Wordcarpenter Books

Chapter Twenty 


 

Finding Orwell

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Roosters 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.

Soon 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.

Knowing 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.

Thomas 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.

Nothing 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.

Once 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.

Katha 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 were.

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.

He 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.

Sitting 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.

Finally, 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.

An 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 haunt!

Thomas 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.

"It can't be," he said into the wind.

In 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.

"In 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 blackish hills."[1]

Next 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.

The 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 :

IJS

Its 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 thumb.

Walking 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 Kaid appeared.

 


[1] Burmese Days, Orwell, p.14 

 
 
 
 
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Part One - Canada
1.      The Twin From the East Returns  
2.      The Sundancer  
3.      Waxing Gibbous 
4.      The Second Coming of the Messiah 
5.      The Sacred Twin Story 
6.      The Sign of the Pahana 
7.      Palongawhoya and Poqanghoya 
8.      Rainbow Thunderbird and Red Phoenix 
9.      The True White Brother 
10.    The Lost Louis Riel Notebooks 
 
Part Two - Hong Kong
11.    A Mixture of Revulsion and Pity 
12.    A Classroom of Scallywags 
13.    Illegitimati non Carborundum 
14.    The Distant Fire of Empyrean
 
Part Three - Burma
15.    The Monastery of Sacred Tablets 
16.    The Outpost of Tyranny 
17.    When the 12th Moon Comes 
18.    The Pigeon Left & the Crow Took His Place 
19.    Go North and Find Your People 
20.    Finding Orwell 
21.    Though the Monkey is in a Hurry, the Tree Branch is Not 
22.    The Castle at God's Toes 
23.    The General and Sergeant Betel Nut 
24.    The Tattooed Station Master 
25.    Reverend Crow's Life's Work 
26.    Yield Not to Adversity, But Press on More Bravely 
27.    A Bitter Cuppa Tea 
28.    The Thirteenth Tribe 
29.    When a Lamp is Lit You Must Expect Insects 
30.    John the Christian 
31.    A Guardian Angel Named Hanna 
32.    The Bar Car & Betel Nut 
33.    The Son of Light 
34.    Slipping the Karmic Knot
 
Part Four - Hong Kong
35.    The Tonsure Warning 
36.    The Phoenix Reborn 
37.    Touching the Empyrean 
38.    Joshua the Gatekeeper 
 
Part Five - Canada
39.    Lapsit Exillis 
40.    Thunderstones 
41.    The Time of Great Purification  
         
 
 

  
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