The Failed Saint: On George Orwell’s India
By Jason ChristianJanuary 21, 2024
Orwell was born in a little brick bungalow in a city called Motihari on June 25, 1903. His father was a civil servant of the most dismal variety: he helped oversee opium production for the British Raj, the Crown’s governing system that had taken “British India” off the hands of the East India Company half a century earlier.
Both sides of Orwell’s family worked in colonial trades. A paternal ancestor had made a fortune off the backs of enslaved Jamaicans. Orwell’s maternal grandfather was a teak merchant in Burma (now Myanmar). Before Orwell himself became an author, when he was known by his birth name of Eric Blair, he saw Burma up close as an officer of the Indian Imperial Police. In The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), he wrote:
For five years I had been part of an oppressive system, and it had left me with a bad conscience. Innumerable remembered faces—faces of prisoners in the dock, of men waiting in the condemned cells, of subordinates I had bullied and aged peasants I had snubbed, of servants and coolies I had hit with my fist in moments of rage (nearly everyone does these things in the East, at any rate occasionally: Orientals can be very provoking)—haunted me intolerably. I was conscious of an immense weight of guilt that I had got to expiate.
The first and last sentences of this oft-quoted passage are typically shared with an ellipsis, omitting the offensive part. I assume this erasure occurs because it is difficult to read the middle sentence and find sympathy for the man who wrote it. It affords a glimpse of the Raj’s daily violence and admits what a tormented man held festering in his heart.
Orwell’s hometown, such as it is, lies in the same state where my wife grew up, the state of Bihar, one of the most neglected corners of India, known as much for corruption, poverty, and crime as for its breathtaking Buddhist ruins. It was inevitable that I would visit this land and feel compelled to understand how it went from being one of the world’s richest regions to a forgotten backwater. I knew too that, as a long-time Orwell admirer, I would one day make a pilgrimage to that old bungalow, if only to ponder in its presence how a colonial child turned against the very institution that sustained his life.
We left at dawn, my wife’s uncle behind the wheel, and drove over 120 miles past sugarcane fields, past dhabas and hotels and congested morning markets, past auto-rickshaws and colorful trucks, past stately brick homes and thatched-roof huts, past villages whose names I never found on the map, and in three and a half hours we rolled into town.
But Motihari is no village. At present, it is a dense, bustling burg with a thriving city center, a growing university, and 178,000 inhabitants. There were no other visitors besides a trio of young men standing in the shade of a peepal tree some distance from the house. A sturdy mother goat with swollen udders loitered in the gravel lot.
Behind the unlocked gate stood a security guard in plain clothes, a cricket match blaring from his phone. He seemed a bit startled at first—visitors!—but snapped into an ambassador role and showed us around. We walked past more goats chomping weeds in the courtyard, and I noticed, hanging above one door, a golden-framed, water-warped Xerox print of the writer’s unmistakable face, with his high forehead and parted hair and deep-set eyes. His name was printed in all caps across the collar of his shirt, and below that his birth and death years: 1903–1950. He died so young, I thought: 46—only a year older than me.
We followed the guard into the small domicile. Windows were cracked, and cobwebs hung from any surface that would hold them. We stepped through one unfurnished room and then another with vaulted ceilings. A few shirts hung from nails, belonging, presumably, to the guard. This, he said in Hindi, is where the writer was born. And then, perhaps because my wife is Bihari, he let his guard down and complained: “The place is falling apart. People sneak in and vandalize and steal bricks. Every time some state officials come, they take photos and promise to do something with the place and do nothing.”
The site was “rediscovered” in 1983 after a British newspaper assigned Ian Jack, a journalist and later editor of Granta, to locate exactly where the Blairs had lived. Jack elicited help from local officials, and after a citywide search, the site was determined to be this decrepit old bungalow we know today. That whole saga is recounted in a wildly entertaining 1984 essay called “In Search of a Jaarj Arwil,” the title coming from the Indianized pronunciation of the author’s name.
The house and outbuildings have been restored since those days—broken and missing bricks replaced and plastered over, a new clay-tiled roof added, a new iron gate installed—but one can see from a distance that the site is lapsing back into ruin.
Around back, we found half a dozen more goats and a deformed godown where the opium had been stored, half its bricks stolen and foliage sprouting from its roof. A group of young men and boys were standing around the old water well. It was dry and sealed off. A phrase was hand-painted in Hindi on the side of it: “Water Life Greenery.” My wife said aloud, in Hindi, “Yes, but where is the water?”
Everyone laughed at her question. They set off on another round of complaints about the home’s condition and the ineffectual politicians with their empty slogans and photo ops. It was just the sort of detail that Orwell would include in an essay, I thought, one more jab at the blustering state.
A substantial portion of Orwell’s writing project, beginning with his use of a pseudonym, was an attempt to expiate his guilt and reinvent himself. Evidence for this abounds. So, why didn’t he omit the racist quip about “Orientals”? Why undermine his own moral standing?
