Orwell’s Burmese home

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George Orwell, whose real name was Eric Blair, lived at this house during his service as a colonial police officer in Burma.

James Fable visits Katha, a former colonial outpost on the banks of the Ayeyarwady and
the setting of George Orwell’s first novel. Photos by the writer.

“Burmese Days is a good book, but even better are Orwell’s second two about Burma,
Animal Farm and 1984.”

So runs a common joke made about the days of military rule in Myanmar. Of course, of
Orwell’s “Burmese trilogy” only Burmese Days could be bought, since its anti-colonial
overtones were thought to validate the junta’s “Burmanisation project”—their attempt
to reforge a national identity after colonialism had shifted the country’s ethnic
demographics.

Most expats have read Burmese Days, Orwell’s first novel, and while it isn’t his best it’s
certainly relatable. In particular, he captures the expat’s love-hate relationship for the
country, and the isolation felt upon returning home after long periods abroad. Some
would even argue that contemporary expat society is redolent of his colonial characters.

The setting for Burmese Days was Katha, fictionalized to Kyauktada in the novel, and
George Orwell, whose real name was Eric Blair, lived there from 1926-1927 while
serving as a colonial police officer. Several buildings that feature in the book linger, and
the Katha hotel, whose architecture evokes the colonial period, provides brochures with
key buildings identified. The map is tiny and unclear, but you can work with it.

The grandest structure still standing is the Deputy Commissioner’s Office, comparable
to the colonial mansions in Pyin Oo Lwin, albeit not as magnificent. Originally Mr
Macgregor’s residence, its interior is filled with colonial-era pictures and with
information boards (all in Myanmar language) about George Orwell. The upstairs is
dusty and decaying. You can collect the key for the padlocked gate from the grey house
opposite.Pi

One hundred meters down the road sits the 1924 tennis club and the British club. The
latter, which now serves as an association office, is a half-timbered structure whose
upstairs has been renovated. The old bar stores broken fans, empty petrol cans and a
shinning Yamibisi motor. The downstairs classroom, conversely, is the original and has
been well maintained.

I timed my arrival at the tennis court with a training session, and one of the club’s
regular 10 members invited me for a game that afternoon. The lines had been repainted, but the court needed resurfacing and the net looked to be a colonial relic. I leaned on it while collecting a ball—and suddenly collapsed. The wire inside the white lining had snapped. I had destroyed the single nice legacy left by my countrymen—what would
George have said?

Had I been a Burman in the colonial days, I would no doubt have received numerous
lashings. But my hosts just laughed, assuring me it was “no problem,” and began
repairing the wire.

George Orwell lived in the two-storey police-commissioner’s house, which is now home
to the township police commander. Unsure whether I could enter, I tip-toed in, and was
ushered to the upper floor by an elderly lady. However, the upstairs was bare and in
need of renovation.

The residences of the book’s protagonist John Flory, Dr Veraswami, the Indian Anglophile, and the Lackersteens, guardians of Flory’s beloved Elizabeth, still stand but are by no means must-sees. The old prison and St. Paul’s Anglican Church, however, are worth a look.

Katha boasts a pleasing setting on the Ayeyarwady River and can be accessed by boat,
train or bus. Whether travelling downstream or upstream, the IWT ferries dock here at
midnight; if you want to see the scenery, take the speedboat.

Katha lies on the banks of the Ayeyarwady.

I arrived on the full moon of Nyaungyaythone Pwedaw, when Buddhist worshippers
pour water over Banyan trees to celebrate the birth, englightenment and death of
Buddha. Everyone wore their best traditional dress, girls sported sprigs of jasmine in
their hair, smiles were ubiqutious. I was encouraged to join in the fun, which quickly got
me in the festival spirit.

Street food stalls materialize in the town centre at evening, and several neo-colonial
buildings are dotted round town, as well as teak ones near the riverside, where women
come to wash their clothes, beating them dry with wooden paddles. Besides the
Burmese Days attractions, I visited a sleepy Chinese temple near the old prison, and a
couple of elegant pagodas. Along from the sizeable pagoda occupying the northern end
of Strand Road is a couple of beauty parlours offering upper body massages for a mere
3,000 kyats.

Accommodation options range from classy to basic. The best is the boutique Katha Hotel
(US$18-43, including breakfast), which has an attached restaurant and offers Wi-Fi. For
budget travellers there's the riverfront Ayeyarwady Guesthouse, where for 8,000 kyats you get a simple single room with a fan and share squat toilets prone to blocking. However, for rural Myanmar it isn’t so bad.

None of the Burmese Days buildings are advertised as attractions, and Katha receives
few tourists each year, but for literature lovers, as well as those seeking a relaxing
riverside break, Katha is certainly worth a visit.

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