On the Fall of the House of Orwell

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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.