“In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” — George Orwell
It was a really cold morning on January 21, 2014 in Motihari, Bihar. As the three of us — my father, brother and I — traveled down the road on a cycle rickshaw, a thick fog hung everywhere I looked.
I kept checking the map on my cellphone. I knew we had crossed Gyan Babu Chowk and the place I was looking for was not that far now. We decided to ask a pedestrian about the place.
"Bhayya, where is Gopal Sah High School?"
"See that path? Just go straight and you'll get there. It's a big building."
We got out of the rickshaw and began walking toward it.
The path passed through a shanty town. Chickens, goats and pigs roamed about. After a few minutes, we saw a building. We had found the school, it seemed. To know exactly where the building was, we asked a student. He had no idea, and appeared confused when I mentioned the name of George Orwell.
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He took us to a classroom where a teacher was busy lecturing his students. I asked the teacher and he told us to follow the straight path until we saw an old gate.
It only took a minute or two to finally arrive at an old, large gate. We were finally at George Orwell's birthplace.
It was only last year that I found out that Motihari is not just famous for its association with M.K Gandhi but also the celebrated writer Eric Arthur Blair, commonly known by his nom de plume George Orwell.
He was born in Motihari, Bihar, British India on June 25, 1903. His father Richard W. Blair served in the Indian Civil Service, in the Opium Department. Though there’s a dispute over the exact duration of Eric’s stay in Motihari, the more popular opinion is that he was taken to England with his mother Ida Mabel Blair around his first birthday.
There are two photographs of Eric which were taken during his time in Motihari: one with his mother, and the other with his aaya (nanny). Though Orwell spent very little time in Motihari, the place is significant for his connection with it.
Orwell is most famous for his works Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, but the rest of his oeuvre is also quite brilliant, even though it's overshadowed by these two. His vision was unmatched, and his insight in the nature of authority and totalitarians rules is still as relevant as it was in those days.
When I found out that Orwell was born in Motihari, a place I had visited three times before (my aunt lives there with her family), I was ecstatic and determined to make a visit.
Now, I was standing right next to the single-storey building where Orwell was born over a century ago.
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Members of the Lake Town Rotary Club of Motihari were there too, to commemorate Orwell’s death anniversary. I had met Mr Arshad Hashmi only the night before. Hashmi’s efforts for bringing recognition to the birthplace have been exemplary.
There was large memorial standing next to the gate of the building, and a bust of George Orwell inside the premises, which I could see from outside.
The house was a simple one, and currently inhabited by an Aditya Abhishek and his mother. His father served as an English teacher in the Gopal Sah High School and was allotted the quarter by the authorities. Though his father passed away in 2012, Aditya and his mother have continued living there and consider it an honour.
When he found out that I was from Pakistan, he was surprised and expressed his happiness by offering us morning jalebis, which we gleefully accepted.
He also brought out his journal in which he has the visitors write down their comments. Since I was a writer, he told me to write something in detail on a separate journal.
I also saw the room where Orwell was born, and lived during his time in Motihari. It was such a strange feeling, to be at a place where such a visionary intellectual was born. I saw the ruins of the opium warehouse where Orwell’s father had worked, and around it was opium vegetation: untouched and of no use, apparently.
They had an anniversary celebration at M.S College. It also included the premiere of the documentary Orwell! But Why?, directed by Mr Bishwajeet Mookherjee. The documentary was a commendable effort and highlighted the neglect that the birthplace has suffered, primarily. I met Bishwajeet later on and he was really happy that a Pakistani had attended the event.
I visited the birthplace again after a week or so. There was something very overwhelming about the place; a surreal feeling felt only when traveling through time.
One thing that broke my heart was the neglect this place was going through. But I've heard recently that the provincial government has finally decided to start restoration of the birthplace, and intends to build a museum dedicated to the great writer alongside.
Without doubt, this experience was one of the most fascinating ones of my life.
--Photos by author.