trumpeted their bugle call and the Burmese stirred from under their thick
blankets as the glimmer of light slowly conquered the black of night merging
into a light orange hue. No one escaped the baritone bark of the station master
as he yelled to the sleepers on the platform to get up because he had to sweep
the accumulated debris of betel juice and cigarette butts onto the tracks.
Women gathered in groups combing their hair and applied yellow powder to their
faces while men smoked cheroots and popped their first betel nut of the day.
Monks arranged their robes and packed their bundles as teenagers hustled in
bags of rice from a truck outside the station entrance to a place beside the
tracks, bringing with them a baptismal energy that ushered in the new day.
rolling ahead deeper into the mountains, the terrain was steep but dense with
jungle. Massive teak trees reached to the sky sticking out of the thick
foliage, a world cut off from man, enclosing the colonial relic in its arms.
this was the same route George Orwell took to Katha over eighty years ago,
Thomas opened Burmese Days again to read more about his life in Upper
Burma. Having not noticed before, there was a map included in the Introduction
to the book that Orwell apparently sketched on a napkin and gave to his
publisher. A rough sketch that showed the colonial compound where he drank oily
gin at the officers club that to most readers meant nothing, for Thomas so
close to Katha it became a challenge to find out exactly where he spent his
nights writing and exchanging stories with his fellow police officers.
was still studying Orwell's map when the train arrived at Naba station. Happy
to be off the train after twenty hours, he thought the fat man should have
reserved two seats because of his girth.
had changed at Naba train station since the British left. Inside the brick
office there was a telephone with the winding arm, a Morse code device, and a
World War Two-style radio that was still used. Even the handheld railway flags
used to communicate with incoming and passing trains still hung folded on the
wall above the radio and a Chubb London safe. Burmese sauntered in and
out of the ticket office wrapped in their blankets like ancient Hebrews.
he found the right truck to Katha, which is an hour away, Thomas shook the fat
man's hand and climbed aboard the back of the overloaded truck, the sun coming
up from behind the teak-treed mountains. Standing on mounds of luggage with a
dozen other people who stared at him, the hour commute to Katha was downright
fun ducking tree branches and overhead telephone lines and gingerly crossing
broken bridges that creaked with the weight of the truck. It was a pleasure to
stretch out his legs as they barrelled through washouts and thick jungle in a
fifty-year old truck jam-packed with standing passengers. He took out his
baggie of betel nut, offered one to the toothless man beside him, and popped
one into his mouth.
was a sleepy little village with few people and no foreigners to be seen
anywhere. In the center of town he bought more betel
nut at the local betel nut stand where he shared a laugh when he chose the
condiments by pointing. The half-dozen men refrained from an unfriendly word
that usually followed a transaction like this when in China. The smell of
sun-dried orchids made it all surreal somehow in the comfortable haze of betel
juice. Just to play out the scene Thomas popped a
betel nut there in front of the boys, which seemed to establish the coolness of
the new foreigner to return to Orwell's Kyauktada. (Orwell's publisher told him
he had to change the town name Katha to Kyauktada because some
characters in the book were still living and in power in Burma). In total he
spent six years in Burma, but it was Katha where he set his story of expatriate
loneliness and the pangs of living where reason was impossible. Throwing his
backpack over his shoulder in a somewhat dramatic fashion, he mock-saluted the
betel nut boys and then followed his nose to the river where the guesthouses
Essentially cut off from the world and only
accessible by riverboat, the truck ride alone ensured its isolation from the
world, allowing it to nurture its colonial inheritance and thrive untouched by
the headaches of modernity. When he reached the Irrawaddy River where there only two guesthouses, he chose to stay
at a real colonial relic. When he saw his room he had no idea how he would be
able to sleep in a room with a centimeter of pure dust on the windowsills. But
it didn't matter; he only needed a place to throw his stuff and shower. With
this done, he left with his map in hand and then made finding transportation
his first task.
went to a cluster of bicycle taxis at the river's edge hoping to find a driver
who spoke English but there were no riders around, so he approached a bystander
and pointed to the bikes and gestured ‘where are they?' The bystander
pointed to a café on the river. Inside the café that had a strong odor of
garlic, dried fish, dust and sweat, he asked a man if he rode one of the bikes
outside by pointing. Answering in the affirmative, Thomas pulled out his
compass to get his bearings and they left down the road along the river.
in the sidecar, he looked at the map from tablet 33 and confirmed that he was
searching for a Christian church near a large pagoda beside the river.
Following the Irrawaddy along a road that was a blend concrete and dirt, within
minutes the cyclist was sweating heavily. Popping a betel nut, he offered his
rider a nut for good measure. Surprised a foreigner chewed, he accepted it and
warmed to him as he slipped on his sunglasses and enjoyed the scenery. There
was something soft about Katha, different than Mandalay and Rangoon, a sort of
karma or feng sui that had an effect on the townsfolk. Shouts of "Hello"
were in a kinder tone and lacked any malice or hostility that usually
underpinned greetings in other Asian towns. The children were happy, not
desperate. There was space on the streets to play and talk unlike the narrow
avenues of Rangoon or the crowded side streets of Mandalay. Both the men and
women were wired on tea and betel nut so that there was a serendipitous energy
that he felt as he explored Orwell's old haunt. With its avenue shops and
colonial buildings left untouched under drooping trees, the crush of the
wrecking ball had missed Katha much to its advantage. Kids played netless
badminton at the side of the road, waving at Thomas as he passed.
