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To Orwell Today,

Here is an article about Motihari, Champaran, Bihar, India.

A Motihari Resident’s Efforts to Protect the Birthplace of George Orwell
by Abhishek Choudhary, Caravan Magazine, April 1, 2013

In 1983, British 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.

-sent by James Sunder Raj

Greetings James,

Thanks for sending that interesting article about Debapriya Mookherjee and his ongoing efforts to build a museum and library at Orwell's birthplace in Motihari.

I've corresponded with Mookherjee over the years -- he sent news when the Rotary erected the Orwell statue three years ago -- but I hadn't realized how deep his ties to Orwell go -- ie playing as a child on the property where Orwell was born. See ORWELL STATUE IN MOTIHARI

There have been stories in the news recently about problems at Orwell's birthplace -- ie there was a plan to build a Gandhi memorial there instead -- but that was nipped in the bud. It seems there are still many obstacles to overcome and the government is not fulfilling its promise of funds -- and now the property is being vandalized. But it's heartening that Mookherjee and others are still dedicated to Orwell and not giving up on the vision. I hear, too, that there's a Motihari website, ie Motihari Birth Place of George Orwell

All the best,
Jackie Jura


No Gandhi park within Orwell home, says official
Gulf Times, Apr 20, 2013
The Bihar government has stopped the laying of a park in memory of Mahatma Gandhi since the land on which it was planned would encroach on the birthplace of legendary English writer George Orwell, an official said. The urban development department had wanted to lay the park in Motihari, some 150km from Patna, in East Champaran district, the site of Gandhi’s first ‘satyagraha’ rights movement in 1917 against the high taxes on indigo farmers. Urban Development Minister Prem Kumar had laid the foundation stone of the park last Saturday and his department had sanctioned Rs20mn for the project. East Champaran district magistrate Vinay Kumar said plans for the park had been dropped after Gandhians and members of the George Orwell Commemorative Committee complained that it would come up around the house where the writer was born. "An order has been issued to stop work on the park until the land for it is transferred to the Motihari Nagar Parishad by the department concerned," Vinod Kumar said. Orwell’s birthplace was a protected monument, he said.

Razi Ahmad, the secretary of the Patna-based Gandhi Sangrahalaya (museum), said that the Father of the Nation himself would not have been too pleased to have a park in his memory encroach upon the home of the author, legendary for his metaphorical depiction of authoritarianism. Ahmad suggested that the park may instead come up at the site where a pillar was erected in Motihari in 1969 to commemorate Gandhi’s 100th birth anniversary. The pillar stands about 2.5km from Orwell’s birthplace, Ahmad added. Braj Kishore Singh, former minister and secretary of the Gandhi Memorial Pillar and Sangrahalaya said: “Land for the park is available near the pillar. Besides, George Orwell’s birthplace had little to do with Gandhi’s stay in the district.”d

Deo Priya Mukherjee, head of the George Orwell Commemorative Committee, said “We welcome the decision to stop the construction of the park,” adding that it would be rather strange for it to come up as an encroachment. Mukherjee said the move to lay the park would overshadow the memory of Orwell. “Even (Bihar Chief Minister) Nitish Kumar, during a visit here in 2009, had said that Orwell’s house and the premises would be conserved,” Mukherjee said. The state government has declared the house a monument under the Ancient Monuments Act, Mukherjee said, adding that even so, the structure had become a “hub of anti-social elements, drunkards, gamblers, urchins and beggars.” He said that a statue of Orwell had also been vandalised.

Orwell, who shot to fame in the mid-20th century with his novels Animal Farm and 1984, was born Eric Arthur Blair in Motihari on June 25, 1903. He later adopted the pen name that he became famous by. Orwell’s father was in the Indian Civil Service during the British colonial era.

