Homage to Orwell: India's opium state plans park at author's 'home'

In a nondescript Indian town hammered by the monsoon rains, hundreds of miles from the nearest city of any size, a small, unimpressive-looking house is slowly falling down.

The roof is bowed and cracked from years of rain. One of the walls is giving way to a tree, and damage is still visible from an earthquake in 1934. But by the end of the year, the Indian authorities say this unassuming location will be transformed into a "world-class heritage site".

Because this is where, on 25 June 1903, George Orwell was born. He was just Eric Blair then, the son of a minor British colonial official put in charge of the local opium industry, but one day he would reinvent himself as a scourge of injustice and one of the most distinctive voices of the 20th century - the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

For a century, the house where he was born, Public Works Building 2/12 in the town of Motihari, was forgotten. But now the local authorities are planning to transform the area into an Orwell Park, complete with a giant replica of Orwell's book Animal Farm, with passages from the text inscribed on it.

The house will be restored to its condition in 1903. Beside it a new Orwell museum will be built. A 10-acre park is to be planted with trees from Britain, India and Burma, where Orwell also lived. The town's lake, long silted up, is to be cleaned and restored.

"We want the birthplace of Orwell to be a heritage site of international importance," said L M Singhvi, a former ambassador to the UK and the chairman of the Heritage Foundation of India, which is funding the project. "And we are quite optimistic that by the end of 2006 it will become a hub for all foreign tourists visiting India."

If it does, it will be one of the most remote and unlikely tourist hubs in the world. This is Bihar, India's most lawless state. The only boom business here is kidnapping. Armed gangs of robbers openly roam the highways.

This year there was such a serious spate of kidnappings of doctors that hospitals across the state went on strike to demand better protection.

Motihari, a dirt-poor town of 150,000 people, lies in one of the worst affected regions. The streets are said to be dangerous even in daylight. People have been kidnapped here for ransoms as low as 3,000 rupees (£38). People in the town are afraid to fit air conditioners in their homes, despite the steamy jungle climate, for fear they will be seen as wealthy targets by the kidnappers.

The Indian authorities are desperate to rein in Bihar's lawless ways and transform the state. Now it appears they have seized on a wave of interest in Orwell's Indian connections as a chance to create a tourism industry.

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 £4 a night - and there is no air conditioning.

Until a group of academics made the arduous trek out to Motihari in 2003 to mark Orwell's centenary, almost nobody in the town had ever heard of the author - not even the then occupant of the Orwell house, an English teacher at the local school. The first Braj Nandan Rai knew that a famous writer had been born in his bedroom was when the academics came knocking at his door.

You cannot buy Orwell's books in Motihari - but then, you cannot buy many books in Motihari. The authorities plan to change all this. Work on the new Orwell Park is set to begin next month with a budget of five million rupees, an almost unimaginable sum for the people here.

Motihari was a pretty out of the way place when Orwell was born here. His father, Richard Blair, was a sub-deputy in a particularly lowly and unassuming branch of the colonial service: he was an opium agent.

Opium cultivation was legal in British-ruled India; it was a government monopoly, and the large warehouse that stands next to the Orwell house today with its roof caved in was an opium godown. The Blairs were posted to several remote and unappealing corners of colonial India, including Motihari. Orwell spent the first year of his life in the town, tended, like all British colonial children, by an Indian ayah, or nursemaid. Twice, he nearly returned to India in later life, when he tried to join the Indian colonial police, and when he applied for a job on a paper in Lucknow. But he had a different destiny.

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