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On the Fall of the House of Orwell

By posted at 12:00 pm on May 2, 2013 16

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On June 25, 1903, in the tiny town of Motihari amid the torrid heat of the Indian plains, Ida Mabel Blair delivered her second child, a son. Her husband Richard was an Assistant Sub-Deputy Agent in the Opium Department of the Indian Civil Service of the British Raj. The opium trade between British India and China had been legalized since 1860 (although opium was still illegal in India) and the government had a whole department to attend to cultivating and exporting it. The Blairs named their newborn Eric. Eric Blair would go on to become one of the greatest writers of the century, an acknowledged master of prose who would be known in all corners of the globe, not by his given name but by his pen name: George Orwell.

Richard Blair’s position in the government was not high, and their house, an unadorned single-storey colonial bungalow, reflected this. Motihari those days was an outpost that was slap-bang-wallop in the wilderness. The local people struggled to eke a living making mats, rugs, cooking oil, and string bags. Social life for an English couple was virtually non-existent if they had to keep apart from the locals, as the British almost always did. The two-roomed brick house, with whitewashed walls and a tiled roof, housed Richard and Ida, their children Marjorie and Eric, and an ayah, or servant. In a photograph taken in the house, Eric is in his mother’s arms, a chubby baby dressed in a gown with a lace collar. He is near-bald with a lick of wavy hair brushed back from above the forehead, and is trying to timidly turn away from the camera. In another photo, he is held by an ayah. You could never tell this baby would turn into the tall and lanky George Orwell with his clump of stiff, black hair.

Officials in Bihar (the Indian state that is home to Motihari) now harbor designs to develop a park dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi that would entail demolishing this building. Bihar’s urban development minister took everybody by surprise by laying the foundation stone of the park on April 13.

As it is, Orwell’s birth home has languished in dilapidation for decades. Damaged by an earthquake in 1934, it deteriorated into a derelict building that stray animals sheltered in at night or during inclement weather. The homeless also used it; it became a place for people to gather to drink and gamble. A statue of Orwell on the premises was vandalized. After sustained efforts by campaigners, the government announced four years ago that it would restore the dwelling. But nothing was done. The house continues to be scorched by the sun, drenched by the rain, and battered by the wind. Part of the roof has caved in and a grapefruit tree has weakened the southern wall. For decades, one could pass by the house and never know that Orwell was born here until Debapriya Mukherjee, head of the local Orwell Commemorative Committee, got the Rotary Club to put up a board indicating that fact in Hindi and English. A small bust of Orwell with a plaque was also installed. Now thanks to fresh protests by Mukherjee and his dedicated group, District Magistrate Vinay Kumar directed the officials to place the plan for the Gandhi Park on hold. So Orwell’s birth house has been saved — at least for now.

Orwell lived in this house for the first year of his life and was then taken to Oxfordshire, England, by his mother, while his father continued in government service. This was not unusual; Kipling, Thackeray, and Lawrence Durrell were all born in India and, at various ages, went to England for their education, and Orwell’s sister Marjorie was already six. In 1905, when Eric was 18 months, he was misdiagnosed with bronchitis by a local Oxfordshire doctor. It was, in fact, tuberculosis, an ailment that relentlessly clung to him until it finally killed him at age 46. Whether he contracted it in Motihari or in England is not known, but the switch from sultry India to damp England certainly would not have helped.

After his family had departed for England, Orwell’s father was transferred to Burma, and the house in Motihari became a storage facility for opium, which had by now become the region’s main cash crop. The Blairs never returned to the house.

Orwell eventually opted to join the Indian Civil Service. After all, he had been born in India and his father had served the Raj. He had been brought up to believe that the British rule of India and other colonies was moral and right. He was posted to Burma; his time in that country not only opened his eyes to what imperialism really entailed, they also irrevocably shaped him as a writer. Eric Blair began turning into George Orwell.

The panjandrums who want to establish the Gandhi memorial park know a lot about Gandhi. But how much do they know of the man they have belittled by neglecting his birth home for decades, the home they now might do away with altogether? How do they view Orwell? Do they just see him as a white man who, as an infant, crawled on the floor of this house before leaving for some other place, where he then wrote a few books, and all of this over half a century ago?

Surely it must be a matter of pride that such a writer was born in one’s own little corner of this vast planet? Surely it would be more than worth it to take the little effort required to keep his birth home in a respectable shape, nay, convert it into a well-maintained heritage site? Indeed, there are many in Motihari who heartily endorse such sentiments. The local government obviously thinks differently and seems blind to the tourism potential here with the accompanying boost to the local economy.

“That seems to be a fixed rule in London: whenever you do by some chance have a decent vista, block it up with the ugliest statue you can find,” wrote Orwell. But those erecting the statue he was referring to probably did not consider it ugly nor did they realize (let alone have any qualms) that they were diminishing something of beauty that already existed at that site. Likewise, the local government in Motihari may have little idea of the extent of what the demolition of Orwell’s birth house entails, although the protestations have given it pause.

