‘But truly, truly, Mr Flory, you must not speak so! Why iss it that always you are abusing the pukka sahibs, ass you call them? They are the salt of the earth. Consider the great things they have done — consider the great administrators who have made British India what it iss. Consider Clive, Warren Hastings, Dalhousie, Curzon. They were such men — I quote your immortal Shakespeare — ass, take them for all in all, we shall not look upon their like again!’
‘Well, do you want to look upon their like again? I don’t.’
‘And consider how noble a type iss the English gentleman! Their glorious loyalty to one another! The public school spirit! Even those of them whose manner iss unfortunate — some Englishmen are arrogant, I concede — have the great, sterling qualities that we Orientals lack. Beneath their rough exterior, their hearts are of gold.’
‘Of gilt, shall we say? There’s a kind of spurious good-fellowship between the English and this country. It’s a tradition to booze together and swap meals and pretend to be friends, though we all hate each other like poison. Hanging together, we call it. It’s a political necessity. Of course drink is what keeps the machine going. We should all go mad and kill one another in a week if it weren’t for that. There’s a subject for one of your uplift essayists, doctor. Booze as the cement of empire.’
The doctor shook his head. ‘Really, Mr Flory, I know not what it iss that hass made you so cynical. It iss so most unsuitable! You — an English gentleman of high gifts and character — to be uttering seditious opinions that are worthy of the Burmese Patriot!’
‘Seditious?’ Flory said. ‘I’M not seditious. I don’t want the Burmans to drive us out of this country. God forbid! I’m here to make money, like everyone else. All I object to is the slimy white man’s burden humbug. The pukka sahib pose. It’s so boring. Even those bloody fools at the Club might be better company if we weren’t all of us living a lie the whole time.’
‘But, my dear friend, what lie are you living?’
‘Why, of course, the lie that we’re here to uplift our poor black brothers instead of to rob them. I suppose it’s a natural enough lie. But it corrupts us, it corrupts us in ways you can’t imagine. There’s an everlasting sense of being a sneak and a liar that torments us and drives us to justify ourselves night and day. It’s at the bottom of half our beastliness to the natives. We Anglo-Indians could be almost bearable if we’d only admit that we’re thieves and go on thieving without any humbug.’
The doctor, very pleased, nipped his thumb and forefinger together. ‘The weakness of your argument, my dear friend,’ he said, beaming at his own irony, ‘the weakness appears to be, that you are NOT thieves.’
‘Now, my dear doctor — ’
Flory sat up in the long chair, partly because his prickly heat had just stabbed him in the back like a thousand needles, partly because his favourite argument with the doctor was about to begin. This argument, vaguely political in nature, took place as often as the two men met. It was a topsy-turvy affair, for the Englishman was bitterly anti-English and the Indian fanatically loyal. 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. His faith in British justice was so great that even when, at the jail, he had to superintend a flogging or a hanging, and would come home with his black face faded grey and dose himself with whisky, his zeal did not falter. Flory’s seditious opinions shocked him, but they also gave him a certain shuddering pleasure, such as a pious believer will take in hearing the Lord’s Prayer repeated backwards.
‘My dear doctor,’ said Flory, ‘how can you make out that we are in this country for any purpose except to steal? It’s so simple. The official holds the Burman down while the businessman goes through his pockets. Do you suppose my firm, for instance, could get its timber contracts if the country weren’t in the hands of the British? Or the other timber firms, or the oil companies, or the miners and planters and traders? How could the Rice Ring go on skinning the unfortunate peasant if it hadn’t the Government behind it? The British Empire is simply a device for giving trade monopolies to the English — or rather to gangs of Jews and Scotchmen.’
‘My friend, it iss pathetic to me to hear you talk so. It iss truly pathetic. You say you are here to trade? Of course you are. Could the Burmese trade for themselves? Can they make machinery, ships, railways, roads? They are helpless without you. What would happen to the Burmese forests if the English were not here? They would be sold immediately to the Japanese, who would gut them and ruin them. Instead of which, in your hands, actually they are improved. And while your businessmen develop the resources of our country, your officials are civilizing us, elevating us to their level, from pure public spirit. It is a magnificent record of self-sacrifice.’
‘Bosh, my dear doctor. We teach the young men to drink whisky and play football, I admit, but precious little else. Look at our schools — factories for cheap clerks. We’ve never taught a single useful manual trade to the Indians. We daren’t; frightened of the competition in industry. We’ve even crushed various industries. Where are the Indian muslins now? Back in the forties or thereabouts they were building sea-going ships in India, and manning them as well. Now you couldn’t build a seaworthy fishing boat there. In the eighteenth century the Indians cast guns that were at any rate up to the European standard. Now, after we’ve been in India a hundred and fifty years, you can’t make so much as a brass cartridge-case in the whole continent. The only Eastern races that have developed at all quickly are the independent ones. I won’t instance Japan, but take the case of Siam — ’
The doctor waved his hand excitedly. He always interrupted the argument at this point (for as a rule it followed the same course, almost word for word), finding that the case of Siam hampered him.
‘My friend, my friend, you are forgetting the Oriental character. How iss 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.’
‘Pox Britannica, doctor, Pox Britannica is its proper name. And in any case, whom is it pax for? The money-lender and the lawyer. Of course we keep the peace in India, in our own interest, but what does all this law and order business boil down to? More banks and more prisons — that’s all it means.’
