Assistant Superintendent of Police in the Indian Imperial Police Force, Eric Arthur Blair, was based in Upper Burma, at Katha, from 23 December 1926 until he departed the country in mid-July 1927. The remote town, that was home to approximately 3000 local residents, became the setting for his first novel, Burmese Days.
George Stuart, who was an assistant engineer for Burma Railways, was based in Katha and is one of the few people to provide a firsthand account during this period of the man who was to become George Orwell. Stuart and his wife lived in the town and appear to have known Blair quite well. Often, they were the only European occupants in Katha as all the young men were off working for the timber firms in the jungle. They played three-handed bridge together and whenever possible, organised excursions to shoot jungle fowl. Mrs Stuart patched the untidy young police officer’s uniforms. Stuart claimed that Blair was sent to Katha as a disciplinary measure for shooting an elephant while based in Moulmein. Blair “realised he had blotted his copybook very badly”. Stuart felt that Blair “wasn’t anti-establishment as such but I don’t think he was in the right job”.
The earliest ideas for Burmese Days, first published in the USA in 1934 and in the UK during the following year, were drafted in Katha during 1927, according to Stuart. Other evidence supports this assertion as there are surviving early drafts written on Government of Burma paper. Stuart claimed that most of the people in the novel “were local government officers like the deputy commissioner and the superintendent of police”. Orwell himself said, in a letter written during 1946, much of the novel “is simply reporting of what I have seen”. No wonder his publishers’ lawyers were anxious that the characters were not identifiable or that the fictional setting of “Kyauktada” was not recognisable as Katha.
Orwell explained to the American writer Henry Miller, in a letter written during August 1936, that Burmese Days was published in the USA, before being printed in England, “because my publisher was afraid the India Office might take steps to have it suppressed”. He goes on to say that, “my English publisher brought out a version of it with various names etc. altered, so the American edition is the proper one”. An early American reader of Burmese Days wrote to Orwell on 5 February 1935 to tell him how much he had enjoyed the novel and enclosed a review. On the back of that letter is a map sketched by Orwell detailing the topographical and name changes required by his publisher’s lawyer. This sketch is now the frontispiece of Burmese Days, which is Volume 2 in The Complete Works of George Orwell.
In a letter to his literary agent, Leonard Moore, 28 February 1935, Orwell clearly details the changes made to satisfy his British publisher that the novel would not be libellous:
“With reference to the possible identification of the imaginary town of Kyauktada with the real town of Katha. I have been unable to obtain a map of Katha, but I have searched my memory and made out a fairly clear picture of it. It was something like my description of Kyauktada, except that a. I had put the cemetery beside the church, which it was not in Katha, b. I had put in a pagoda which did not exist at Katha, and c. I had described the Club as having a garden that ran down to the river, whereas that at Katha, as well as I can now remember, was not actually on the river, though near it. To make things more vague, I have now made the following changes: a. All direct and indirect statements about Kyauktada being in Upper Burma have been cut out or altered. It is admitted to be somewhere within striking distance of Mandalay, but it is not stated in which direction. The only remarks about Upper Burma that have been left in are on pp. 82–3. I let these stand as they referred to an earlier period of the hero’s life and had nothing to do with Kyauktada. b. “The Irrawaddy” has throughout been changed to “the river.” c. I have altered, eg. on p. 209, one or two remarks describing vegetation etc. which would only be found in the far north of Burma. Incidentally, I have found one or two places where I believe I have mixed up the flora and fauna of Upper and Lower Burma, and I have let these stand. d. I have cut out or altered a number of remarks such as “he turned to the right” etc. which would make the topography of Kyauktada too similar to that of Katha. These changes will be found on pp. 18, 42, 50, 77, 97. e. Katha was a railway terminus, and I had described Kyauktada as a terminus. I have now altered this to “junction.”
Orwell goes on to list, in this same letter, all the name changes or reasons why it is safe to retain characters. It is also worth noting that the year “1926” was removed. Orwell actually took time to consult the Burma Civil List for 1929 and could find none of the names that appear in his novel listed.
George Orwell was “pleased” with Burmese Days. He certainly had plenty to work with and as Emma Larkin, in her book about Orwell and Burma points out:
“Katha is today, as it must have been in Orwell’s time, a fairytale setting. The town sits on a bank of the wide Irrawaddy river, and is surrounded on all sides by the jagged outline of distant mountain ranges. The air is laced with the crisp, fresh smell of fir trees. Decaying colonial mansions and teak houses the colour of cooking-chocolate are hidden amid a forest of mahogany trees and rose bushes”.
Blair, with his life-long love of nature recognised he was in a natural paradise. No wonder he wrote in a letter that “the descriptions of scenery aren’t bad” in this his first novel.
NB. This brief article was written for a Katha Heritage Trust publication.
Larkin, Emma (2011) Finding George Orwell in Burma, Cambridge: Granta
Orwell, George (1997 ) Burmese Days, The Complete Works of George Orwell, Vol. 2, London: Secker & Warburg
Orwell, George (1997 ) The Road to Wigan Pier, The Complete Works of George Orwell, Vol. 5, London: Secker & Warburg
Orwell, George (1998) A Kind of Compulsion: 1903–1936, The Complete Works of George Orwell, Vol. 10, London: Secker & Warburg
Orwell, George (1998) Smothered Under Journalism: 1946, The Complete Works of George Orwell, Vol. 18, Secker & Warburg
Stansky, Peter and Abrahams, William (1972) The Unknown Orwell, New York: Alfred A. Knopf
Stuart, George (n. d.) Interview (audio-cassette), Orwell Archive