A small town’s brush with greatness

George Orwell's bust on his house in Motihari, Bihar. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar  

Years before Gandhi’s historic arrival in Champaran, the district had its first brush with greatness on June 25, 1903. George Orwell, one of 20th century’s most celebrated writers was born here in an old brick bungalow tucked away in the lake town of Motihari, headquarters of the modern East Champaran district.

The ramshackle house, which has survived a century of wear and tear and a devastating earthquake in 1934, retains little of its old architectural charm. The large battered wood panels jutting from the tiled roof, a small family well and a house number etched on the wall are the few mark the crumbling edifice.

Orwell, né Eric Blair, was the second child of Ida and Richard Walmesley Blair, who worked as sub-deputy agent in the Opium Department of the Indian Civil Service. A massive opium warehouse faces the house, where Orwell spent just one year. Two photographs exist: one of him in his mother’s arms and another in his ayah’s. Besides that nothing is known about the family’s life in the district that borders Nepal. “Of all the biographies and articles written about my father, little has been said in relation to his birthplace. This is simply because he left at the age of one. Nevertheless Motihari is a significant part of his story; everything written about him starts at Motihari,” says Richard Blair, Orwell’s son, via e-mail.

The house is now home to four families whose ancestors taught at the nearby Gopal Sah Vidyalay. The rooms served as the teachers’ quarters and the opium warehouse was the student’s hostel. In 2010, the government declared the plot of 2.48 acres a protected area under the Bihar Ancient Monuments (Protection) Act, 1976.

The Orwell trail brought so many people to Motihari that Aditya Abhishek, who lives in the house, began to maintain a register of visitors. “Anyone will become curious to learn about this man that everyone asks about. It drove me to read Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four,” he says.

The literature-loving Param Shivam, Commandant, CRPF, Motihari, renamed his official residence “Orwell House”. “I looked up Motihari when I was transferred here and learnt that it was Orwell’s birthplace. I found that no building was dedicated to the author, so I decided to do it,” he says.

Motihari was completely unaware of its literary connection till renowned British journalist Ian Jack discovered itin 1983. Writing his article “In search of Jaarj Arwil” that year, Jack quotes a Professor Singh: “Hooray…we have found the birthplace of your Mr. Arwil who wrote that famous book whose name is next year.”

However, the Bihar government does not seem to share this excitement. One year has passed since Chief Minister Nitish Kumar paid homage to the novelist at his birthplace and promised to develop it. Things seem to have taken a downturn since then. A political satire has begun to unfold as the lure of funds drew local politicians seeking to put the Orwell project on the backburner by proposing a Satyagraha Park in the adjacent plot. The site itself has no connection with the struggles the Mahatma led in Champaran.

BJP MLA Pramod Kumar is annoyed when asked about the Orwell project. “Orwell’s father was the caretaker of an opium godown. Orwell stands for enslaved India, whereas Gandhi represents independent India. So he wrote a few novels. There is a room and there is a bust,” he fumes.

The ill-founded charge of imperialism is easily overturned. Ian Jack responds to the muddled view in an e-mail. “Was Orwell an imperialist? He could certainly be described as an English nationalist of a certain kind — a left-leaning patriot, with a slightly romantic attachment to what he saw as the quiet and ‘decent’ values of English life (warm beer, old ladies cycling to church, etc). And in the 1940s he certainly didn’t realise that Indian independence would come so quickly — he envisaged a slower process that would begin with a wholesale reform of the British administration and the kind of people who worked for it. On the other hand, he was one of imperialism’s fiercest critics, having seen the empire in action with the Burmese police, and he detested hierarchies based on class and race. I don’t think anyone could consider him an imperialist writer if they’d read a word he’d written. I think it would do Motihari credit to remember him. He was, after all, one of the last century’s greatest writers. Gandhi, of course, was one of the last century’s very great political leaders. But in India his name is perpetuated by memorials and parks and street names everywhere. In Motihari, there is surely room enough for both.”

The forced controversy and myopic approach have divided opinion on the “Orwell Park”. Discontent is also brewing among slum dwellers, who fear eviction from the encroached land. Recently, a mob disfigured Orwell’s marble bust erected in front of the house in 2010. A more recent failed attempt to tear it down has resulted in cracks at the base of its neck. These developments don’t worry Vinay Kumar, East Champaran’s district magistrate, who is keen to see the Orwell project through. Debapriya Mookherjee, a Motihari resident is spearheading the efforts to restore the birthplace.Heeding his plea, Vinay Kumar has stayed all construction on the site without the municipality gaining possession of the land, which is currently with the Urban Development department.

State-empanelled architects are expected to submit their plans. In his enthusiasm, Kumar moots the idea for a literature festival in Motihari. An archway leading to the house has been ruthlessly diminished by a thick layer of concrete. This, say officials, will be undone.

In fact, in violation of rules, a plaque announcing the Satyagraha Park was unveiled recently on the protected site in the presence of none other than Sukhda Pandey, Bihar’s Art, Culture and Youth Affairs Minister. This too will have to go.

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Printable version | Jan 14, 2021 7:20:07 PM |

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