George Orwell (or Eric Arthur Blair) was born in a small house in the township of Motihari in Bihar, India where his father worked as an opium agent, trying to make a fortune in the flourishing trading triangle between India, China and Great Britain. Orwell’s family moved back to England a year later, but fourteen years down the lane, Mahatma Gandhi held a Satyagraha at Motihari in support of the Indian peasants retaliating against being forced to grow opium. So is that enough to make Motihari a site worth our interest?
Gandhi walked the length of the country he was trying to liberate from under British control and travelled across continents more than once – surely, he could be linked to many other literary legends more intimately – Rabindranath Tagore, for instance; or Leo Tolstoy, with whom Gandhi shared an interesting correspondence in the last year of the Russian writer’s life. What makes Motihari interesting is that almost a century after Gandhi visited the place his name is locked into a real estate conflict with that of Orwell.
It was not until 2003, on the centenary year of the famous novelist’s birth, that the local population was aware of the district’s historical link to Orwell. The site was marked for protection by the State Government but that didn’t stop local political leaders from trying to claim the spot as a memorial park for a CRPF martyr from the Municipality. When that failed, this faction tried to draw linkages of the site to Gandhi’s anti-imperial movement and was able to attain an allotment of INR 2.21 crore for a Satyagraha Park. It was on the initiative of the town’s local George Orwell Commemorative Committee (GOOC) led by a Ms. Debapriya Mookherjee and with support from the Rotary Motihari Lake Town Club that people began to oppose the State Government’s order and that media attention was drawn to Orwell’s birthplace.
Before the site was completely demolished and lost to history, an international initiative by the Orwell Society, UK to restore the author’s birthplace helped local courts reverse the government’s order. The matter seemed to be settled upon in 2010, when the site was divided equally for the purposes of the construction of the Satyagraha Park and maintaining the other half for the commemoration of the literary legend.
One of the main points of contention offered by the “Gandhi faction” in this argument was that Orwell was neither from Bihar nor an Indian – further, as the author of only English literature, they could not see any reason to maintain his physical linkage to the Indian past.
While it is true that Orwell never went back to his birthplace, he cannot be completely disassociated with India and the discourse of colonialism. He was hired by the BBC in 1941, during World War II, as a radio producer to design programs broadcast in India. His employers commented on his
…past experience and his interest in India and Burma, his literary abilities and contacts, and his personality, which seemed to be strongly marked and attractive in spite of a very different and not very impressive manner in the initial stages of our interview, all marked him out as a very suitable person to work on English talks, etc., intended for Indian listeners, particularly Indian students.
After two years although, Orwell grew frustrated from his position and left the job. In his 1943 resignation letter he wrote: “I believe that in the present political situation the broadcasting of British propaganda to India is an almost hopeless task.”
As such, Orwell wasn’t in complete agreement with the way the English conducted their business in the colonies. According to his biographer, Gordon Bawker, the idea of coming to a British Imperial site, earlier in the 1930s and writing against the empire greatly appealed to Orwell, but Pioneer, the newspaper he hoped to work for, did not hire him fearing his anti-imperial views. Ill health did not allow him to pursue this interest further.
Nevertheless, even while staying in England, Orwell was often seen enjoying a meal with his friend Krishna Menon at the Indian restaurants in Piccadilly. Mulk Raj Anand, who worked for BBC during Orwell’s tenure, would later say that “Orwell was an Englishman to the core, but believed in the freedom of all colonised countries.”
In 2014, the state’s Chief Minister inaugurated a renovated museum and asked the concerned officials to develop the site of Orwell’s birth into a tourist attraction. The GOOC gathered at the museum recently to mark the writer’s 113th birthday and noticed that construction work for the Satyagraha Park has encroached upon the area allotted to the Orwell memorial. The district authorities were called upon to halt the construction. The matter is once again under dispute. Orwell himself of course was appreciative of Gandhi’s politics in dealing with the empire. In an essay on the Indian nationalist figure, Orwell broadly traces Gandhi’s political acts till the 1920s and negotiates them with his public image and writes
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!