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Life Arts    H4'ed 5/10/19

The Club

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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 perhaps 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, enter the young and attractive Elizabeth, niece of one of the Englishmen, Tom Lackersteen. 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 he's hopelessly in love with Elizabeth by now. He says: "Those small feet are beautiful according to Chinese ideas." Here's the rest of the exchange:

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"'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 hobnob with the whites - in London or in New York. We want to be members of The Club.

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Rules of entry into the Club are simple - you have to think like white people, abandon your own culture, 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".

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Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, "ŽBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL "ŽTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. "ŽHe is also a (more...)
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