the detection of my misdeeds, but that I was a fool & scoundrel who must have destroyed himself, if not in one way, then in another. Besides, I never taught Shwe Thein to gamble; like most Mongolians, he did not need teaching. It[13] is a native taste of these people, as drunkenness is with us.

Next morning Ba Sein came to [the] office with a sad face & a grimy sheet of ruled note paper, which said that his little brother was dying, & he must come to Rangoon at once. So I asked him about the little brother, & Ba Sein told me he was a boy of rare promise, but a few years back he had shown the signs of consumption, & they had sent him to the Shan States in hopes of curing him. This, & the doctor’s bills, were a great strain on the family, & Ba Sein himself had had to leave the shop where he was learning engineering, & take up a clerkship. The little brother grew no better, & they sent him from place to place, never abandoning hope. At one time he stayed with Ba Sein himself, & Ba Sein, though he worked all day, often had to stay half the night at the sick boy’s bedside. So he was tired at his work, & was dismissed from that office for idleness,[14] & there was a long period of months when the brother grew rapidly worse for lack of comforts & medicine. And now as a last hope[15] they had brought him to the Rangoon Hospital; but it was no use,[16] & Ba Sein wished only to see his brother alive for the last time, & to close his eyes when they could see no more.

I knew all this was a lie from start to finish. But I thought how sad it would have been if true, & how painful it must be to[17] confine one’s sorrows between a Friday & a Monday, & then come back to the brisk & banal tasks of an office. I was touched by the quiet stoicism with which Ba Sein faced his quite imaginary misfortunes, & I gave him two[18] days’ leave & thirty rupees advance from his pay. So when Ba Sein & Thein Shwe set out for Rangoon on Friday[19] they had about a hundred rupees between them; & as they travelled as deck passengers, nearly[20] all this was left them to bet[21] with.

They got to Rangoon on Saturday morning, & at once went along to the house of Ba Sein’s uncle, where they were going to stay. The uncle was a head clerk in a government office, drawing about two hundred rupees a month. He had a nice house in Kemmendine, & a daughter at school who talked English & wore[22] European clothes. Morning after morning he ate his breakfast at half past eight, twisted up his long hair under a pink silk gaungbaung, & ran for the tram with a black cheroot[23] in his mouth. On Sundays he took his wife & daughter to the Zoo or the Park, & sometimes to a football match on Saturdays. On public holidays he went to the Pagoda to pray and watch the pwes[24]. He was a man of exemplary character, but like many elderly Burmans he liked to believe that he had been a lu hmike (a bold blade)[25] in his youth, & had led a terrible life with gambling & women. When the two young men arrived & said they were going to the races, he told them of how he had once won two thousand rupees, & spent it all in a fortnight. Then he hurried away to [the] office as usual.

Thein Shwe & Ba Sein went to the races, & by some astounding chance won five thousand rupees. About two thirds of this belonged to Thein Shwe. They were rendered almost delirious by their good fortune, & were ready to listen to any scheme for burning money. They fell in with a Burman who wanted to sell a motor bicycle & side car, & demanded a trial run along the Prome Road. Six miles out the back tyre was ripped off & the inner tube split in half. The owner of the bicycle had no spare tube. Thein Shwe & Ba Sein had never meant to buy the machine, & they hailed a taxi that was passing & went back to Rangoon. The owner of the bicycle was left on the road, almost weeping at his loss and disappointment. But the two millionaires had no pity for him.

They struck up a friendship with the driver of the taxi, & he took them to a Chinese eating shop, where they all had dinner. Then, to begin the evening, Thein Shwe led the way to a restauraunt˚ patronized mostly by Europeans, & going in, called for beer. The proprietor, the European guests, & the barboys all looked askance at the two Burmans, but they could do nothing. Thein Shwe was defiant in manner, but Ba Sein was rather timid until after his second beer. After their second beer, Thein Shwe called for brandy cocktails, & they drank two each. Ba Sein then bought a tin of cigarettes, & began to offer them to all the men in the bar. The white men all refused rather offensively, except for a young boy just out from home, who was too bashful not to accept. Thein Shwe clapped him on the shoulder, & said he was “a jolly good fellow.” Then he suddenly began to sing “For he’s a jolly good fellow;” the boy[26] blushed & looked acutely miserable, & a young man with fair hair walked across to Thein Shwe & said “You’d better clear out of here, or I’ll put you out myself.”

“Who the hell are you?” cried Thein Shwe.

The man with fair hair caught him by the shoulder & began to push him to the door. Thein Shwe broke loose & would have struck him, but the other white men intervened, & the two Burmans were ejected. They then got into their taxi again, & went off to a low dive where they drank Beehive Brandy. After an hour of this they asked the taxi driver to show them the way to some women, & he replied that it was late at night but he would do his best. // The car moved eastwards through the now quiet streets, & finally halted in a little evil-smelling alley full of shuttered houses dimly lighted within. The taxi driver went[27] up to one of the houses, knocked on the door, & began to call out.

“Ko Pa! Ko Pa! Hey, Ko Pa!” After two or three minutes, as there was no response, he knocked with all his might, at which a dog began an angry yelping, & a woman’s voice from within suddenly screamed out as though in terror.

“Who’s that?”

