The dusty shack where a genius was born

It might be dusty and crumbling, but it has a claim to fame . . . Steven Russell hears of a Suffolk couple's visit to the birthplace of author George Orwell, off the beaten track in India.

Steven Russell

It might be dusty and crumbling, but it has a claim to fame . . . Steven Russell hears of a Suffolk couple's visit to the birthplace of author George Orwell, off the beaten track in India

IT'S difficult to know what to expect from the far-flung birthplace of one of England's literary geniuses, but few visitors would have imagined it being like this.

The white brick-and-tile bungalow is peeling and crumbling. A dog lies on the concrete in the dusty yard, dozing in the sunshine. Cows, goats, dogs and pigs snuffle about in the earth and grass beyond the gates and wall of the compound.

It's a spring Saturday in north-east India, less than 40km from the border with Nepal, and travellers Clive and Monica Collins have reached Motihari. The only westerners in sight, they're forever shadowed by a crowd of 20 or more curious locals, many of whom have got wind of why they're here.

Fabric business owner Debapriya Mookherjee is the couple's guide this afternoon. He was president of the Motihari Lake Town Rotary Club about five years ago when this particular bungalow's claim to fame was established and has arranged for them to see the place where writer George Orwell was born Eric Blair on June 25, 1903.

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Orwell's father was Sub-Deputy Opium Agent at Motihari. The drug made from a type of poppy was illegal in India, but China had 15 million needy addicts. Opium sales did wonders for official coffers.

The bungalow is currently home to Braj Nandan Rai, a teacher in his late 50s, and belongs to the school where he works - an inscription on the crumbling walls, P.W.B. 2/12, recording its history as a public works building.

Mr Rai is having a snooze when the Suffolk visitors arrive, but is soon showing them around the bungalow, including his spartan sleeping quarters where the bed is propped up on bricks.

He might teach English, but didn't know “Orwell Sahib” from Adam until a party of Orwell enthusiasts and journalists descended in the summer of 2003 to celebrate the centenary of the author's birth. He was quite taken aback.

He told The Times of India: “Initially, there was a lot of confusion regarding the house of Orwell's birth. Then I saw two photographs in a book brought by a British journalist. Both the pictures showed baby Blair in the courtyard of this very house. In one, he is seen with his mother Ida 'glowing in a (Victorian) frock', while in the other he is with an unidentified Indian ayah.” (A nanny.)

In 2005, just outside the gate, the Rotary Club put up a large white board explaining that Orwell was born there. However, it hasn't really taken off as a tourism shrine. There were no visitors to mark the writer's birthday on 25 June that year, and the prepared Mr Rai gave to local children the sweets he'd got in for Orwell pilgrims.

There were once, perhaps still are, big dreams of transforming the bungalow site into a major heritage centre, with the area landscaped. “A museum, indoor stadium, a library and a bust of Orwell will be erected. The main structure will be restored,” the BBC quoted Mr Mookherjee as saying in the summer of 2005.

It's understandable that Orwell hasn't greatly penetrated the consciousness of Motiharians. Baby Blair left for England with his mother and sister at the age of about 12 months, never to return; his father was a cog in the imperialistic machine that compelled farmers to grow indigo and opium for the British, and so wouldn't be fondly remembered; and the challenge of everyday life probably doesn't permit the luxury of daydreaming about a British writer whose work you've never read.

There's another reason: Motihari was the place where in 1917 Mahatma Gandhi started his non-violent Satyagrah (Quest for Truth) protest movement against the colonial government and the obligation on farmers to sow opium or indigo on part of their plots, selling it to the British at a fixed price.

Gandhi was arrested and charged, but the movement he started would prove unstoppable. Today, Motihari has a soaring monument and a museum commemorating his influence.

His life would overshadow anyone's, especially a non-resident writer.

Nevertheless, the Collinses were happy to step off the beaten track and visit the author's birthplace, seeing as they were holidaying in India - part of their itinerary involving watching tigers in a national park as a birthday treat for Monica.

As an English teacher, Clive has many times taught anti-totalitarianism Orwell classics such as Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, and counts himself a fan.

“As someone who's read a lot of literature, I found myself admiring his writing style, which is one of the most lucid and clear styles in English literature,” he explains to the EADT, once back in England. “And, politically, I just find myself more and more surprised by the perceptiveness of his work, particularly of Nineteen Eighty-Four and its relevance to today. He predicted things he couldn't possibly have known about.

“There are the obvious things like CCTV surveillance cameras, and the 'manufacturing' of an external threat that will allow you to impose all kinds of draconian legislation because you terrify people: 'If you don't let us take away these freedoms from you, then this big bogeyman out there might get you.'

“Who else has given the nation the names of two TV series: Room 101 and Big Brother? And if you look at the examples of Newspeak that Orwell gives, it looks frighteningly similar to the pared-down textspeak that teenagers are using on their mobile phones and which is appearing increasingly in their written work in school.”

Orwell's vision of a globe divided into just a few dominating superstates - Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia - is rapidly becoming reality. As history is rewritten, enemies become allies, and vice-versa. “Something like half the population of America believe Saddam Hussein” - whom the west had armed in the past - “was behind 9/11. Why do they believe that? Because Bush and the neo-cons, and all the media organs they control, have told them.”

Clive and Monica are both teachers. After working in Australia they came to the Ipswich area in the early 1980s. For about 12 years Monica combined supply teaching with the running of their home - a 15th Century farmhouse near Capel St Mary that was in her family - as a bed-and-breakfast business. Her husband taught full-time at schools such as Thurleston and Chantry in Ipswich before leaving full-time teaching in 2001, though he continued with supply work and short-term contracts.

