Coming up for Motihari

Shreevatsa Nevatia | Updated on September 05, 2014

The opium warehouse that was once looked after by George Orwell's father   -  Shreevatsa Nevatia

22-year-old Anurag Abhisekh, resident of the Orwell House, is a Dexter fan   -  Shreevatsa Nevatia

Orwell's first address is etched on the wall outside his birthplace.   -  Shreevatsa Nevatia

Possession's of those who live in Orwell's childhood home today   -  Shreevatsa Nevatia

George Orwell might have been born in this house but his nose has been unceremoniously chipped off from the commemorative bust   -  Shreevatsa Nevatia

With the restoration of his birthplace, residents of a small town in Bihar hope that George Orwell will give them a place on the world map

It seems only fitting that the first thing you see outside George Orwell’s ramshackle birthplace is a pig sprawled on its back. Unlike the writer’s Animal Farm revolutionaries though, she seems to lack the required Stalinist zeal. A goat loiters aimlessly, in straight view of the writer’s bust, as if auditioning for a part in his dystopian classic. Motihari, a bustling town in Bihar’s East Champaran district, never intended this irony. For the longest time, it had little idea that Eric Arthur Blair, who was born here on June 25, 1903, had gone on to become the renowned George Orwell. Besides, Blair had left Motihari when he was only a year old. The town never got a chance to know him better.

As a result of this somewhat incidental neglect, there is little evidence today to suggest that the Blairs were once honorary Biharis. Being a sub-deputy agent in the opium department of the Indian Civil Service, Orwell’s father Richard W Blair lived beside a large warehouse that stored poppy seeds for export to China. Lately used as a gambling den and an open kitchen for the cooking of meat, the ‘building’ is now almost hollow, its bricks having been pilfered by encroachers and trespassers. The nose on Orwell’s bust has been chipped off by local miscreants, and inside the three-room house itself, the ceiling is starting to cave in, the walls smell of damp and the floor still displays cracks from an earthquake that rattled Motihari in 1934.

If it weren’t for the recent presence of masons and labourers, there would have been little cause for optimism. After many promises, district authorities finally began renovating Orwell’s birthplace in the last week of June, and handed current occupants notices to evict the property. While his younger brother monopolises the bed, watching episodes of Dexter in what may have well been George Orwell’s first room, 29-year-old Aditya Abhisekh says that even though the British author is synonymous with 1984, he too has some claim on that date. That’s the year he was born. Similarly, he adds, “More than George Orwell’s, this is my home. Yes, he was born here, but he left only a few months later. I have lived here for 30 years.” Even though he remains anxious about having to move house during the monsoon, Abhishekh doesn’t directly blame Orwell for his woes. “Once this house is renovated, Motihari will be on the world map, and we will have Orwell to thank for it.”

Back in queue

Having served as the residential quarters for teachers of nearby Gopal Sah Vidyalaya, the the colonial quaintness of the premises has long faded away. “The instructions are clear,” says Atul Kumar Verma, director of the Bihar government’s archaeological department. “All restoration work being carried out at Orwell’s birthplace must be in line with archaeological methods. We don’t wish to alter the framework of the house. We just want to strengthen it.” Though Verma speaks of larger plans — transforming the remains of the opium warehouse into a library and the rooms of the house into a museum — he does offer a few words of caution. “Building something from scratch is easier. To be accurate, conservation needs more time.”

Motihari is, in a sense, accustomed to long waits. Prakash Asthana, chairman of Motihari Nagar Parishad, laments that the “speed of development in Bihar has always been very slow.” This sluggish growth, he feels, is often caused by the State’s inability to put its money where its mouth is. “Look at the Orwell project, for instance. The amount of money allotted by the government is only a tiny fraction of what is required to develop the place and preserve its legacy.” After the 2.48 acres around the house was declared a protected area by the Bihar government in 2010, the plot initially saw an investment of ₹32 lakh and the money was spent in building a boundary wall. The recent inflow of ₹45 lakh is just about enough to protect the house from crumbling entirely. Local businessman Debapriya Mookherjee says he still has reason to be rather hopeful. “The government has assured us that funds will not be a problem in the future.”

Mookherjee, a member of the Rotary Motihari Lake Town, also doubles as the chairman of the club’s George Orwell Commemorative Committee. Looking out at patches of coarse grass near the erstwhile Blair residence, he speaks of landscaping plans, the possibility of a fountain and a statue. For the proposed Orwell museum — the first of its kind in the world — Mookherjee talks of convincing Richard Blair, the writer’s son, to send replicas of his father’s manuscripts from the George Orwell Archive at University College London. “Rather than travelling to Britain, we want Orwell scholars in India to be able to come to Motihari for their research.”

If the past three decades have taught the Motihari resident anything, it is this — Orwell can attract a rather diverse footfall. It was in 1983 that British journalist Ian Jack had first visited Motihari to research his Sunday Times article ‘In Search of Jaarj Arwil’, and it was only then that Mookherjee became aware of his hometown’s literary significance. “But even after this historic discovery, nobody was interested in developing the place.” Events in 2003, the year of Orwell’s birth centenary, changed all that. A slew of foreign and local journalists descended upon Motihari, and this sudden spurt of attention strengthened Mookherjee’s resolve to take all Orwellian matters into his own hands. “We installed a bust of the writer outside his house and also put up a little plaque. We started commemorating each of his birth and death anniversaries by organising seminars and contests.” The Rotarian even took to regularly petitioning the government for funds and, after some persistent campaigning, names like Gopalkrishna Gandhi and Nitish Kumar were added to the visitors’ book. Despite these efforts, though, an obstinate Motihari seemed reluctant to reclaim its long-lost British son.