around a bend in the river, there was a huge yellow pagoda surrounded by
colonial buildings in a compound walled-in by a stone fence. It was the pagoda
that caused him to clue in that it was the same pagoda on the map. Visually,
the entire layout fit proportionally with the small map in his hand but he
didn't see a church. Matching the lines on the map to the buildings surrounding
the big gold pagoda, Thomas experienced the same tingling sensation as he had
in Mandalay: part thrill and part sheer intensity. But was also like a déjà
vu. He paid the bike-taxi man and walked towards the open field that looked
like an old enclosed park.
old jail fifty yards away with guards patrolling wooden lookout towers perched
on the four corners of a huge wall was beautiful to the eye but increased his
paranoia of being watched. The map was old enough to predate at least two roads
between the central pagoda and the far end of the old walled-in compound near
some quaint colonial homes, and it didn't include the jail. He explored until
his feet ached but still he couldn't see a church so he sat at the foot of the
pagoda and wondered if there might be a place up river that had a church.
Enjoying the layout and architecture of the buildings in the compound, Thomas
was just about to get a taxi to go down river to look for the church when he experienced
another déjà vu but this time he knew why: this was George Orwell's old
flipped through Burmese Days to the map. It had the same lines as the
map from the sacred tablet monastery in Mandalay except the colonial buildings
were labeled as well as the jail. Then it occurred to him that there was a jail
in Orwell's novel.
can't be," he said into the wind.
front of him was the fenced-in old colonial courtyard where the novel took
place. According to the map Orwell sketched on a napkin, one of the official
looking colonial buildings along the waterfront was the police officer's club
where Orwell drank his oily gin. It was a yellow two-story number with wooden
shutters and a flagpole base that still had a British wreath. Climbing up the
weathered stone steps, the monks squatting there let Thomas peek into the club.
The floors, walls and ceiling were hardwood and the riverside wall had huge
windows overlooking the water, so it was easy to imagine Orwell and the boys
lazing with their gin fizzes in the afternoon breeze. The bar surrounded the
north wall with a concave epicenter where the bottles of whiskey and brandy no
doubt were parked. It was if he had stepped back eighty years to British India.
any town in India," Orwell had written on page 14 in the novel, "the European
Club is the spiritual citadel and real seat if the British power, the Nirvana
for which native officials and millionaires pine in vain. It was doubly so in
this case for it was the proud boast of Kyanktada [Katha] Club
that, almost alone of Clubs in Burma, it had never admitted an Oriental to
membership. Beyond the Club, the Irrawaddy flowed huge and ochreous, glittering
like diamonds in the patches that caught the sun; and beyond the river
stretched great wastes of paddy fields, ending at the horizon in a range of
to Orwell's watering hole was a building of the same colonial architecture
twice as large but with the six-inch wooden bars in the window. It was the old
police station where Orwell worked. Next to the police station and slightly in
from the river were the law courts, a square two-story affair with a small
front veranda that housed a bell. These buildings in the walled-in compound
formed the crux of what Orwell called the maiden.
Having checked all the buildings on his Orwell's map,
Thomas wanted to find Orwell's old house near the jail so he left the maiden,
passed the pagoda and looked for his house from among a row of homes on the
street where the jail was. Orwell's house was marked beside a cemetery but
there were many new structures not on his map. Down the road and past a house
on stilts with a rusted roof and hidden by overgrown trees, Thomas found an old
wooden archway that looked like it could have once been a graveyard. There were
no gravestones but the earth was uneven in a ten-by-twenty path of ground. It
was then that he went back to the rusted-roofed house on stilts that at first
glance he thought was a shack about to fall down, but then he saw the small
rusted cross above the door.
church was a haphazard affair with tin walls and rusted roof with a small
modest cross at its apex that was outside of the boundary of Mandalay map.
Thomas hopped over a decaying picket fence overgrown with weeds onto long grass
that was soft and carried with it a strong whiff of snake pit. Its foundation
had almost completely worn away and termites had eaten through the wood but
somehow it still stood. Up the front steps he saw thriteen olive branches above
the front door in pewtered lead, the symbol for the tribe of Manessah. Beside
it was :
pewtered lead was fastened into place by some divine will. A lantern made of
the same material as the insignia was just under the small roof. The number 13
carved into the soft lead of the lantern could barely be seen. Dripping with
sweat and with the rust skinning his hands, he used his knife to jimmy the
latch behind the lantern but it fell, glass shattering by his feet. Immediately
he sensed a guard watching him from the jail but when he saw a piece of paper
tied with a string he put it into his pocket without stopping to look at it.
Almost recklessly with sweat dripping from the tip of his nose, Thomas ran his
fingers through the pile of glass to make sure there wasn't anything else in
the lantern. Feeling something cold like metal he clutched it, and in one quick
movement put the metal object in his front pocket, feeling glass slice his
away from the church with his head down, the excitement in his gut turned to
raw fear. With his heart thumping and slipping on his sunglasses, when he
reached the road he walked in the other direction to the jail convinced someone
was watching him from the corner tower. Hardly able to contain his anxiety, he
hailed a tricycle and asked to go to the Methodist Church. Thomas was in a
state of numb stasis until they were rolling downhill in the tricycle going
east. Finally in the distance the old Methodist Church founded by Eugenio Kin
Days, Orwell, p.14