The Indian Animal Farm where Orwell was born
- 11 August 2014
- From the section Magazine
George Orwell is one of the UK's best-known 20th Century authors but he's also claimed by a town in north-eastern India. Orwell was born here - and his home is being turned into a museum.
There are farmyard animals everywhere. An iron door lies wide open, as if the rebellious animals have forgotten to bolt it after chasing their human masters away.
Pigs have the run of the place. Two horses, their frames withered with age, stand in one corner, swishing their tails to drive the flies away, and there are many more animals - cows, goats, sheep, hens. Only the buffaloes would have looked out of place in Animal Farm.
This is where Orwell spent the first year of his life, before he and his mother moved to Henley on Thames.
Close to the bungalow where they lived are the remains of a warehouse which was used to store opium.
This was poppy country back then, and Orwell's father worked for the opium department of the British government, overseeing the production and storage of the drug before it was exported to China.
More than a century after the Orwells left, the dilapidated colonial-era bungalow is being turned into a museum. The four families who have been living in it are in the process of being unceremoniously turfed out - a move it's hard to imagine Orwell approving of.
Among them are Aditya Abhishek, a government employee, his mother and a younger brother. He was born here 29 years ago, "narrowly missing 1984", he says with a smile.
"That's something I share with George Orwell," he tells me. "We were both born in the same house, but he became famous, I didn't."
He's sad to go. "I have so many memories associated with this bungalow, I grew up here. My parents got married in this house, my father died here," he says.
It was because Abhishek's father was a teacher that the place became their home - it was government property leased to the school.
After being served with orders to leave, they started hurriedly building a small house nearby, They are moving in before it's finished. One of the other residents is a widowed classroom assistant at the school. "We will move out soon, Sir," she says nervously in Nepali, mistaking me for a government official.
The house is located in the sleepy town of Motihari, capital of the Eastern Champaran region, close to the border of Nepal ("Champaran" meaning "magnolia forest"). In 1917, Gandhi led a civil disobedience campaign among indigo workers here, who were being exploited by their colonial employers. It's one of the least developed parts of Bihar, India's poorest state.
As very few people understand English, it's perhaps no surprise that few know much about George Orwell. Most of those who do say he was a great "Angrez sahityakar" - Hindi for "English author" - but confess that's the limit of their knowledge.
Motihari has no bookshop selling anything other than school and college text books. You cannot easily lay your hands on any of Orwell's books here.
But at the town's best educational establishment, the Munshi Singh College, it's a different story. Prof Iquebal Hussain, who heads the department of English (and is its only member) has several portraits of great English writers on his wall, with George Orwell occupying pride of place right next to William Shakespeare.
At my request, Hussain asks his class of around 25 if they have heard of George Orwell. Many hands go up. One student refers to the novels Animal Farms and Nineteen Eighty-Three, but Monica, a Zoology Honours student, says: "Orwell was born in Motihari in 1903..." and proceeds to give a concise 45-second overview of Orwell's life and times, and his best works. I am impressed, as is the rest of the class.
"Great writers are of all places and all times, so it is right to build the museum. It will give English a leg-up here," says Hussain. "Orwell is as much Indian as he is British. He was strongly opposed to imperialistic ideas. Associating Motihari with Orwell will put it on the global map."
He is doubtful, though, that the museum will become a centre of research, as some expect.
"Today, scholars have to travel to London for research on Orwell, but once the museum is developed, they can carry out their research at his birthplace," says cloth merchant Debripya Mukherjee, one of those backing the project.
He and his friends are in touch with Orwell's son, Richard Blair, who may help them get copies of the huge collection of original manuscripts, audio and pictures held by the George Orwell Archive at University College London (UCL).
The government of Bihar is planning to spend $150,000 on the project.
The compound in which the bungalow sits has already been secured with a boundary wall. The walls are being re-plastered and the leaking roofs replaced, using as much of the original material as possible.
"We are fortunate that a writer like George Orwell was born here," says Mukherjee. "So, it is our duty to preserve this bungalow and make it presentable."
It won't be long before the animals are herded out of the gate for the last time.
Listen to Suhail Haleem's radio report for The Fifth Floor, on the BBC World Service
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