Thursday, December 08, 2005

A passage from India

by Jay Dubashi
The Hindustan Times, 25 June 2003
This day marks the birth centenary of George Orwell, born 100 years ago on June 25, 1903, in Motihari, then in Bengal. After the partition of Bengal, Motihari became part of Bihar. Orwell is thus a Bengali, Bihari, Indian and an Englishman, and also a Burmese, having worked in Burma as a member of the Imperial Police Service, when Burma was part of India. But it is not as a policeman that we remember Orwell. After he chucked his job in Burma, he returned to England and became a writer. A socialist writer, who authored classics such as Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four.
Orwell was born as Eric Blair and hailed from Essex. The pen name was inspired by the river that winds through the town. He wrote several novels and essays before he became famous for Animal Farm. The book is a thinly veiled allegory on communism and how a revolution on an animal farm went sour after a pig called Napoleon started lording over other animals. It was, of course, an attack on Russian communism, but surprisingly written at the height of World War II when Russia was an ally of Britain and America. Not surprisingly, he had great difficulty in getting the book published. It was finally brought out by a little known publisher called Warburg in August 1945. Four years after Animal Farm, in June 1949, came Nineteen Eighty Four, which heralded him as a major novelist of the 20th century. Six months later, Orwell was dead.
I came to know Orwell a year or so after Animal Farm got published. I first met him at a dinner which London Majlis, an organisation of Indian students in London, had arranged for its annual day. I was taken to a table occupied by three persons whom I had never met before: E.M. Forster, author of A Passage to India, Stephen Spender, a poet, and George Orwell. I sat next to Orwell. I had, of course, heard of Orwell and had, in fact, corresponded with Penguin for the rights to translate the book into a couple of Indian languages.
After dinner, some of us lingered in the street for a while, then I started walking along with Orwell. We were about to enter the tube when Orwell said he would like to look up some friends in a pub in Leicester Square. It was a small pub but very friendly and Orwell had a couple of beers. He said he spent a few days in the week in the offices of the Tribune, a leading socialist paper edited by Jennie Lee, wife of Aneurin Bevan, who was at the time a minister in Attlee’s cabinet. He said I was welcome to visit him there anytime. Orwell didn’t talk much about himself. But he did tell us that he was now writing a novel, his first after Animal Farm, though he had not yet given it a title. He dropped hints that it would be about a new world that was likely to arise if the communists took over. This was 1948 or thereabouts, almost a year after the financial crisis that finished Britain as an imperial power.
A few months later Orwell’s new novel, Nineteen Eighty Four, came out. By that time, Orwell had become so famous that the release made front-page news. Orwell’s publishers invited me to a reception for the launch of the novel. However, Orwell was not there and my inquiries about him were met with polite excuses. Actually Orwell was indeed in London, but in a hospital not far from India House. He was suffering from tuberculosis and lay in University Hospital in Russell Square. I asked him whether he was still keen to visit India. “Oh, yes,” he said, “don’t forget, I am an Indian and was born there.” He could not go to Switzerland and died in the hospital a few days after I had met him, on January 21, 1950. He was only 46.

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