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Arts and Culture

What Fate Awaits Orwell’s Birthplace?

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Posted on May 2, 2013
monsterspade (CC BY 2.0)

George Orwell’s press card portrait.

Would you bulldoze the house where the beloved author of “Animal Farm” and “1984” was born to build a park in honor of Mahatma Gandhi? Officials in the state of Bihar, India, are considering it.

Eric Arthur Blair (the given name of Orwell) was born to an officer of the British government and his wife in Motihari, a rural town in colonial India. Their home was modest: a two-room single-story bungalow with whitewashed walls and a tiled roof set away from the locals, with whom the occupying British rarely socialized.

Orwell lived in the home for the first year of his life before he was taken to Oxfordshire, England, where he was educated. During that time his father was transferred to Burma. The building became a storehouse for opium, which was then the region’s main cash crop.

The building “has languished in dilapidation for decades,” writes Vishwas Gaitonde at the literary magazine The Millions. An earthquake that struck in 1934 made it into a derelict shelter for transients and stray animals. Vandals have had their way with the walls. “Part of the roof has caved in and a grapefruit tree has weakened the southern wall.”

“For decades,” Gaitonde notes, “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.” Orwell’s birthplace has been saved for now.

Orwell had been brought up to believe in Britain’s right to rule over India. He lost this notion early in adulthood, while working as a British police officer in the same Burma where his father served. “[H]is time in that country not only opened his eyes to what imperialism really entailed,” Gaitonde points out, “they also irrevocably shaped him as a writer. Eric Blair began turning into George Orwell.”

The local officials who plan to establish the Gandhi memorial park seem not to recognize the significance of the history they possess. “The panjandrums who want to establish the Gandhi memorial park know a lot about Gandhi,” Gaitonde explains. “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.”

Officials want to honor Gandhi’s leading role in organizing Indians in the region in 1917 amid a famine and destructive taxation by the ruling British. Motihari is the biggest town in the area in which this occurred. Gandhi is no insignificant figure, Gaitonde acknowledges, but Orwell was no mere Englishman. Orwell fought against the unjust rule of people everywhere. If the local government neglects this fact, Gaitonde argues, they will erase an irreplaceable geographic marker of this universal human struggle.

—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.


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