George Orwell & India

For Orwell book fans, this small blog is not about his great writings, but about the person himself and his relationship with India.

How many of you know that Eric Arthur Blair a.k.a. George Orwell - that brilliant writer who wrote moody books like Animal farm and 1984 was born in India and always had a fond corner in his mind for India? He was born in 1903 at Motihari (a place now in Bihar and famous for the giant Buddha statue – and the place where Gandhi first practiced Satyagraha!) in Bengal. But alas, today, Motihari has a dubious distinction; it is the kidnapping capital of Bihar where people are abducted even for 20 flashlight batteries!!

Well as the story goes, Orwell’s father who was heading the Opium department (the buyer for the Brit government) insisted on farmers planting Opium in the fields during certain seasons. The farmers hated it as it spoilt the soil and invited MK Gandhi, fresh from South Africa to champion their cause…and that was the origin of Satyagraha and the Orwellian connection to British rule and ‘quit India’!!

Orwell’s house in Motihari still exists. It has recently been given a makeover and a museum is planned. You cannot buy Orwell's books in Motihari" but then, you cannot buy many books in Motihari. A very nice article from the telegraph details the story..

Motihari is way off the tourist trail at the moment. Only the most diehard Orwell fans ever make it to the town. It is 19 hours by train from Delhi, or a five-hour drive from Patna, the nearest city of any size. The most expensive hotel in town costs pounds 4 a night "and there is no air conditioning.

After schooling at Eaton and working in Burma for the Imperial police force (The Indian Imperial police force rejected his application due to his socialist leanings and advice from Churchill in UK), Orwell became a propaganda talk host (for want of a job as it seems) at the BBC’s Eastern service working to garner support from the Asian community for the Allies. Noting that very few Indians listened to him and feeling that working on his novels as well as for The Tribune is probably better, he left. The rest is history…but I will jot in here some trivia that many would not have read of.

In 1935 Sir Harcourt Butler, the Lt. Governor of Oudh brought the capital back to Lucknow and with it came the newspaper ‘The Pioneer’ which is more than 120 years old. The Pioneer has the distinction of having two Nobel Prize winners writing for it, Sir Winston Churchill then corporal and Rudyard Kipling. Orwell, Michael Sheldon in his biography tells us was going to be appointed the editor of the Pioneer but Sir Winston, then Prime Minister, put a stop to it. He did not want Her Majesty's Indian subject’s heads filled with socialistic claptrap. And so Pioneer lost the best editor it never had.

How & why Orwell joined the BBC is a very interesting story. It was due to Goebbels and Subash Chandra Bose!!!

Goebbals had learned the lessons of the First World War, which was commonly believed to have been won not by greater military strength, but by superior propaganda. In particular, he lost no time in beaming powerful anti-British propaganda towards India from a radio station in Berlin called Azad Hind (Free India). In this he was assisted by the presence of Subhas Chandra Bose, an imprisoned Congress politician who had escaped and arrived in Germany in January 1941.
Individuals in India demanded that the BBC do something in reply to German radio propaganda, but the authorities were slow to react. When they finally did decide to set up a specific Indian section of the Eastern Service, in the spring of 1941, it was run by Sir Malcolm Darling and Zulfaquar Ali Bokhari, who introduced an uninspiring program of weekly news bulletins, with music and comedy shows borrowed from the Home Service and the odd cultural program thrown in. This insipid diet drew the wrath of Kingsley Martin whose editorial in the New Statesman of July 5, 1941 denounced the bumbling inefficiency of the Ministry of Information generally and the poor show of the Indian program on the BBC in particular. His protest was rewarded by immediate effect: at the MoI Duff Cooper was replaced by Brendan Bracken, and George Orwell was recruited to breathe new life into the Indian Service of the BBC.

At the BBC, Orwell was friendly with Mulk Raj Anand. Orwell originally thought that Gandhi was a British puppet but later changed his ideas.

Jay Dubhasi had written a very interesting article on Orwell. Orwell replies Jay on visiting India - I asked him whether he was still keen to visit India. “Oh, yes” he said, “Don’t forget that I am an Indian and was born there.” Well he never did!!

When Nehru first visited Krishna Menon at the India League, he wanted to meet Orwell, Krishna Menon searched without success for Orwell, unfortunately he had moved. Actually Orwell was unwell and hospitalized with lung ailments. Some years later he succumbed to TB.

I have been trying hard to find an essay Orwell wrote on Krishna Menon, It is simply untraceable. Anybody who has it may kindly mail me a copy.


narendra shenoy said…
I'm a big Orwell fan. Enjoyed this post
Good writing, Maddy. Reading it brought back memories of my "New Delhi days" of the 80's when I read Orwell's less known book "My Burmese Days" loaned from the British library . I would want to read it again! I never knew about his acquaintance with Krishna Menon. Thanks for the informative post.
Nice one, Maddy. I rather used to like his 1984, and when the year actually came, nothing happened...
I am sure almost everyone knows that the 'Big Brother is Watching' phrase originally came from this book.
Maddy said…
Thanks narendra, Murali & Raji

Murali - I was told that Burmese days is very interesting. However knowing very little about the place, I have been hesitating about looking for that book.

Raji - Yup the big brother thing is catching on. Hope the people policing us are on the right moral plain anyway.
Are you sure about Orwell not working for the Indian police due to his socialism, and Churchill's warnings? He was only 18 at the time, and unknown, so it sounds unlikely. I might be wrong, of course!

I thought he chose the Burmese police because his grandmother lived in Burma.
He left in 1927, long before working for the BBC.
It's also worth noting that Orwell was very anti-imperialist, lumping imperialism together with fascism and Soviet Communism as one of the terrible wrongs in the world. I hadn't known about his father forcing Indian peasants to grow opium, but that would certainly tie in with why Orwell did not get on with his father.

I personally think "Burmese Days", his anti-imperialist novel, and his first one, is his best. He also wrote some essays on similar lines ("Shooting an elephant", etc.) He spoke fluent Burmese, and several other languages.
Maddy said…
I will get back to you in a bit.been a while since i wrote this, need to crosscheck,
Maddy said…
Hi Richard,
I recall that i got that comment about Churchill's involvement from a newspaper clip, but cant locate it. It is perhaps not quite factual because Churchill was in 1922 not having the authority and secondly as you rightly said, Orwell opted for the Burma police. So that needs to be edited out.
Thanks for your pointer!!!
John Rodden said…
i enjoyed the observations. but something must be wrong about orwell and the lucknow pioneer, esp regarding churchill, who was not PM til 1940.... and was out of office at the time of the lucknow offer.... i checked shelden, and i don`t recall that he claims that churchill stepped in, certainly not as PM

are you sure that you read this in shelden... i doubt that crick or meyers or taylor or bowker, all of whom i know, would say this either....

but please do correct me, if i am wrong, bc i am v interested in the topic.... also, you are certainly right that churchill had nothing to do with blair in 1922... although please not that the burma police were simply a division with the indian police, both of which were parts of the Indian Imperial Police serve in the 1920s