Remembering George Orwell
1903, June 25. - 1950, January 21.


When Luke Harding heard that George Orwell's birthplace had been turned into a cowshed, he travelled to one of India's poorest towns to see for himself.

SHADOWS OF ORWELL


By Luke Harding
The Guardian
24 June 2000

He is a remarkably chubby baby, with no hint of the ill health that would trouble him in later life. Two photos survive of Eric Blair, aged six weeks. One shows him with his mother Ida, her maternal smile revealing classically bad Victorian teeth. In the second portrait, the infant Eric is being held by a strikingly dark Indian nanny, whose identity is lost. She regards the camera with a penetrating stare. In the background, you can make out the outline of a neat colonial bungalow. There are flowerpots; a path leads tantalisingly backwards; the grass is fresh and lush.
That the pudgy baby was to metamorphose into the cadaverous George Orwell is well known. Less well known, though, is what happened to the bungalow in which Eric was born, and the fate of Motihari, the obscure Indian town where he spent the first year of his life.
Several months ago an intriguing rumour reached me: George Orwell's birthplace had become a cowshed. This seemed exquisitely appropriate for the writer and fabulist who found fame at the end of his life with Animal Farm.
When I visited Motihari nearly 100 years after his birth, it emerged that few people had heard of George Orwell. This is not surprising. Few people in Motihari can read; of those, even fewer can read English. Could one buy Orwell's books in Motihari? "Not available," one resident said.
When the Blairs arrived here early last century, Motihari was little more than an overgrown village, "pleasantly situated," as a contemporary guidebook puts it, "on the east bank of a lake." The town, population 13,730, functioned as an administrative headquarters for northern Bengal. It boasted a jail, "the usual public offices", a school, and a troop of light horse.
Orwell's father, Richard Walmesley Blair, was posted here as a member of a now vanished imperial tribe. He was a sub-deputy opium agent. Opium had been licensed as a government monopoly in 1860. Though its production aroused controversy at home, opium provided an enormous source of revenue for the British empire, and had the added advantage of enfeebling the Chinese.
The son of a vicar, Richard joined the lowly opium service at the age of 18. In the course of his unremarkable career, he found himself posted to some of the remotest corners of British India, often shifting posts every year. By the time he arrived in Motihari, Blair was 46. His wife Ida, the daughter of a teak merchant who had grown up in Burma, was 18 years his junior.
Orwell was to regard his father as a remote and ancient figure; his father in turn found his son's literary obsessions baffling. His mother Ida was brighter, less conventional, more artistic. Eric's older sister Marjorie was also born in India, in 1898. His younger sister Avril was conceived after Ida, Eric and Marjorie returned to Henley in 1904.
Motihari now is a chaotic, mud-infested town of 150,000. It has rickshaws, lychee sellers, potholes, itinerant farm animals and small shops. There are few cars; no one can afford them. Motihari is so far off the beaten track that its most expensive hotel, the Raj, costs £4 a night (cockroaches gratis). "We were reluctant to fit air-conditioners in our house in case the local goons turned up demanding money," one member of Motihari's small middle class confessed. The political and criminal classes here have been conflated.
In the end, finding Eric's bungalow was easy. Or so it seemed. The Blairs had lived at the far end of town, in a European quarter known as Miscourt (probably a corruption of "mess" and "court"). They occupied one of three colonial bungalows looking out onto an open field. We parked at the bottom of a muddy lane and tramped through a brick archway. The field was still there, as were the bungalows, now painted blue. What was not clear, however, was which one had been Eric's. An earthquake had flattened Motihari in 1934; the small brick houses may have been damaged and substantially rebuilt. It was evident, though, that Ida and Richard's home had been modest.
I asked Mrs Prabha Prasad, who lived next door to the bungalows, whether she had heard of George Orwell. "No," she replied, slightly defensively. Several other women nodded agreement.
A group of hairy pigs rooted around in a mud pond next to some banana trees. A donkey wandered by. Three small boys flew homemade kites, while an old man sheltered from the sun under a black umbrella. There was no sign of any cows.
One of the bungalows was occupied by an English teacher, Braj Nandai Rai. This seemed promising. But Mr Rai had not heard of Orwell either. He had heard of Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw, both of whom Orwell admired. "I am fond of Macbeth, Merchant of Venice and As You Like," he said.
Eric Blair's birthplace, it transpired, was almost, but not quite, a cowshed. A vast warehouse opposite the bungalows still stands. It was built by the British to store opium and indigo, the crop that poor Indian farmers were compelled to grow by their colonial overlords. Richard Blair had lived next door to, rather than above the shop, it seemed. Once the British left, the warehouse had been turned into a cowshed - hence the tantalising rumour - and now served as a teachers' hostel. "George Orwell was the son of the opium agent," one man said, gesturing definitively at the earthquake-cracked warehouse.
