by Debashis Bhattacharyya
The Telegraph (Calcutta, India), 14 November 2004
The birthplace of George Orwell is a decrepit town in Bihar where kidnapping is a cottage industry. But now, on the eve of his 55th death anniversary, a group is helping it find a place on the literary map. Debashis Bhattacharyya reports from Motihari.
Braj Nandan Rai, an English teacher at Motihari's Gopal Sah Vidyalaya, had never heard of George Orwell. Not even when studying English literature at college.
So, Rai says he was quite "taken aback" when a flock of Orwell devotees, trailed by reporters, descended on his "quarters" in this nondescript town in north Bihar last summer to celebrate the birth centenary of the British writer. This was where Orwell was born on June 25, they told him, pointing at his bedroom. "I have read Shakespeare and Wordsworth in college, but never Orwell. So, I did not know anything of him," the 54-year-old teacher says. "He was not part of our syllabus."
A copy of Animal Farm — the book that had brought the writer money and fame in 1945 — sits untouched on a shelf in a room amid a string of books on English grammar, overshadowed somewhat by a calendar featuring Amitabh Bachchan. "That book was gifted by a visiting British journalist sometime ago, but I haven't had time to read it," he says, with a dismissive swipe of his hand.
Miscourt, once a European enclave with two colonial bungalows and a warehouse looking out on an open field, is now a slummy neighbourhood called Teliapatti. In one of the bungalows, crumbling with a cracked roof and an overgrown yard, Eric Arthur Blair, known by his pseudonym George Orwell, was born in 1903. His father Richard Walmesly Blair, an opium agent under the British Raj, was working in Motihari.
But then, Orwell's Motihari is not Shakespeare's Stratford or Wordsworth's Windermere, venerable destinations for writers worldwide. More than a century after he was born here, Orwell, the author of 1984 and Down and Out in Paris and London, remains unknown in the land of his birth. Like the oblivious English teacher, few here have heard of — or have any interest in — a man who was arguably a giant of 20th-century English literature.
"It's a shame," says Debapriya Mookherjee, an assistant governor of the Rotary Club, the sole organisation trying to put Motihari on the map of literary destinations.
Actually, Motihari, headquarters of the East Champaran district bordering Nepal, has too much on its mind to dwell on a writer who's "long dead and gone", as a local resident puts it.
Champaran, one of the most backward districts in Bihar, is now a haven for kidnappers, its streets dangerous even in broad daylight. Things have come to such a pass both in East and West Champaran districts, police officers say, that now even daily wagers get abducted for a ransom of as little as Rs 3,000.
"Who has time for literature or for that matter for the literary figures when you live under the threat of being kidnapped?" East Champaran district superintendent of police Kamal Kishore Singh asks.
With criminals turning their attention from the "high-risk" robberies, kidnapping, seen as "a low-risk but high-profit" crime, has virtually become a "cottage" industry in much of two Champaran districts. What helps the criminals is the fact that few are interested in prosecution once a victim is released, the police officer says.
When Rajinder Jalan, a local businessman, was abducted last December by a local gang demanding Rs 1 crore as ransom, Singh says he had lost seven kilos chasing the captors for weeks together, before he finally arrested them.
But his efforts came to nought when 18 of the 19 accused were bailed out as most witnesses backed out in court. "Kidnapping has grown here as criminals know that the chances of conviction are very slim," Singh says.
Police officers say the abductors are now increasingly targeting ordinary men and not just businessmen. A tangawalla and a basanwalla were kidnapped in two separate incidents in Jogapatti and Sikarpur police station areas, says West Champaran district superintendent of police Paras Nath.
While the basanwalla's family paid the captors Rs 3,000, the tangawalla was freed within a week when the abductors realised his family was too poor to buy his release.
"The criminal gangs involved in kidnapping usually do not harm the captives as they view them as Lakshmi or the source of money. They also know for certain that the victims won't pursue the cases even if they are released," Nath says.
True, crime or for that matter kidnapping is nothing new in Bihar; in fact, it's as old as the state itself. But in the Champarans, it has taken an alarming proportion over the past decade or so.
"People are afraid to build a new house or even fit an air-conditioner for fear of drawing the attention of criminals," a local physician says.
But Debapriya Mookherjee and his fellow Rotarians are undeterred. "It's difficult, but not impossible to get people involved in the Orwell project," Mookherjee says.
There's much to do. Orwell's birthplace is falling down, with the brick roofs buckled and cement floors cracked by an earthquake that flattened much of Motihari in 1934. Most of the roofs of the opium warehouse, where Orwell's father had worked, have fallen in.
With stray dogs and grazing cows, the place looks like an "animal farm", the name of a satire by Orwell of Stalinist communism, depicted as a farm where the animals take over the barnyard.
"We are determined to rebuild the place, restoring it the way it was when the writer was born and put up signs to tell visitors his story," Arshad Hashmi, an architect and member of the local branch of Rotary Club, says.
At present, there is nothing to indicate — no signs, no photographs — that this decrepit house was where Orwell spent the first year of his life being tended to by his mother Ida, and an Indian ayah. But come January 21, the Rotarians will instal a plaque outside the house, marking the 55th anniversary of his death.
Orwell left India when he was barely a year old, never to return. He had tried to return in 1921 when he joined the Imperial Indian Police, but was rejected for his known sympathies for the Congress.
With the assistance of the Rotary International, the local branch of the club hopes to convert the house into a museum. But it won't be easy. Rotarians admit that they won't be able to do much unless the state government hands over the building. Besides, they need at least Rs 40 lakh to pull off the project.
"We have already written to the British Council and the British high commission in Delhi for donations and other help," says Anita Gupta, an Orwell fan and a member of the Association of British Scholars in Jamshedpur.
When the Blairs arrived here early last century, Motihari was little more than an overgrown village on the eastern bank of a rippling lake. With a population of only 13,000 people, it was then the administrative headquarters of North Bengal.
Hundred years on, Motihari, only 150 km from Patna, is a dusty, chaotic town of 1,50,000 people, with the lake silting up. Its roads are pocked and drains clogged. Like most of Bihar, electricity comes and goes at will, with seven of the nine sugar mills in the district closed, R.P. Gupta, chairman of the East Champaran Zilla Parishad, says.
But Motihari remains steeped in history. It's here Mahatma Gandhi began his movement in support of the local farmers being forced to grow neel or indigo for the British textile industry in April 1917. In a celebrated speech, Gandhi — polite but firm — told the colonial court he had ignored its ban order "not for want of respect" of the law but "in obedience to the higher law of our being — the voice of conscience".
Motihari has a museum recording Gandhi's passing and Rotarians hope to "honour" Orwell in a similar fashion. The run-down opium warehouse in front of the writer's bungalow could be made into a library, Mookherjee says.
Gupta says she has visited Stratford-upon-Avon and the houses of Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. "It's unbelievable the way they have preserved their houses. We need to do something along these lines for Orwell in Motihari."
Meanwhile, Rai, the English schoolteacher living in Orwell's house, now under the state education department, is worried about the condition of his quarters. "The roof leaks and the walls are about to crumble," he says.
Even though he has been paying Rs 900 as rent by "forgoing my housing rent allowance", he says the government has done nothing to fix the house. "It's time they repaired it so we can live here peacefully."
There is, of course, the gifted copy of Animal Farm on his bookshelf to remind him of Orwell.
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