Did you know George Orwell had his roots in Bihar?


Best known for his novels, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), English author, Eric Arthur Blair (better known by his pen name George Orwell), was actually born in the small town Mothihari in Bihar on 25 June 1903. While his works which were marked by opposition to totalitarianism, raising awareness about social injustices, and supporting democractic socialism are well known, little is known about his connection to Bihar and how this shaped his development as a writer.

Orwell’s father, Richard Blair, was a civil servant in the British government and worked in the Opium department. His job brought him to the remote town of Motihari in Bihar (near the Indo-Nepal border) where he supervised poppy (an herbaceous plant with showy flowers, milky sap, and rounded seed capsules) farmers and the collection and processing of opium for export to China.

Motihari is the headquarters of the East Champaran district (Purbi Champaran district, Tirhut Division) in Bihar. It is 25 km east of Dhaka town and 89 km north west of Muzaffarpur commissionary.

Champaran played a significant role in India’s struggle for Independence as it was here that Mahatma Gandhi launched the firstsatyagraha (civil disobedience movement) in 1917 that ultimately resulted in the ousting of the Britishers from India 30 years later. Gandhiji had been moved by the plight of farmers in Champaran who were exploited and forced to produce opium and indigo that was sent off to China and Europe. Orwell, who lived in Motihari for a year as a child before leaving for England, wrote admiringly of Gandhiji in his 1949 essay “Reflections on Gandhi”.

George Orwell then studied in England for a few years and won a scholarship to the prestigious Eton college. After graduating from college at the age of 19 in 1922, he joined the Indian Imperial Police and went to Burma as an Assistant District Superintendent. He later wrote about his experiences of Imperial rule in his novel Burmese Days and in autobiographical sketches like Shooting an Elephant and A Hanging.

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In 1937 he fought as a part of republican militia in the civil war in Spain and was badly injured. As a result, he could not join the British military when World War II began and he joined the Indian Service of British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) instead.

He worked in the Indian Section of the BBC’s Eastern Service from August 1941 to November 1943; broadcasting radio programmes to India. Literary scholars believe many of the references and the sharp rage reflected in Nineteen Eighty-Four came from the two years at the BBC. His disillusionment is clear in his resignation letter to the BBC where he writes,

“I am tendering my resignation because for some time past I have been conscious that I was wasting my own time and the public money on doing work that produces no result. I believe that in the present political situation the broadcasting of British propaganda to India is an almost hopeless task.”

From such disillusionment came inspiration for his well-known works and his ‘Orwellian’ school of thought which is still influential today.

To celebrate his one hundredth birthday, a number of journalists arrived in Motihari in 2003. The house where Orwell’s parents lived had survived until this time and it was rediscovered by his admirers. For many years it was in possession of a government school until the state government acquired the land around it a few years ago under the Bihar Ancient Monument (Protection) Act, 1976. The deteriorating house in Bihar’s Motihari where George Orwell was born has been revamped into a memorial and in 2015, the Bihar government established the George Orwell Memorial at Motihari in East Champaran district to commemorate the author’s connection to Bihar. The state government has set aside a budget of Rs 59.50 lakh for its beautification in order to attract tourists from around the world, especially from Britain.

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