Gandhi had no connection with this house, so why is he in the picture? In the early 20th century, the British forced the farmers in this district to stop growing food crops and to instead grow indigo, which they bought at throwaway prices. When famine struck, the impoverished farmers had no food; instead of providing it, the British raised taxes. Gandhi visited the district in 1917 to start a mass protest movement. The government wants to commemorate this, but such a memorial could technically be located anywhere in the district. Motihari was chosen as it was the biggest town and there was open land adjoining Orwell’s house. Gandhi’s name has a strong emotive pull and having announced that there will be a Gandhi memorial park, the government cannot drop the plan without losing face. But it can certainly choose another location or at least let the boundary of the park stop short of Orwell’s house.

Today, India seeks an increasingly larger role on the world stage. Its economic clout propels it, but as any successful diplomat can tell you, to win friends and influence people it helps enormously if you are liked. Preserving an edifice on your territory that means something to literary enthusiasts in all nooks of the globe has its endearing side. But if Motihari’s authorities manage to slither around the current judicial restraining order and Orwell’s house falls, with every brick that is ground into the dust, many people the world over will like India a little less.





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16 Responses to “On the Fall of the House of Orwell”

  1. mike
    at 9:27 am on May 3, 2013

    ‘In the early 20th century, the British forced the farmers in this district to stop growing food crops and to instead grow indigo, which they bought at throwaway prices. When famine struck, the impoverished farmers had no food; instead of providing it, the British raised taxes.’

    Seriously, how could the English be that cruel against other people. I’m 35 and read a lot but I keep being dazzled by the West’s committed atrocities, then and now.

    Like now in Bangladesh, farmers are forced by Western corporations to farm tiger shrimps and therefor they flood their (farm) lands with salt water. Because of this no other crops can be cultivated anymore. When will this stop. No only is their greed humiliating and destroying people, but Mother Earth as well.

  2. Vishwas Gaitonde
    at 12:47 pm on May 3, 2013

    As a follow-up to Mike’s comment: The East India Company, under a monopoly from the British Government, made an enormous amount of money cultivating opium and exporting it to China, never mind if multitudes of Chinese became riddled with the narcotic. Wouldn’t it be nice if this house was made into a heritage museum primarily dedicated to Orwell, but also with a small section dedicated to the role of the house in the opium trade? Visitors would then not only get to appreciate the literary genius that Orwell was but also get a sense of the local history and, by extension, world history.

  3. Maggie
    at 2:54 pm on May 3, 2013

    Making and keeping people the world over aware of past and present imperial atrocities must surely be essential. Without the spread of such information the greed and cruelty will never end.

  4. Kalpasree Bhowmik
    at 12:32 pm on May 4, 2013

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful article. I fully support your idea that this should be constructed into a heritage museum. Whenever I read Amitav Ghosh’s well-acclaimed novel ‘Sea of Poppy’ and it’s sequel, those time-period, woven around Opium and Bihar, comes alive and so did this article of yours.
    Without knowing our past, we cannot move ahead.
    George Orwell was a famous personality and we need to preserve this in his memory and as also preserve this house as a part of Opium trade and it’s long trailing smoke which engulfed many.

  5. Matt
    at 4:39 pm on May 4, 2013

    Nice piece.

  6. Kate
    at 7:44 pm on May 4, 2013

    What a lovely piece about the complexities of preserving place and legacy in such a fast-changing country like India.

  7. Vishwas Gaitonde
    at 10:34 pm on May 4, 2013

    Response to Kalpasree Bhowmik: You bring up an interesting angle with Amitav Ghosh’s “Sea of Poppies” (Ibis trilogy) and the days when opium was king. An Orwell heritage museum with a good sub-section on the local history of the opium trade would certainly be especially attractive to those who like both Orwell and Ghosh.

    But this kind of endeavor needs a creative outlook from the local authorities. After decades of neglect wherein successive governments have let the house disintegrate into shambles, one can be reasonably excused if one is skeptical of the present or future governments doing better. I’m sharing another article about Mr. Debapriya Mukherjee, whose motivation has saved the house thus far as well as helping bring it to the attention of the world. (Link: http://www.caravanmagazine.in/lede/bihari-days) The photograph in this piece shows Mr. Nitish Kumar, Chief Minister of Bihar, at Orwell’s house during his April 2012 visit to Motihari. Mr. Kumar’s visit held out the best possibility of something happening by way or renovation or conversion of the building into a heritage museum. But nothing did.

  8. Kalpasree Bhowmik
    at 3:18 pm on May 5, 2013

    Thanks for sharing this. I wish wisdom dawns upon these ‘leaders’ before it is too late.