George Orwell's Indian birthplace dedicated to Gandhi; locals fume
Los Angeles Times, Apr 17, 2013
The bungalow where George Orwell was born, in Motihari, Bihar, India, is finally being turned into a monument, Agence France-Presse reports -- but it's a monument to Mahatma Gandhi, not the British writer. Local officials laid a foundation stone at the site over the weekend. The house, where Orwell (then named Eric Blair) was born in 1903 and lived for a year before leaving for England, has been neglected for decades. It was damaged by an earthquake in 1934, has played host to scores of stray animals and, despite a promise in 2009 by the state government to fix it up, had been left to the mercy of weather and time. The statue of Orwell at the site has been vandalized.d

Locals in Bihar were surprised and displeased by the odd decision to dedicate the monument to Gandhi, according to the Hindustan Times, as the site has no association with Gandhi or his independence movement. Instead, locals -- who started a website to plead for the site's restoration -- had been hoping to develop it as a tourist destination honoring the author of "1984" and "Animal Farm," which might provide desperately needed revenue for the area.

Deo Priye Mukherjee, head of the George Orwell commemorative committee in Motari, characterized Saturday's foundation stone placement as a "land grab". Officers of the Motari Rotary Club have sent a letter to the government art and culture department protesting the construction, but as of Wednesday, local functionaries said the plan to honor Gandhi will go ahead.

Orwell himself might not have been terribly pleased. He discussed Gandhi in his 1949 essay "Reflections on Gandhi", and admitted to an "aesthetic distaste" for the independence leader, although he could admire his good intent: "One feels of him that there was much he did not understand, but not that there was anything that he was frightened of saying or thinking. I have never been able to feel much liking for Gandhi, but I do not feel sure that as a political thinker he was wrong in the main, nor do I believe that his life was a failure". At least Orwell's birthplace is avoiding the rather more ignominious fate of some other authors' homes. As a Flavorwire investigation found out, the birthplaces of Edith Wharton, Eugene O'Neill, and Jack London are all now Starbucks franchises.

Bihar govt pits Mahatma against Orwell
by Sagar Suraj, Hindustan Times, Apr 15, 2013
A new move by the Bihar government has put Mahatma Gandhi at odds with English author George Orwell. To highlight Gandhi's 1917 Champaran movement, the government wants to build a 'satyagrah park' in Motihari in east Champaran. But here's the catch: Critics say the location chosen for the proposed park worth Rs. 2.21 crore has no association with Bapu's movement. Instead, it falls on the land attached to the house where Orwell was born. The move has been met with opposition from locals, who have been campaigning to develop the site as a tourist destination dedicated to the Animal Farm author. "The stone has been laid on a site protected for Orwell's commemoration. The place has no link with Gandhi. This is a land grab attempt," Deo Priye Mukherjee, head of the George Orwell commemorative committee, said after Bihar urban development minister Prem Kumar laid the foundation stone of the park on Saturday.

Motihari circle officer Samir Kumar confirmed that the government had declared the land a protected Orwell site at the behest of the state's art and culture department. Well-known Gandhians admit that the authorities could have chosen a better spot for the park. "The ideal spot would have been the Gandhi smarak stambh (memorial pillar), erected at Motihari in 1969. It has historical significance and ample space for a park", said Razi Ahmad, secretary of Gandhi Sangrahalaya and Bihar's best-known Gandhian scholar. Braj Kishore Singh, a former Bihar minister and secretary of the Mahatma Gandhi memorial pillar and museum, agreed with Ahmad. "It is paradoxical that they chose to move Gandhi to Orwell's birthplace," Singh said. Sources said east Champaran district magistrate Vinay Kumar, who seemed to have preempted the row, stayed away from the laying of the foundation stone "to avoid getting into a controversy". During the function, Prem Kumar said the park would be completed by 2017 to commemorate 100 years of Gandhi's satyagrah. Functionaries at the Motihari unit of the rotary club have sent a letter to the art and culture department to stop the construction. But Radhamohan Singh, the BJP MP from Motihari, maintained that the park would be developed on land that is outside the area protected for Orwell.

A Motihari resident’s efforts to protect the birthplace of George Orwell, by Abhishek Choudhary, Caravan Magazine, Apr 1, 2013


Jackie Jura
~ an independent researcher monitoring local, national and international events ~

email: orwelltoday@gmail.com
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