Conservationists in India have started to restore the dilapidated colonial bungalow in which George Orwell was born, as the government of Bihar state announced plans to convert it into a museum dedicated to the author.
Besides the three-room house in which Orwell was born on June 25, 1903, the property in the small town of Motihari consists of a few tiny cottages and a large warehouse that was used to store opium.
Orwell’s father, Richard Blair, worked in the remote town near the Indian-Nepalese border for the opium department, supervising poppy growers and collecting opium for export to China.
Many of the buildings are in ruins, but the bungalow and a nearby cottage still stand, and are being restored along with the warehouse.
Despite Orwell’s influence on popular culture, there is no museum celebrating his contribution to literature and journalism, the writer’s son, Richard Blair, said.
“I am delighted my father’s old house is now under restoration and will be turned into a museum, a museum which will be the only one in the world,” Blair said. “For many decades the house was allowed to decay, so it’s only to be applauded that the Bihar government now sees fit to put money into the project.”
TThe George Orwell Archive at University College London has the world’s largest collection of material on the writer’s life and work, including manuscripts, letters, diaries, books, photographs and audio recordings. Blair is a member of the archive committee and plans to raise the issue of supporting the museum through the creation of replica material or the loan of original items.
The Bihar government appears committed to the project, which has the backing of powerful Bihar leader and former chief minister Nitish Kumar.
“We’ll design the museum with the help of experts,” said Chanchal Kumar, who heads the state’s art and culture department. “Orwell was a great writer, so money is not the issue. His son’s support gives us hope that we will succeed.”
Born Eric Arthur Blair, Orwell was a year old when his mother, Ida Blair, moved with him to Oxfordshire. He never visited his birthplace again.
The house would have turned to rubble were it not for a campaign by a Motihari businessman, Debapriya Mookherjee, to convert it into a memorial.
Mookherjee’s son, Bishwajeet, has also pitched in and made a film Orwell! ... But Why? in response to criticism about honoring an Englishman whose father worked in the opium department.
Motihari is part of East Champaran district, a region from where in 1917 Mahatma Gandhi launched the civil disobedience movement that ultimately resulted in the departure of the British from India. Gandhi had been moved by the plight of cultivators in Bihar, who were being forced to produce opium and indigo for the lucrative markets of China and Europe respectively.
“The people of Motihari do not realize that even if Orwell was an Englishman, he was anti-imperialist and wrote against colonial exploitation,” Bishwajeet Mookherjee said. “I made the film to educate Biharis about Orwell, to tell them that a great writer was born in my home town. It’s only right that we should honor his memory.”
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