By ABHISHEK K CHOUDHARY | 1 April 2013Debapriya Mookherjee looks on as Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar bows before a bust of George Orwell during his 2012 visit to Motihari.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 ofNineteen 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.