The taxi driver said something in a reassuring tone, & after[28] somebody had looked out of an upper window, the door opened & an enormously fat man came out, carrying a lantern in his hand. The lantern[29] showed a bedraggled dead rat lying on the doorstep, & shone dimly upon the man’s huge belly, for he was half naked,[30] & his great pockmarked face. He was scratching his side with his free hand, & though apparently half asleep, was chewing betel. His front teeth were mostly gold, & this with the betel juice gleamed an unearthly red in the lamplight. After a few words with the taxi driver, he called to someone within, & then sat on[31] his heels, giving many noisy yawns. Presently an old woman appeared, & then a thin boy, blind in one eye but with a sweet childlike face. The boy was sent off somewhere on a bicycle, & the others sat down to wait: the stench of the dead rat seemed to grow stronger each minute, & the cur never ceased to yelp & snarl. Thein Shwe, Ba Sein, the driver & the bawds[32] were all half dead with sleep.

In about twenty minutes a young woman in a blue longyi came down the road, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes & grumbling at the lateness of the hour. The one eyed boy explained that this was the only girl he could get. The others, he said, had all gone out somewhere. Thein Shwe now became a little more alert, & began to ask who lived in all the houses round about. It appeared they were mostly prostitutes.

“Who lives in that house?” he asked, pointing at a house a little way down the road, which, though shuttered up, appeared to be brightly lighted within.

“Ah, there is nothing doing there. That’s the second wife of a diamond merchant from Moulmein. He’s a very rich man.”

“Well, so am I. I’m going into that house.”

“There is nothing doing, I tell you.”

But Thein Shwe was in a perverse & drunken mood.

“Drive the car down opposite the house,” he said. “I’m going to have a look inside.”

“Ah ma lay! he is mad!” protested the driver.

“Go on. Drive it down. What are you afraid of?”

The driver obeyed, though he was now growing a little sulky, for his fare had run up to more than sixty rupees, & he was not quite certain of getting it. When they were opposite the house, Thein Shwe climbed onto the top of the car, & leaned against the window shutters, at the top of which was a broad crack of light. Here for a moment he swayed drunkenly, & his head rolled heavily upon his breast, but he recovered himself, & stared into the room.

It was much like many other Burmese rooms in Rangoon. The floor was covered with mats, but there was a little European furniture; namely two or three straight backed chairs & a round table, all covered with cloths of Burmese lace work. There was a bowl of roses on the table, a grandfather clock, not going, & a shrine, also covered with lace, with three candles burning in it.[33] Framed advertisements for Japanese beer hung on the walls, & a petrol lamp from the ceiling. What Thein Shwe looked at, however, was a girl sitting on the mats, smoking a cigarette. She was wearing a longyi of pale blue flowered Chinese satin, & had many gold ornaments on her wrists & about her neck. She was possibly nineteen years old, had an oval[34] face of fair complexion, very elegant & calm, but with a hard mercenary expression. She looked rather like an evil-minded doll. // But Thein Shwe was in a strange mood between[35] drunkenness & sleep, so that lust moved him with a peculiar heavy power. At this moment the girl seemed to him the most desirable in the world, & her cold face & rich clothes seemed to double her value. He determined that by hook or by crook the girl must be his, & that for him to lose her would be simply an absurd injustice. He felt that he had a first call upon all living women, & that any woman must submit to him if he would only exert his power. So he began to scheme how he should enter the house; for when that was done, he felt, the battle was over.

But[36] at this moment a door in the room opened, & Thein Shwe saw his rival face to face; an old man with a sad & noble face, & grey hair gallantly knotted. He took the cigarette from the girl’s mouth, & sat down beside her.

By gis, & by St Charity,
Alack & fie for shame.
Old men will do it-[37]

Thein Shwe swayed on his car & almost fell, for the diamond merchant from Moulmein was his venerable father!


[1] told ] known to

[2] so much ] this

[3] Not indented in manuscript, and no end quote

[4] an ] dreary

[5] I ] At the club I

[6] eight ] a quarter past eight

[7] o’clock ] o’clock when I wo˚ the

[8] go ] go to Rangoon

[9] Compare with Ko S’la of Burmese Days

[10] a single ] inserted

[11] on ] in on

[12] fact which matters is ] facts which matter are

[13] It ] It was bred in him

[14] idleness ] slack idleness

[15] as a last hope ] inserted

[16] it was no use ] all hope was given up

[17] to ] to be given three days’ leave

[18] two ] three

[19] on Friday ] inserted

[20] nearly ] they had nearly

[21] bet ] gamble started but not completed

[22] wore ] inserted

[23] cheroot ] cigar

[24] Flory, in Burmese Days, explains to Elizabeth, ‘They’re having a pwe-that’s a kind of Burmese play; a cross between a historical drama and a revue’ (CW, II, 104).

[25] Orwell’s translation of lu hmike is a little doubtful. Until recently the meaning was ‘a stupid man’, possibly with the implication of ‘hooligan’ or ‘tearaway.’ In recent slang it has come to mean ‘clever’ or ‘neat.’

[26] boy ] young boy

[27] went ] went to

[28] after ] after an upper window

[29] lantern ] lantern betrayed

[30] for he was half naked ] inserted

[31] on ] inserted

[32] bawds ] brothel-keepers

[33] in it ] inserted

[34] oval ] inserted

[35] between ] of

[36] But ] But that

[37] See Hamlet, 4.5.58-60

Peter Davison, from the Complete Works

Written 1926-1930?, handwritten in pencil on unidentifiable paper, CW 74. Preliminary sketch for Burmese Days