Monday, 30th October 2017

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Socialist legacy, Orwell & beyond

Bihar Safarnama

By Ruchira Gupta
  • Published 2.07.16
George Orwell's bust. Picture by Tinku Khanna

I knew I would find socialists in Bihar. The state has long been the hotbed of socialist politics. When all the important Congress leaders were in jail during the Quit India movement, the socialist caucus of the Congress ran the underground network against the British, carrying letters, holding secret meetings, printing pamphlets and announcing developments.

Jayaprakash Narayan and Basawon Singh (Sinha) advocated sabotage and armed struggle while Acharya Narendra Deva and Dr Ram Manohar Lohia (Doctorsaheb) insisted on ahimsa.

My uncle, Balkrishna Gupta, founder of the Trotsky Party in London and editor of their journal Fight, was a close friend and ideologue of Doctorsaheb from their college days in Calcutta and later London and Paris. Our village home in Forbesganj, as well Marble House in Calcutta, was Dr Lohia's home. JP had lived as a Marwari merchant in our Calcutta home and Prabhavatiji (JP's wife) had gifted a sari woven by her to my newly wedded aunt to welcome her to the socialist family. My grandmother always considered Dr Lohia her fifth son and would not sleep on a bed whenever he was in jail.

Every socialist leader, writer, thinker would pass through or live at our home for months. Leaders from Bihar and those who made Bihar their political home like Madhu Limaye and George Fernandes were always at home just as their home was the home for my family.

My father stayed with Madhu ji when he went to Bombay to see my mother before marrying her. Caste as class was something I understood before rationalising it intellectually. My uncle was a Rajya Sabha MP from Bihar.

However, I had never heard any socialist leader claim that British socialist writer George Orwell was from Bihar. Therefore, I was surprised to stumble upon the house in Motihari where he was born.

Born as Eric Arthur Blair in 1903, the son of a British colonial civil servant who was in charge of opium warehouses in Champaran, he took the name George Orwell shortly before the publication of his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London.

When Eric was one year old, his mother took him and his older sister to England. (Eric was brought up in the company of his mother and sisters, and apart from a brief visit in mid-1907, they did not see the husband and father Richard Blair until 1912).

He joined the Imperial Police Service and was posted to Syriam (now Thanlyin, a major port city in Myanmar) near the refinery of the Burmah Oil Company, "the surrounding land a barren waste, all vegetation killed off by the fumes of sulphur dioxide pouring out day and night from the stacks of the refinery". But the town was near Rangoon (now Yangon), a cosmopolitan seaport, and Blair went into the city as often as he could, "to browse in a bookshop; to eat well-cooked food; to get away from the boring routine of police life".

In Burma, Blair acquired a reputation as an outsider. He spent much of his time alone, reading or pursuing non-pukka activities, such as attending the churches of the Karen ethnic group. A colleague, Roger Beadon, recalled (in a 1969 recording for the BBC) that Blair was fast to learn the language and that before he left Burma, "was able to speak fluently with Burmese priests in 'very high-flown Burmese.'"

Blair made changes to his appearance in Burma that remained for the rest of his life. "While in Burma, he acquired a moustache similar to those worn by officers of the British regiments stationed there. [He] also acquired some tattoos; on each knuckle he had a small untidy blue circle. Many Burmese living in rural areas still sport tattoos like this - they are believed to protect against bullets and snake bites."

Later, he wrote that he felt guilty about his role in the work of the empire and he "began to look more closely at his own country and saw that England also had its oppressed..."

Blair started to explore the poorer parts of London. On his first outing he set out to Limehouse Causeway, spending his first night in a common lodging house, possibly George Levy's 'kip'. For a while he "went native" in his own country, dressing like a tramp, adopting the name P.S. Burton and making no concessions to middle-class mores and expectations; he recorded his experiences of the low life in The Spike and Down and Out...

In 1936, he wrote an account of poverty among unemployed miners in northern England, in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) and later travelled to Spain to fight for the Republicans against Franco's Nationalists. John McNair of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) Office has quoted Orwell as telling him: "I've come to fight against Fascism."

The Road to Wigan Pier led to him being placed under surveillance by the Special Branch in 1936, for 12 years, until one year before the publication of the classic Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Nineteen Eighty-Four describes an imaginary totalitarian future, where a totalitarian government controls thought by controlling language, making certain ideas literally unthinkable. Animal Farm is a political fable set in a farmyard but based on Stalin's betrayal of the principles of the Russian Revolution.

The adjective Orwellian connotes an attitude and a policy of control by propaganda, surveillance, misinformation, denial of truth, and manipulation of the past. Nineteen Eighty-Four has introduced terms like "Big Brother", "newspeak" and "doublethink" into popular language.

Newspeak is a simplified and obfuscatory language designed to make independent thought impossible. Doublethink means holding two contradictory beliefs simultaneously. The Thought Police are those who suppress all dissenting opinion. Prolefeed is homogenised, manufactured superficial literature, film and music, used to control and indoctrinate the populace through docility. Big Brother is a supreme dictator who watches everyone.

I was thinking of all this while looking at the house. I also realised why he must have felt guilty about the oppression of the British in their empire. His mother might have left his father, when he was one-year-old, because she could not bear to see the plight of the indigo planters and their treatment by the sahebs.

A Gandhi bhakt, Aryakishore, was with me when I was looking at Orwell's home and his father's opium godown. He was angry that Orwell's statue had been put up in Motihari.

He asked me if I had read Orwell's Reflections on Gandhi, first published in Partisan Review in 1949, in which Orwell had written: "One may reject the claims of sainthood made on his behalf (he never made any such claim himself, by the way)...but regarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!"

I agree with Orwell that Gandhi was human and not a God. It is important to know what we human beings can do as human beings, and not leave it to the Gods. It is important to accept nuanced criticism of our leaders and see them as flesh and blood creatures with flaws and peculiarities. We tend to demand perfection of our leaders and nothing from our opponents. This demand for perfection can only produce dictators, not non-linear human beings.

In the land of Gandhian socialists, I recalled a comment made by Orwell which I quoted to the Gandhi bhakt: "For some years past I have managed to make the capitalist class pay me several pounds a week for writing books against capitalism. But I do not delude myself that this state of affairs is going to last forever... the only régime which, in the long run, will dare to permit freedom of speech is a Socialist régime. If Fascism triumphs I am finished as a writer - that is to say, finished in my only effective capacity. That of itself would be a sufficient reason for joining a Socialist party."

• Ruchira Gupta is a feminist campaigner, writer, visiting professor at New York University, adviser to the UN, and founder of Indian anti-sex trafficking organisation Apne Aap Worldwide. 

Follow on twitter @ruchiragupta and