  9. Lata
    at 4:13 pm on May 6, 2013

    Not just the British but Indians in past and still continue to exploit the farmers. Why do you think the farmers are committing mass suicides? Indian political class is an extension of the British rule in India. The land mafia is a well known fact. The British and the other European empires have not just exploited their colonies but also their own people. But now with the shift of power the Asian countries are waking up and becoming more assertive.
    As for Bangladesh, if they continue to breed like rabbits and keep their people uneducated they have no other option but to depend on other countries for their livelihood at whatever cost.
    I think its time we must put behind the past and enjoy our heritage both Muslim and English. Preserve whatever they have left behind and be proud of it. Make money out of it, market it well so that the Muslims, the British, the Jews, the Portuguese, the Buddhists come and visit.

  10. R.Kailasnath
    at 12:49 am on May 9, 2013

    Thanks to Mr.Gaitonde for enlightening me. It is important to preserve such heritage sites. Is there a possibility of retaining this memorial within the park ? Personally I do not see anything contradictory.

  11. Ruth Harris
    at 8:04 am on May 25, 2013

    Thank you for expanding on yesterday’s NYTimes article about the Orwell house and efforts to preserve it. Jim Thompson, credited with saving Thai silk production in the 1940’s, lived in Bangkok. His traditional house was restored in Bangkok and is now a leading attraction. Very beautiful & very moving to visit and might offer a template for rescuing the Orwell house.

    Here’s a link to the NYT article: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/24/world/asia/orwells-house-links-myanmar-to-its-burmese-days.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

    Link to Jim Thompson house/museum:
    http://www.jimthompsonhouse.com

  12. NM
    at 2:14 pm on June 25, 2013

    Thank you for this very important piece and I hope it contributes to help saving Orwell’s house. Vishwas, great suggestion about also turning the house into an opium museum.

    Gandhi would have been the first to object to this memorial if it meant demolishing the birth home of an Englishman who spoke up unequivocally for India’s freedom.

    Pitting Gandhi against Orwell, as this Gandhi memorial project unfortunately does, is sad and unnecessary. They were on the same side — on the side of truth, no matter how unpalatable that truth was. The two men met together in this marvelous essay Orwell wrote on Gandhi — a frank, bracingly honest appraisal. Link pasted below, but this is how it ends:

    “One may feel, as I do, a sort of aesthetic distaste for Gandhi, one may reject the claims of sainthood made on his behalf (he never made any such claim himself, by the way), one may also reject sainthood as an ideal and therefore feel that Gandhi’s basic aims were anti-human and reactionary: but regarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind.”

    LInk: http://www.george-orwell.org/Reflections_of_Ghandi/0.html

  13. Vishwas Gaitonde
    at 3:55 pm on June 28, 2013

    Thank you, NM, for your kind comments. I, too, hope that my piece will contribute to saving Orwell’s birth house. Perhaps some foundation or private enterprise that is dedicated to preserving heritage places may come to the rescue, as successive governments have done nothing. Unfortunately, politicians know they can use Gandhi’s name for political mileage whether they personally care about Gandhi or not, and such people cannot be bothered to learn what Orwell stood for, that he staunchly opposed the British political class in espousing freedom for India and other colonies. I remember reading that Orwell could converse in Hindi, and broadcast to India on the BBC’s Eastern Service. He also loved Indian food and was often spotted in Indian restaurants in Picadilly. When an Indian friend asked him whether he might visit India, he said “Oh yes. Don’t forget I am an Indian and was born there.” Unfortunately, the tuberculosis that cut short his life prevented him from traveling to India and his old haunts in Burma. Today this side of Orwell is all but forgotten.

  14. Good reads: George Orwell, tornadoes, conspiracy theories | karolle rabarison
    at 9:13 am on January 28, 2014

    […] On the Fall of the House of Orwell Vishnas Gaitonde, The Millions, May 2013 Officials in Bihar want to build a Gandhi memorial park in Motihari. Its construction would involve demolishing George Orwell’s birth house. Should Bihari preserve Orwell’s legacy? […]

  15. Vishwas Gaitonde
    at 6:35 am on February 6, 2014

    I am truly delighted that a film-maker Mr Bishwajeet Mookerjee, who read my essay in The Millions (https://twitter.com/bmookherjee/status/423529133595828224) and researched the topic further, went on to make a short documentary film on Orwell’s birthplace. The 23-minute documentary, titled “Orwell…but why?” was released this year on Jan 21 [Orwell's death anniversary]. From this newspaper report ( http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/documentary-on-orwells-birthplace-in-bihar/article5592105.ece) it appears that it is the first documentary on Orwell’s birth house. The film has been screened in India, the reception has been good, and it has now been posted on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GgoDh5mmGqc (Hindi, with English subtitles) for general viewing. I sincerely hope that now there will be a solid interest in preserving this house as a heritage site. Everybody interviewed in the film seems to think that this would be a good idea.

  16. Good reads: George Orwell, tornadoes, conspiracy theories | karolle rabarison
    at 6:04 pm on July 12, 2014

    […] has collected nearly a dozen links to share. Here, then, are a few good reads for your weekend. On the Fall of the House of Orwell Vishnas Gaitonde, The Millions, May 2013 Officials in Bihar want to build a Gandhi memorial park in […]

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