IN 1983, Scottish journalist Ian Jack travelled to the town of Motihari in Bihar to visit the place where George Orwell was born. In a piece published in 1984 in the Sunday Times, titled “In search of a Jaarj Arwil”, Jack recounted that locals were clueless that their town was the writer’s birthplace, and that it took a string of enquiries before he finally found the opium godown where Orwell’s father, Richard Blair, had worked as an employee of the Opium Department of the Indian Civil Service. Orwell, whose birth name was Eric Blair, was born in quarters nearby in 1903.
But Jack may have been exaggerating when he wrote: “I found that nobody, save the district magistrate, had ever heard of Orwell.” “The first time I read Orwell was in college [in the early 1970s],” recalled Debapriya Mookherjee, a soft-spoken businessman of 57, when I met him at his Motihari residence this February. But Mookherjee admitted that it was only after Indian publications ran accounts of Jack’s visit that he learnt that his hometown was also the birthplace of the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Mookherjee has memories of playing football as a child near the opium godown, which had by then been leased as a boys’ hostel to the government school he attended. By the end of the 1980s, the godown had become rundown and uninhabitable, and the hostel was vacated. For many years, nothing was done to preserve the site—in a 2000 Guardian piece, Luke Harding glibly noted the place’s neglect, writing that when he visited, “a group of hairy pigs rooted around in a mud pond” nearby, and a “donkey wandered by”.
This state of affairs troubled Mookherjee, who is an Orwell enthusiast. In 2003, the centenary of the writer’s birth, he decided to do something about it. “It’s a matter of pride for us that a writer of his stature was born here,” he told me. “When we saw that no one else was willing to come forward and save the place, we thought it was our duty to do so.” With the help of the local Rotary Club, Mookherjee launched a campaign to protect the site and give it the recognition he felt it deserved. The son of well-known freedom fighters from the region, Mookherjee recalled that there had initially been some resistance to his campaign from locals, who rebuked him for peddling an ‘Angrez’ writer, despite the fact that Orwell was a staunch anti-imperialist. “They simply didn’t know him,” Mookherjee said.
Despite the opposition, Mookherjee and his team pressed on, celebrating Orwell’s birth and death anniversaries at the site, for which they would invite government officials, as well as other Rotary Club members, and journalists, who admired him. Recognition came slowly but steadily, with occasional boosts from high profile visitors, including former governor of West Bengal Gopalkrishna Gandhi. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar stopped by at the site while on his sewa-yatra in Motihari in April 2012.
While the Rotary Club of Motihari has funded the plaque and bust at the site, a boundary wall was constructed with a sum of Rs 32 lakh (3.2 million) provided by the Bihar government. Mookherjee’s vision for the site includes a landscaped ‘Orwell Park’, a collection of Orwell’s translated works and mementos for visitors. He added that the government has approved a proposal to release more than Rs 2 crore (20 million) for this work, but the money has yet to be disbursed.
The district of East Champaran, where Motihari is located, is where MK Gandhi had launched his satyagraha movement in 1917. Gandhi remains a dominant figure in political conversations in the region. As the Orwell campaign grew more visible over the years, articles appeared in local media, stating that Orwell had been a ‘disciple’ and ‘supporter’ of Gandhi. “Actually, he was quite critical of Gandhi,” Mookherjee said, but added immediately that “saying this openly” at the town whose railway station bears a sign that reads “Bapudhaam Motihari” could affect the popularity of the Orwell campaign.
I asked Mookherjee if he thought Orwell’s writings remained relevant today. “Bilkul relevant hai!” he said. “What that lady [Mamata Banerjee] in West Bengal is doing today is no different from what the CPM [Communist Party of India (Marxist)] earlier did!” As we discussed national politics and the question of the country’s next prime minister, Mookherjee, who finds Narendra Modi a “capable” prime-ministerial candidate, declared that “99.9 per cent of Muslims would feel safer under him”. Was this an instance of Doublethink from the protector of Orwell’s memory in his birthplace? I refrained from arguing the point.
Correction: An older version of this article incorrectly identified Ian Jack as a British journalist. He is a Scotsman. The Caravan regrets the error.
Abhishek Choudhary is a journalist and researcher based in Delhi. His writing has appeared in Ananda Bazar Patrika, Governance Now, Himal Southasian, the Indian Express, The Caravan and other publications.