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.
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
"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
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
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.