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Motihari and George Orwell
Big Brother can’t be bothered
Motihari in Bihar was the birthplace of George Orwell. Instead of turning his home into a lucrative literary tourist destination, the state government couldn’t care less
Harsh Kabra 2013/06/23
An ordinary red building in Myanmar’s trading town Katha becomes an extraordinary relic the moment visitors discover that it was once home to a legendary British novelist. Back then, the leafy outpost of the British Indian Empire along the Irrawaddy river knew the lanky Eric Arthur Blair as a much-taunted Indian Imperial Police officer. That was before Blair became George Orwell and the town the fictional district of Kyauktada in his first novel ‘Burmese Days’. Today, visitors to Katha are as excited by the sight of the club, police station and jail depicted in the novel, as they are appalled by the neglect of the house by the country’s junta.
Over 1,900 km and a national border away, an unadorned house in Motihari, Bihar, finds itself connected to the building in Katha by age, apathy and literary heritage. It was here that Orwell was born on June 25, 1903, to a British colonial civil servant posted in Bihar as an opium agent. If not for a rush of attention following British journalist Ian Jack’s 1983 report on Orwell’s birthplace, Motihari would have remained oblivious to a piece of its history.
The decrepit houses in Katha and Motihari betray no hint of Orwell’s fame as one of the world’s greatest chroniclers and polemicists. Not long ago, investors in Myanmar were planning to tear down Orwell’s residence for a skate park, while politicians in Bihar were busy laying the foundation stone of a Satyagraha Park stiflingly close to Orwell’s house in Motihari. Heritage enthusiasts in both towns protested. But where Katha is now working overtime to restore the house and roll out the red carpet for tourist dollars, Motihari has only managed to put the park project on hold.
The brains behind the Satyagraha Park sound noble in their motivation — commemorating Mahatma Gandhi’s first civil disobedience movement launched in Motihari in 1917 to oppose British exploitation of indigo farmers. But there is no convincing justification for their choice of location. Notably, the 2.5-acre precinct hosting Orwell’s house was declared protected by the state in 2010.
Residents suspect that Motihari’s famous son is the victim of petty parochialism. Some with political muscle power are averse to Orwell’s commemoration in Motihari because he was neither Bihari nor Indian. In deflecting attention away from the author of such classics as ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’, they are said to have first mooted a Shaheed Park near the site as a tribute to a CRPF martyr from Motihari. When that idea didn’t fly, they turned to a more compelling Gandhi memorial.
Both Gandhians and Orwell lovers point out that that particular site has no association with Gandhi’s movement. They wonder how the state’s urban development ministry reportedly sanctioned Rs 2.21 crore for the project without considering its proximity to a protected site. “The land belongs to the state government,” says Vinay Kumar, district magistrate of East Champaran. “I have issued an order for work to be stopped until either the land is transferred to the Motihari municipality or the state government grants permission for the project.”
LOST TOURIST OPPORTUNITY
Ever since a group of citizens, led by senior Rotarian and Orwell fan Debapriya Mookherjee began demanding that Orwell’s house be restored and converted into a heritage site complete with a museum and a library, politicians and officials of all stripes have been drawn to the site by photo opportunities, but delivered only empty promises.
“Few locals can direct visitors to Orwell’s house near Gyan Babu Chowk; most still know it as Gopal Sah Vidyalaya hostel,” says Sushant Singh, an economics student. However, Orwell does find a prominent mention on Facebook community pages about Motihari. The CRPF commandant’s residence in Motihari was recently named after Orwell. GOCC organises lectures on Orwell on his birth and death anniversaries. “These are in Hindi so more people can understand Orwell,” says Mookherjee.
LOVE FOR INDIA
Those leveraging Gandhi’s name for personal and poll mileage have made no effort to understand Orwell. They are blithely unaware of Orwell’s disagreement with the British political class of his time stemming from his staunch belief in India’s freedom. “Orwell was an Englishman to the core, but believed in the freedom of all colonised countries,” said late writer Mulk Raj Anand, who contributed to the BBC’s Indian service during Orwell’s tenure as a producer.
Orwell was a little over a year old when he left for England. He developed a chest condition soon thereafter, and died at the young age of 46. Orwell never returned to his birthplace, but came close to being posted in Bengal in 1921 as a police officer, and in Lucknow in 1937 as a writer for the Pioneer. According to his biographer Gordon Bowker, the idea of returning to the land of his birth and writing against British imperialism must have appealed greatly to Orwell. But the paper did not employ him, fearing his beliefs would antagonise the authorities. Besides, ill health did not allow him to travel.
Conversant in Hindustani and fond of Indian food, Orwell was often seen dining at Indian restaurants in Piccadilly, at times with Indian friends such as Krishna Menon and Jay Dubashi. When Dubashi once asked Orwell if he was still keen to visit India, he replied, “Oh, yes. Don’t forget that I am an Indian and was born there.”
BIRTHPLACE IN DISTRESS
When the Motihari precinct was handed over to a government-run school before Independence, it had four bungalows, a large opium warehouse, and 13 rooms. The warehouse and rooms went on to house around 2,200 students, while the bungalows served as staff quarters. Only Orwell’s house, around a quarter of the warehouse, and three other smaller houses survive today.
“Orwell’s house needs urgent repairs,” says Madhulika Rai who moved in there two decades ago with her late husband. “We have to spend from our pocket to maintain it, but there is only so much we can do about the crumbling walls and cracking roof.”
Canada-based researcher Jackie Jura, whose deep interest in Orwell led her to create Orwelltoday.com in 2000. The Orwell Society, a UK-based group, is keen to support the restoration.
“A panel of architects is preparing a plan to restore Orwell’s house and develop amenities,” says Kumar.