A few of Motihari's elderly residents had memories of the British, though none was able to identify Eric's lost nanny. RK Verma, a 79-year-old advocate who still serves at Motihari's court, remembered Orwell being discussed in literary circles. "I wanted to read his novels but I could not find them," he said. "The literature he gave is liked by many. I liked Keats, Shelley and Wordsworth. They were great poets." His main memory, though, is of British savagery. "The planters used to force farmers, including my father, to grow indigo plants. Those who refused were beaten, their land confiscated."
Bishwanath Prasad, an 80-year-old poet, also recalled the "well-dressed" British riding around Motihari on horses, or playing tennis. "I used to buy old tennis balls from them. We paid six to eight annas per ball. We played football with them." But contact between the natives and the English was limited. "There was a distinction between the ruler and the ruled. So naturally no friendship grew between us."
These days it is hard to find any traces of colonial rule in Motihari. Even the dead are disappearing. The English cemetery, once in the middle of a green field, is now encircled by houses. Several of the tombstones are used by local women as washing slabs. Goats dart in and out of the high weeds that have almost enveloped the few remaining graves. One of them is sacred to the memory of Annie Elizabeth, who died in 1861, aged 32. She was the wife of James Cosserat, "sub-deputy opium agent of Mooteeharee": Richard Blair's predecessor by four decades.
Over at the English church, it was the same story of decline. It became clear that the congregation had fallen away well before 1947. A solitary tablet recorded the now-forgotten tragedy of the Rev and Mrs SW Law, whose children Jean and Ronald died in quick succession in 1931 and 1934. The Blairs may or may not have come here with Marjorie and Eric to worship, walking past the lake and the district magistrate's bungalow. No parish records survive.
The monsoon-sodden colonial records relating to the period still exist; they can be found in the district magistrate's office on the outskirts of town. But a quick perusal revealed no trace of Richard Walmesley Blair. This was hardly surprising. He was too obscure, too unambitious, too junior to have made any indentation on official history.
There was some information about his job, though. LSS O'Malley, in his 1907 chronicle of Bengal, describes 1903 as a "thoroughly favourable year" for opium production. He also tells us something of the duties of a sub-deputy opium agent, an important part of which was "supervising the weighments of opium in April, May and June". In the earlier parts of the year, an opium agent had to travel round the district, giving advances to the poppy farmers, and taking thumbprints; later, he would return to check on the quality of the crop. The job was clearly dull and repetitious.
The archives also shed some light on the Blairs' precarious finances. Orwell was to describe his family "lower-upper-middle-class", or upper class down on its luck. Money worries, and at times extreme poverty, were to dog him throughout his career. A 1906 volume, The Administration of Bengal, concedes that opium agents in the region were "underpaid and generally discontented". Was this true of Richard Blair? Due to a "serious block of promotion", officers with long periods of service "found their emoluments stationary", it adds. The worm-eaten records reveal that as Ida, Marjorie and Eric set sail for England in 1904, Mr Blair's salary was raised from 600 to 900 rupees a year. Apart from a three-month holiday, Eric would not see his father again until he was eight.
At the end of my stay in Motihari, I finally discovered someone who had read George Orwell's books. Firoz Mohammed, a poet and reader in Urdu, had enjoyed both Animal Farm and 1984. "I think he was a great writer. I appreciate his inventive powers and his objectivity; his feel for society, politics and human weakness," he said. "His writing reminds me of Swift's Gulliver's Travels. I think every generation will read Orwell - every generation interested in literature and politics." Mohammed said his father had been a lawyer who, unusually, had fraternised with the British. "He was a humanitarian. He liked everybody," he said. Vijay Singh, a local journalist with the Hindustan Times, disagreed with Mohammed's opinion of Orwell. "People here are not interested in abstract books," he said, not unkindly.
Orwell never returned to India, though he almost did so on two occasions. His application in 1921 to join the Imperial Indian Police could have taken him back to Bengal; instead he ended up in Burma. Sixteen years later he contemplated taking up a job as leader writer on a paper in Lucknow. In the event, medical advice and suspicion in the India Office of Orwell's pro-Congress sympathies intervened.
Richard Blair died just before the outbreak of the second world war, apparently reconciled to his son's writing career. Ida passed away in 1943. Seven years later, at the height of his powers, Orwell too was dead.
As I waited on the platform of Motihari station, I wondered what had happened to Eric's nanny. She had played an unwitting cameo role in Orwell's life, and now all trace of her had vanished. The closest I came to identifying her was when one old Motiharian remarked: "She looks like the girls from round here."
Compared to the ruinous present, though, such thoughts seemed self-indulgent. Next to me on the platform, two women lay in the filth with two children. All four of them looked more dead than alive. They woke up. The children were fed a scrap of bread, and then set about begging. Orwell, no doubt, would have had something to say. We are in need of him now more than ever.







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