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“Katha is today, as it must have been in Orwell’s time, a fairy-tale 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 … Walking through the streets of Katha is therefore an eerie experience – a bit like walking on to an abandoned stage set.”
Like Emma, most visitors to Katha are there to trace the steps of John Flory, the protagonist in George Orwell’s novel Burmese Days. Orwell was posted in Katha as a colonial police office from 1926 to 1927, and his novel set there (the town renamed ‘Kyauktada’) attacks the boozers and bores of British Burma. (Listen to Emma speaking about Orwell and Burma here.)
Some of the buildings mentioned in Burmese Days are still standing. Literature lovers can hover outside the old British Club (now an association office) and play a round of tennis on the club court. The decaying house of Orwell himself is situated on the main high street not far from the house of John Florry. The clinic of Dr Veraswami is still a clinic and the imposing town jail is still a jail.
The Deputy Commissioner’s House, in Burmese Days the house of Mr Macgregor, is the most impressive remnant of Orwell’s novel. Between 1898 and 1904 this was the house of Deputy Commissioner Bernard Houghton who by all accounts as well loved by the people of Katha due to his empathy for the Burmese and criticism of the colonial administration. The house, though derelict, has been kept in fairly good nick and inside there are photographs of Houghton and his family as well as information on both the real-life Deputy Commissioner and the role of the house in Burmese Days.
Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair in India in 1903. In 1922 he moved to Burma to join the Indian Imperial Police. His mother had been born in Burma and his grandmother still lived in Mawlamyine, then known as Moulmein, the first capital of British Burma.
After completing his training in Mandalay, Orwell was posted to a succession of places such as Myaungmya, Maymyo (Pyin Oo Lwin), Twante, Syriam (Thanlyin) and then finally Katha, in Burma’s Kachin State, in 1926.
In his book Burmese Days he describes the town thus:
“The native town, and the courts and the jail, were over to the right, mostly hidden in green groves of peepul trees. The spire of the pagoda rose from the trees like a slender spear tipped with gold. Kyauktada was a fairly typical Upper Burma town, that had not changed greatly between the days of Marco Polo and 1910, and might have slept in the Middle Ages for a century more if it had not proved a convenient spot for a railway terminus.”
Orwell wrote not just one novel on the county but a trilogy: the subject matter of Animal Farm and 1984 being applicable to the military coup in 1962 and the subsequent dictatorship.
During his short time in Katha (he left Burma for good in 1927) Orwell acquired a reputation as an outsider, embarking upon ‘non-pukka’ activities such as attending the local street performances known as ‘pwe’. Orwell learnt to speak the language fluently and even got tattoos similar to those of many rural Burmese, said to protect against bullets and snake bites. Such attributes are reflected in the protagonist John Flory.
Orwell came to quickly regret the part he played in the British Empire and in Burmese Days Orwell viscerally attacks the British policy in Burma and the oppression it exerted on indigenous peoples throughout the Empire in general.
It is a commonly regurgitated quip in Myanmar to say that Orwell wrote not just one novel on the county but a trilogy: the subject matter of Animal Farm and 1984 being applicable to the military coup in 1962 and the subsequent dictatorship.
Orwell’s essays Shooting an Elephant and A Hanging set in Moulmein are explicitly about the colonialism in Burma and are both engrossing – even if slightly uncomfortable – reads. (In this article here we look closer at Orwell’s time in Moulmein, as well as an earlier British visitor, Rudyard Kipling … )
The next step for those whose appetite was whetted by Burmese Days, Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin, is a book that not only traces Orwell’s time in the country, but also uses the novel as a prism from which to analyze the effects of colonial rule in Myanmar and the subsequent military junta.
During British rule teak from the forests surrounding Katha was constantly being transported down the Ayeyarwaddy to Mandalay. A large flotilla was subsequently docked in Katha when the Japanese Imperial Army rapidly made their way north in 1942. Caught unawares by the speed of the Japanese advance, over 100 British boats were scuttled in the river before the British evacuated the town.
Later salvaged by the Burmese, the anchor of one of these boats (The Prince of Wales) is now on show at the Kyauktada Restaurant in Hotel Katha.
It wasn’t far from Katha that the Chindits air-dropped into Burma as part of Orde Wingate’s Operation Thursday. After the battles of the Imphal & Kohima, when the Allied forces were racing the retreating Japanese Army to Rangoon, Katha was the site of a major river-crossing, photographs of which are on display in the town.