As time went by, however, it became increasingly clear they were effectively working to pay for the upkeep of the old farmhouse. Although the business was successful, the income didn't adequately cover maintenance. Council tax was huge, the winter heating bill scary, and they could see the roof was going to require major attention.

“We were simply marking time: going in to teach simply so we could continue to run the business,” admits Clive. “So we downsized, came here, and have used the space in our lives to do other things.”

“Here” is a more modern and manageable home near Woodbridge. The couple both do supply teaching, but now have the flexibility to go away for a couple of months or so when the mood takes them.

They've been to India many times, but weren't they wary of going to Motihari? A search on the worldwide web throws up several articles to make a traveller think twice. A BBC report calls Bihar “India's most lawless and backward state”. In the district of East Champaran - main town Motihari - “people have been abducted for ransoms as low as $70 and as strange as 20 torchlight batteries and clothes”.

Well, says Clive, they were always in the care of a well-known local figure, Mr Mookherjee.

“It's pretty lawless, but I guess that's in the rural areas where there's not much sign of central control. We never ourselves felt uncomfortable, and certainly didn't see anything that would give rise to that.”

When the Blairs arrived in Motihari in the early 1900s, the place was apparently just a small town of 13,000 people. Nowadays the population tops 150,000 and Motihari is a typical Indian town: a bustling, noisy, dusty place with tiny lanes, potholes, and animals running around.

Clive thinks there's enormous potential for developing an Orwell tourism industry along the lines of those honouring Thomas Hardy or Shakespeare - either by converting the old opium warehouse into a visitors' centre, say, or creating something in a local hotel - but it's a chicken and egg situation.

People would come, but there needs to be something substantial for them to look at; but money is needed in order to create a visitor attraction. What's really required is a leap of faith.

So what reflections does he have after gazing upon the place where Orwell was born?

“I think there's a lot of empathy - more with his mother than him, because he was a baby, so he wouldn't have remembered a thing about it. His older sister was born there, so his mother had been there for some time with her husband. The rigors of life themselves would have been challenging. You can say 'Well, they had servants, the weather's nice,' but the remoteness . . .

“I think the main problem for someone like his mother would have been the isolation. Presumably Orwell's father was sometimes away for days at a time, on his opium-collecting duties. She'd have been there with the children - there would have been staff, and possibly other British people as well - but it would have been a worry how difficult it would have been to get any medical assistance or other help.

“If we were living there now, even with the ease of mobile phones, you'd still think twice about what you'd do in an emergency. If it were a life-threatening emergency, the only way any help could get to you would be by helicopter, in terms of speed. It doesn't bear thinking about.”

Down and out: The George Orwell story

Goes to school in Henley, Eastbourne, Wellington College and Eton

1922-1927: Serves in Indian Imperial Police in Burma, but quits, concerned about the way the Empire treats people

Late 1920s: Writes essays, short stories and novels while living in Paris, where for a time he earns money doing washing-up

1930-31: Lives much of the time at parents' home in Southwold. Has essays published, and writes Down and Out in Paris and London

1932-1933: Teaches at schools in Middlesex

Early 1933: Down and Out in Paris and London published by Victor Gollancz, using the pseudonym George Orwell. Has to give up teaching after falling ill with pneumonia

Spends next 10 months or so living with parents at Southwold. Writes A Clergyman's Daughter (published 1935). Burmese Days comes out

Autumn 1934 to start of 1936: Works as part-time bookshop assistant in Hampstead. Aspects feature in Keep the Aspidistra Flying (published 1936)

Spring: Opens a small shop in Hertfordshire and has an allotment.

Summer: Wedding to Eileen O'Shaughnessy

December: Goes to fight for Republicans in Spanish Civil War. Wounded by Fascist sniper at Huesca

Summer 1937: He and Eileen back in Hertfordshire and he writes Homage to Catalonia

Spends months in a Kent sanatorium in 1938 with TB

Summer 1941-autumn 1943: Works for Indian Section of BBC's Eastern Service

Autumn 1943-early 1945: Literary Editor of left-wing Tribune magazine

Spring 1945: War correspondent for The Observer and Manchester Evening News in Germany, France and Austria

March 1945: While Orwell is in hospital in Germany, wife Eileen dies during surgery in Newcastle upon Tyne

Summer 1945: Animal Farm published, after countless rejections

Much of 1947: Despite ill health, writing Nineteen Eighty-Four in isolated cottage on the island of Jura, off Scotland. Finishes it towards end of 1948, despite long spell in a Glasgow hospital with TB

1949: Much of year in a Gloucestershire sanatorium, and later University College Hospital, London. Nineteen Eighty-Four published in the summer

October 1949: Marries Sonia Brownell

January 21, 1950: Dies of tuberculosis

The Suffolk connection

Richard Blair left the army in the spring of 1919 and in December 1921 moved with his family to 20, South Green, Southwold

Richard Blair died in 1939, but during his 17 years in Suffolk his son Eric (George Orwell) often stayed with his parents, initially at South Green and latterly at Montague House, in the High Street

Orwell's mother, Ida, stayed in Southwold until 1942. His sister, Avril, had been proprietress of the Copper Kettle tea shop

Southwold was the fictional Knype Hill in A Clergyman's Daughter

In 1932 Eric Blair and his literary agent were considering a pen-name. Blair suggested three: Kenneth Miles, H Lewis Allways, and (his favoured option) George Orwell

By that time, says Clive Collins, the Blair family was firmly established in Suffolk. “Southwold is genteel enough now; you imagine what it was like in the 1930s. He didn't want to embarrass his family. For his first book he'd lived as a tramp and a skivvy. He didn't want anyone to associate him with this nice old retired couple living in Southwold!”

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