Burma | A Short Story by Bella Considine

In response to George Orwell's essay, 'Shooting an Elephant', !GWAK writer Bella Considine has written a short story—inverting the work's British colonial perspective, in order to tell the story from a native voice.

Geographically, the region known as Burma reclines with its back against China, perched neatly on Thailand’s shoulders, feet cooling carelessly in the Andaman Sea. The climate is not the fierce heat and humidity of India, but nor is it that mildness of China’s mist-bound mountains. As a child it seemed to me to ooze safety, as if guarded by something high, high up and held up by kind creatures that lay beneath the surface. Monasteries stood tall and pointed like a sharpened pencil. Should a giant peruse the landscape, a rooftop would pierce into his foot and bring him down much before he had the chance to steal another villager for dinner. As a child, I often looked up at that same sky, hoping to see a guiding spirit stop just to smile down at me before continuing its journey through the intricate channels from which the atmosphere was threaded—just as you may have conversed with an imaginary friend to satisfy the need for some like-minded company.

Though living with your head in the clouds promises blissful shelter and serenity, it tends to leave your neck exposed. Such was Burma: the country’s head slumped against a plot of Chinese mountains in a profound dream from which she would wake senseless. The Burmese wanted nothing but to harvest from the paddy fields and reel fish from the stream, but peace is a volatile thing when power steps in and throws off the balance. Or tosses the set of scales entirely. The British empire saw Burma, not as the haven I did, but a chunk of map to tick off the list. Their confiscation of West India from its people made Burma the perfect stepping stone to amassing more dominance in the East, and we would be forced to feel the blunt force of Britannia’s boots. That same sky does nothing now but flaunt its simplicity, midst the chaptered chaos of the day that each hour brings.

I am Cetan. My name means ‘Hawk’, if you’d like to know. I am of medium height and good education. My father died in the war, my brother died in the next. I know now that the pain of loss is a symptom of war—the suffering as irrevocable as an open wound. It was not just the loss of my father and brother that I felt, but also a loss of meaning. Every thought was a question, and every question, I knew, was unanswerable. I realised that my young, naive fear of giants was premonition—I was looking into the future, but with a magnifying glass that distorted these human-sized monsters into skyscrapers. Everything does, of course, look bigger through the eyes of a child.

I’m sorry. I tend to slip into the past, as if a current is pulling me backwards—the only problem is pushing yourself back to reality. I was Cetan, I still am. Today is a Thursday. It is August. 1865. I am walking down the long path that leads to the market. At once the sounds of life hit my eardrums and I am leader in the parade of the everyday. The heat is sleepy but birds continue on with their song—they know instinctively of the duty that the band is trusted with. My march is slow and steady as a wave.

I see an Empire officer rushing by, his face is wrinkled, his eyebrows invading his eyes and pushing them into a forceful squint. Maybe it’s the morning sun, which is still intense for those used to colder climates, or something beneath the skin that is troubling him. Though he lacks in height, he has the sense of an all-encumbering ego. His look at me is fleeting but filled with analysis. He is in a hurry, heaving and bellowing hot air like a tired animal.

I walk for some time, my feet following my thoughts more than the path, until I hear a crash and the distant sound of voices in uproar.

The sound had erupted near the paddy fields, normally a space of respite that had always, for me, stood as an emblem for nature’s resilience. As I walk toward the sound, a soft wind left the leaves in the trees waving—not because they were arriving or leaving, but rather just in greeting. I stumble into a pack of people staring into the field, and looked, as one in many, toward the huge creature.

I am told that she had escaped from her owner’s home and run rampant in the market, to the dismay of the old man telling the story. The elephant, the most determined of all his customers, had attacked his stall, knocking it over and crushing some of his most-prized jewellery with her large round foot. Another told me that the animal’s sweet tooth had possessed her to consume half of his fruit. The other half was still rolling around in the market mud. I push and squirm amongst the crowd to get a better view.

And there she is. There was no doubt that she had been scared, and was still shaken, but the true regality in her movements prevailed, as she stumbled further into the wispy fluidity of the rice wheat. We all looked on as if watching a boat sail out to sea.