The author and the saint

Accustomed to institutionalised ignorance and apathy, Mookherjee is a hard man to rattle. But even he admits to have been “shocked” by the news that in the 2.5 acres adjacent to the demarcated Orwell site, a Satyagraha Park was to come up. “That plot of land has nothing to do with Gandhiji,” he says. “The district authorities could have easily found a space where the Mahatma had actually lived and worked.” Defending local farmers who were being forced to grow neel or indigo for their British rulers, it was in Bihar’s Champaran district, after all, that Gandhi had launched his Satyagraha movement in April 1917. With the Motihari station bearing the prefix ‘Bapudham’, several Gandhi statues assert the town’s role in our national history.

Pitting the ‘imperial’ heritage of Orwell against the ‘independent’ legacy of Gandhi, proponents of the Satyagraha Park ask a question that has now become familiar in Motihari: “Why must we be interested in protecting the birthplace of a British writer?” Debapriya Mookherjee’s son, Bishwajeet, decided that he needed to nip such small-mindedness in the bud. “It was all very satirical. On the one hand, these people were deriding Orwell for being an opium seller’s son. On the other, they garland a bust of him.” Last year, the freelance journalist and filmmaker began researching Orwell’s life for a documentary simply titled Orwell... But Why? “When I read Orwell’s biography, the first thing that impressed me was his anti-imperialism,” says the 25-year-old. “I couldn’t get this thought out of my head — if there can be a Gandhi statue in London, why can’t there be an Orwell memorial in Motihari? They both stood for the same principles in the end.”

Bishwajeet remembers that when his father’s Rotary Club decided to pay tribute to Orwell by way of a plaque, it was he who had sat with the required slab of stone on a rickshaw. On his way to the writer’s birthplace, the 14-year-old grandson of a famed freedom fighter was puzzled by the importance being given to an unknown litterateur. “It’s only a decade later that I realise the basic problem in our country. We have this terrible tendency to keep promoting the heroes of our independence, while forgetting all about our writers.” The Delhi-based Bishwajeet points to the plight of Motihari’s Gandhi Museum — a dilapidated and dusty building. He says that before criticising the Orwell project, self-proclaimed Gandhians should do more to preserve today’s Gandhi memorials. “They only spruce up his statues on October 2. For the rest of the year, the only ones dropping ‘flowers’ on him are crows and pigeons.”

In ‘Reflections on Gandhi’, a January 1949 essay in the Partisan Review, George Orwell seems unimpressed by the Mahatma’s homespun cloth, his vegetarianism and by what he refers to as Gandhi’s “medievalist” programme. But this largely “aesthetic distaste” is balanced by great regard for the Mahatma’s moral rigour — “His [Gandhi’s] character was an extraordinarily mixed one, but there was almost nothing in it that you can put a finger on and call bad, and I believe that even Gandhi’s worst enemies would admit that he was an interesting and unusual man who enriched the world by simply being alive.” Even if Orwell’s Motihari critics find it hard to emulate his equanimity, Debapriya Mookherjee seems to have finally made his peace with the neighbouring Satyagraha Park. “Now people coming here can get information about both these figures, Orwell and Gandhi.”

One for the books

For a man who incarcerated his 1984 protagonists in the ‘Ministry of Love’, Orwell would have perhaps been tickled by the fact that Motihari's Munshi Singh College used to once be a prison. Sitting in his dark office, however, Md Equebal Hussain turns sombre when discussing the writer’s oeuvre. “We live in an age of democracy, but the totalitarianism represented in Orwell’s books still prevails.” Head of the college’s English department, Hussain allows himself a dose of lofty romanticism when he says that though the writer belongs to the world, Orwell belonged more to Motihari. “He left Motihari when he was just a year old, so you cannot trace any direct influence that the town had on him, but the spirit of the place — the air that he breathed, the water he drank — could have instilled an ethical standard that helped him later denounce imperialism.”

With neither Animal Farm nor 1984 being compulsory texts at the graduate level, the students of MS College are largely unaware of Orwell’s significance. Neha Kumari, for instance, can list his works like elements in the periodic table, but she confesses to have never read a single title. Adil Raza says that he was once the proud member of the George Orwell Fan Committee. Formed by friends, the committee’s only task was a journey to the writer’s house. “We saw the place was in ruins. We then went to look for details on the internet, but soon realised that all of his books are only published in English. That was the end of our research and also the end of the committee.”

Over a cup of tea in his living room, Dr Anil Kumar Sinha presents a solution to Motihari’s Orwellian dilemma. “It’s time that Orwell was translated. As long as the local population doesn’t read him, they won’t have faith in his genius.” The surgeon, who would rather be described as an amateur writer and thinker, spends the better part of an animated hour remembering several of the writer’s neologisms such as Big Brother and thought police. Insisting that Orwell’s political clairvoyance and literary style have been unmatched by any other author, Sinha believes that Motihari would only be emboldening itself by protecting Orwell’s birthplace. “It will be our way of saying that we are aware, we are intelligent and we know how to assess the true worth of great human achievement.”

(Shreevatsa Nevatia is a freelance writer based in Kolkata)

Published on August 01, 2014

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