‘What monstrous misrepresentations!’ cried the doctor. ‘Are not prissons necessary? And have you brought us nothing but prissons? Consider Burma in the days of Thibaw, with dirt and torture and ignorance, and then look around you. Look merely out of this veranda — look at that hospital, and over to the right at that school and that police station. Look at the whole uprush of modern progress!’
‘Of course I don’t deny,’ Flory said, ‘that we modernize this country in certain ways. We can’t help doing so. In fact, before we’ve finished we’ll have wrecked the whole Burmese national culture. But we’re not civilizing them, we’re only rubbing our dirt on to them. Where’s it going to lead, this uprush of modern progress, as you call it? Just to our own dear old swinery of gramophones and billycock hats. Sometimes I think that in two hundred years all this — ’ he waved a foot towards the horizon — ‘all this will be gone — forests, villages, monasteries, pagodas all vanished. And instead, pink villas fifty yards apart; all over those hills, as far as you can see, villa after villa, with all the gramophones playing the same tune. And all the forests shaved flat — chewed into wood-pulp for the News of the World, or sawn up into gramophone cases. But the trees avenge themselves, as the old chap says in The Wild Duck. You’ve read Ibsen, of course?’
‘Ah, no, Mr Flory, alas! That mighty master-mind, your inspired Bernard Shaw hass called him. It iss a pleasure to come. But, my friend, what you do not see iss that your civilization at its very worst iss for us an advance. Gramophones, billycock hats, the News of the World — all iss better than the horrible sloth of the Oriental. I see the British, even the least inspired of them, ass — ass — ’ the doctor searched for a phrase, and found one that probably came from Stevenson — ‘ass torchbearers upon the path of progress.’
‘I don’t. I see them as a kind of up-to-date, hygienic, self-satisfied louse. Creeping round the world building prisons. They build a prison and call it progress,’ he added rather regretfully — for the doctor would not recognize the allusion.
‘My friend, positively you are harping upon the subject of prissons! Consider that there are also other achievements of your countrymen. They construct roads, they irrigate deserts, they conquer famines, they build schools, they set up hospitals, they combat plague, cholera, leprosy, smallpox, venereal disease — ’
‘Having brought it themselves,’ put in Flory.
‘No, sir!’ returned the doctor, eager to claim this distinction for his own countrymen. ‘No, sir, it wass the Indians who introduced venereal disease into this country. The Indians introduce diseases, and the English cure them. THERE iss the answer to all your pessimism and seditiousness.’
‘Well, doctor, we shall never agree. The fact is that you like all this modern progress business, whereas I’d rather see things a little bit septic. Burma in the days of Thibaw would have suited me better, I think. And as I said before, if we are a civilizing influence, it’s only to grab on a larger scale. We should chuck it quickly enough if it didn’t pay.’
‘My friend, you do not think that. If truly you disapprove of the British Empire, you would not be talking of it privately here. You would be proclaiming from the house-tops. I know your character, Mr Flory, better than you know it yourself.’
‘Sorry, doctor; I don’t go in for proclaiming from the housetops. I haven’t the guts. I “counsel ignoble ease”, like old Belial in Paradise Lost. It’s safer. You’ve got to be a pukka sahib or die, in this country. In fifteen years I’ve never talked honestly to anyone except you. My talks here are a safety-valve; a little Black Mass on the sly, if you understand me.’
At this moment there was a desolate wailing noise outside. Old Mattu, the Hindu durwan who looked after the European church, was standing in the sunlight below the veranda. He was an old fever-stricken creature, more like a grasshopper than a human being, and dressed in a few square inches of dingy rag. He lived near the church in a hut made of flattened kerosene tins, from which he would sometimes hurry forth at the appearance of a European, to salaam deeply and wail something about his ‘talab’, which was eighteen rupees a month. Looking piteously up at the veranda, he massaged the earth-coloured skin of his belly with one hand, and with the other made the motion of putting food into his mouth. The doctor felt in his pocket and dropped a four-anna piece over the veranda rail. He was notorious for his soft-heartedness, and all the beggars in Kyauktada made him their target.
‘Behold there the degeneracy of the East,’ said the doctor, pointing to Mattu, who was doubling himself up like a caterpillar and uttering grateful whines. ‘Look at the wretchedness of hiss limbs. The calves of hiss legs are not so thick ass an Englishman’s wrists. Look at hiss abjectness and servility. Look at hiss ignorance — such ignorance ass iss not known in Europe outside a home for mental defectives. Once I asked Mattu to tell me hiss age. “Sahib,” he said, “I believe that I am ten years old.” How can you pretend, Mr Flory, that you are not the natural superior of such creatures?’
‘Poor old Mattu, the uprush of modern progress seems to have missed him somehow,’ Flory said, throwing another four-anna piece over the rail. ‘Go on, Mattu, spend that on booze. Be as degenerate as you can. It all postpones Utopia.’
‘Aha, Mr Flory, sometimes I think that all you say iss but to — what iss the expression? — pull my leg. The English sense of humour. We Orientals have no humour, ass iss well known.’
‘Lucky devils. It’s been the ruin of us, our bloody sense of humour.’ He yawned with his hands behind his head. Mattu had shambled away after further grateful noises. ‘I suppose I ought to be going before this cursed sun gets too high. The heat’s going to be devilish this year, I feel it in my bones. Well, doctor, we’ve been arguing so much that I haven’t asked for your news. I only got in from the jungle yesterday. I ought to go back the day after tomorrow — don’t know whether I shall. Has anything been happening in Kyauktada? Any scandals?’