“In any town in India,” writes George Orwell in ,“the European Club is the spiritual citadel, the real seat of 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 Kyauktada Club that, almost alone of Clubs in Burma, it had never admitted an Oriental to membership”
Thus, Orwell gives brick-and-mortar shape to the psychology of the ruler-ruled relationship that was the Raj, where a couple of hundred thousand British soldiers controlled teeming millions. He emphasises the stuffiness of the Club by locating it right on the edge of the Irrawady river:
“Beyond the Club, the Irrawaddy flowed huge and ochreous glittering like diamonds in the patches that caught the sun...”
There are only seven Europeans at Kyauktada, and four thousand locals, including several hundred Indians, and “a few score Chinese.” Among the former is Dr. Veraswami; among the latter is U Po Kyin, Sub-divisional Magistrate of Kyauktada. U Po Kyin’s ambition is to destroy the honest doctor; the doctor wants to join the club, since it would make him invincible against the machinations of U Po Kyin. As the good doctor explains to our anti-hero Flory, “And you do not know what prestige it gives to an Indian to be a member of the European Club. In the Club, he practically is a European.”
The members naturally object to having a ‘nigger’ in their midst. “He's asking us to break all our rules and take a dear little nigger-boy into this Club.”
Dr. Veraswami’s admiration for the British is pathetic. “Dr Veraswami had a passionate admiration for the English, which a thousand snubs from Englishmen had not shaken. He would maintain with positive eagerness that he, as an Indian, belonged to an inferior and degenerate race.” Flory and the doctor have a regular comic conversation, in which the Englishman knocks down the English and Veraswami defends them.
Thus, in 1934, Orwell documented the mental slavery that would persist to the present day, among all the educated inhabitants of South Asia. Take Nirad C. Chaudhuri. The frankest expression of cringe has flowed from his pen: “...all that was good and living within us was made, shaped and quickened by the same British rule” he observed. How like the good doctor he sounds.
Into this desiccated set of fixed relationships enters the young and attractive Elizabeth, niece of Tom Lackersteen, one of the Englishmen. She and her aunt, Mrs. Lackersteen, quickly go about husband hunting for the girl. Flory is the designated target. However, to the very extent that Flory loves Burma, the Burmese and the life of the intellect, to that same extent does Elizabeth hate them. We get a fascinating lesson on cultural relativism in one of the scenes. (Cultural relativism is very important today, given the view that there are universal values and these are western values. Again, Orwell was ahead of his time.) In Li Yeik's shop, Flory and Elizabeth exchange their impressions of oriental beauty.
“Do look at those women's feet!" Elizabeth whispered as soon as Li Yeik's back was turned. "Isn't it simply dreadful! How do they get them like that? Surely it isn't natural?”
Flory replies that ideas of beauty are relative – beauty, in short, lies in the eye of the beholder. Of course, he isn’t so blunt, for by now, he’s hopelessly in love with Elizabeth. He says: “Those small feet are beautiful according to Chinese ideas.” Here’s the rest of the exchange:
“'Beautiful! They're so horrible I can hardly look at them. These people must be absolute savages!"
"'Oh, no! They're highly civilized; more civilized than we are, in my opinion. Beauty's all a matter of taste. There are a people in this country called the Palaungs who admire long necks in women. The girls wear broad brass rings to stretch their necks, and they put on more and more of them until in the end they have necks like giraffes. It's no queerer than bustles or crinolines."
Today, The Club no longer has a physical locale. It nevertheless exists, as solid and real as any brick-and-mortar club. We, who were ruled by the British, have acquired mental habits of self-deprecation and self-abasement. We love white people. We jump out of our skin when we see a white person. We think it an honor to hob-nob with the whites in London or in New York. We want to be members of The Club.
Rules of entry into the Club are simple: You have to think like white people, abandon your own culture and its values, ridicule your own civilisation and hold it in contempt. You must kowtow, not before people, but before ideas. The Burmese perform the shiko in the novel. When Flory chucks out his mistress, she bows “touching the floor with her forehead in the 'full' shiko of utter abasement.”
Dr. Veraswami says: “My friend, my friend, you are forgetting the Oriental character. How is it possible to have developed us, with our apathy and superstition? At least you have brought to us law and order. The unswerving British Justice and the Pax Britannica.” For ‘Pax Britannica’ substitute today ‘Pax Americana,’ and you have the total picture of The Club. After the Cold War, America reduced its military expenditure massively. You don’t need weapons to control people’s minds. Our admiration for America and American values sprang up automatically." Nothing has changed.
Take the number of people here who still believe in democracy. For instance, even the war against Iraq, which should be so fresh in our memory as to obliterate all respect for Americans and American ideas, has hardly made an impression on the hardened tabula rasa on which deference for things occidental has been so deeply etched since early childhood. Nothing has changed.
After the First World War, Indians, returning from the killing fields of Europe lost their awe of the white folk. They realised that these people were nothing better than savages, not so superior to us after all. Even a man like Dr. Veraswami, no doubt, would have abandoned his admiration for the noble Englishman. It didn’t, as we have seen, last long. He was soon kowtowing again.
Then came the Second World War, when again we lost our respect for the West: the author’s relatives recount how they refused sweets distributed in school after the Japanese surrender. To refuse sweets is one thing, to refuse a scholarship to a prestigious American university or an intellectual shindig in New England quite another. Nothing changed.
When Gandhi was asked, “What do you think of western civilisation?”, he replied: “That would be a good idea.” We forgot these words after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Algeria and the Vietnam War. Nothing changed.
Our highest aspiration is to still join the Club.
Who does, finally, join the Club in Burmese Days? Not the benevolent Dr. Veraswami, but the scoundrel U Po Kyin. The latter incites a ‘rebellion’ of three people, and then squashes it himself and takes the credit. His standing with the white people rises. But Flory also proves himself a hero by dispersing a riotous crowd of 2,000, and, his stock having gone up, asks that the doctor be allowed into The Club. But U Po Kyin destroys Flory. He sends Flory’s mistress into the Church during prayer, screaming for money from Flory, before the Europeans, and, especially, before Elizabeth. Elizabeth refuses to forgive him, and he shoots himself. His patron dead, the doctor is finished. U Po Kyin joins the Club, and acquires numerous other rewards.
Today, like yesterday, only scoundrels, it seems, can join The Club.