Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 650
Burmese Days brings together stories from colonial life in a narrative sequence that concludes with several violent deaths. U Po Kyin, the rotund and ruthless native judicial officer for the district, is plotting to turn nationalist agitation in a local newspaper against his rivals in a way that, he hopes, will ingratiate him with the imperial authorities. British functionaries gather at their exclusive club to discuss, among other matters, rumors of unrest among the local population. Passing conversation reveals the fears and prejudices they hold: Mr. Macgregor grimly murmurs, “In my young days, when one’s butler was disrespectful, one sent him along to the jail with a chit saying, ‘Please give the bearer fifteen lashes.’ . . . Those days are gone for ever, I am afraid.” When they hear a proposal, which had originated with the Commissioner, that their club consider accepting native members, Mr. Ellis snarls brusquely, “I don’t like niggers, to put it in one word.” Mr. Westfield solemnly maintains that excessive legalism and bureaucratic routine impede the real work of the imperial government in maintaining order and respect for authority. “British Raj is finished if you ask me,” he says.
John Flory, who works for a timber company, has spent most of his adult life in the Raj; he has grown weary of colonial ways but cannot extricate himself from his situation in Burma. More than the other British residents, he mixes freely with the natives. He is on friendly terms with Dr. Veraswami, an Indian physician; he becomes distinctly uncomfortable when some of his compatriots vent their disdain for Asians. Flory maintains a Burmese mistress, Ma Hla May, with whom he has a certain number of rather perfunctory assignations.
Lately, Flory has also taken an interest in Elizabeth Lackersteen, an orphan who has taken up residence in Burma with her aunt and uncle. He attempts to prove his mettle before her by introducing her to local pastimes in the wild. When they go shooting, he is impressed with her composure as he brings down a leopard. While polo-riding, however, he is deeply chagrined after he is thrown from his horse. Even worse, when Lieutenant Verrall, from the Military Police, arrives, Elizabeth is immediately attracted to him; they dance and ride together, to Flory’s intense discomfiture.
There are political tremors as well; at the club, Ellis calls for a formal vote on the admission of Flory’s friend, Dr. Veraswami, and then openly blackballs the Indian candidate. Native bearers bring in the body of Maxwell, a British forest ranger who was hacked to death after a shooting incident in which a Burmese was killed. Hordes of natives converge on the club. They are further incensed when Ellis strikes a native boy, apparently blinding him, and then dares the others to come forward. The insurgents are dispersed when U Po Kyin arrives with loyal forces under his command.
The magistrate also determines to humble his rival, Dr. Veraswami, by striking at Flory, his British ally. To do so, U Po Kyin makes use of what he has learned from the native women. Once Verrall has left for another assignment, Flory recommences his courtship of Elizabeth; while he is engaged in an earnest conversation with the Lackersteens, Ma Hla May appears and creates a spectacle by noisily demanding that Flory pay her. Elizabeth Lackersteen turns from him when he offers to explain, and Flory, in the utmost dejection, returns to his house, shoots his faithful dog, and then turns his pistol on himself.
The last chapter stands as an ironic afterword. U Po Kyin is duly admitted to the European Club, Ellis’ objections notwithstanding. He is also decorated by the Indian government for his part in quelling the local rebellion; soon thereafter, however, he dies of apoplexy. To the surprise of some, Macgregor proposes marriage to Elizabeth Lackersteen; she accepts, and they remain together in the Kyauktada district.
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