Orwell insisted on approaching his writing with a kind of radical honesty before that term was coined. He was always airing his sins in print, not so much as weepy confessionals but in the context of specific narratives or observations, in service to the work. Some scholars have argued that Orwell harbored a need to be punished. Others say he had a death wish.
Both views seem plausible, but I see it another way: this was more of Orwell’s incessant pragmatism. If he had personal insight, then he was willing to sacrifice his reputation to make it known. And it wasn’t only his imperial service that needled Orwell’s conscience. He came from what he termed the “lower upper middle class,” and it was a constant embarrassment to him, a perennial topic of scorn.
When he left the Burma police at the age of 24, he took up writing in earnest and committed class suicide, so to speak, “slumming” with working-class folks in the boarding houses of London and Paris. (This was the source material for his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933.) He chain-smoked hand-rolled cigarettes. He wore shabby clothes and suffered smirks from his middle-class peers. He jumped from one inhospitable place to another over the years, from northern coal country to the battlefields of Spain, and all the while, he kept writing as a way to understand his dark inheritance, to assuage his curiosity, to critique himself and those he felt deserved it, to articulate a vision for a better world.
Orwell’s graphomania seems to have compelled him to write about whatever crossed his mind. He once published a piece on how to make a proper cup of tea. He penned a complex appraisal of Henry Miller’s work. In the famous essay “Why I Write” (1946)— the one in which Orwell proclaims that all his writing since 1936 had been to advance democratic socialism and to oppose totalitarianism—he drops in this lovely, overlooked admission: “So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.”
Above all, though, Orwell wanted the masks ripped off. He felt it was everyone’s responsibility to acknowledge what it took to maintain the status quo. Deceptive language benefitted the powers that be. “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible,” he wrote in “Politics and the English Language” (1946). “Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan […] Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”
But as soon as you think you’ve got Orwell’s worldview pegged, he comes along and surprises you. I find an inexplicable pleasure in watching him puzzle out his thoughts on the page. As John Banville once put it, “[I]s it possible for the weary reader to assemble a version of Orwell that will be something less, or more, than a Frankenstein’s monster? He was, as we all are, a meld of contradictions.” As a result, he has been co-opted by the cherry-picking right for his vocal anti-Stalinism, free-speech absolutism, and occasional homophobia. He has also been reduced to inspirational political memes and reliable middlebrow syllabus material, his last two novels anyway, assigned to adolescents alongside Lord of the Flies (1954) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), those well-worn parables that are easy enough for young minds to digest.
Instead of Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), though, I gravitate to his essays and three nonfiction books—the lightly fictionalized memoir Down and Out in Paris and London; The Road to Wigan Pier, a study of British coal country and democratic socialism; and Homage to Catalonia (1938), a firsthand account of the Spanish Civil War. Of these, I favor the latter most. Lionel Trilling called Homage “one of the important documents of our time.”
If we can fault Orwell for his contradictions, we can also praise him for his unwavering opposition to fascism, for recognizing the gravity of its danger early on, and for going beyond mere words. “I had come to Spain with some notion of writing newspaper articles,” Orwell wrote, “but I had joined the militia almost immediately.” From Barcelona, he deployed to Aragón, where he hunkered down in trenches and returned enemy fire. Somehow, between volleys, he managed to draft a good portion of Homage on various scraps of paper, until he took a sniper’s bullet through the throat and nearly died. And still he was able to escape the country, bang out the rest of the manuscript, and see it published the next year.
It would be unthinkable today for a rising novelist to, say, join the fight against Russian invaders in Ukraine. The most we can imagine is an op-ed piece. This isn’t to say it was common in Orwell’s time either. People around him thought he was crazy. On his way south, Orwell met Henry Miller in Paris, and Miller tried to talk him out of it. “He merely told me in forcible terms that to go to Spain at that moment was the act of an idiot,” Orwell recalled in his 1940 essay “Inside the Whale.” “[M]y ideas about combating Fascism, defending democracy, etc., etc., were all baloney.” That June, Orwell had married his sweetheart, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, and now, only six months later, he was leaving her behind and risking everything to take up arms.
“If you asked me why I had joined the militia,” he wrote in Homage, “I should have answered: ‘To fight against Fascism,’ and if you had asked me what I was fighting for, I should have answered: ‘Common decency.’”
When I had seen enough of the bungalow, we lurched along clogged, labyrinthine streets until we reached the flat of local filmmaker Bishwajeet Mookherjee who, in 2016, made a short documentary called George Orwell … in the Land of Satyagraha.
In 1917, Mohandas Gandhi traveled to the East Champaran district, of which Motihari is the headquarters, to show solidarity with striking indigo workers. The British ordered him to leave; he refused, and they jailed him. This is the spark that ignited the nonviolent civil disobedience movement, or “satyagraha,” for which Gandhi is famous, a struggle that grew into a mass movement and contributed to Indian independence in 1947. The film links these struggles to Orwell’s own anti-colonial work.
Mookherjee’s grandparents were freedom fighters against the Raj, and he proudly displays photographs from those days. Two decades ago, his father, Debapriya, led the charge to restore the Blair house. As a longtime member of the local Rotary Club, Debapriya hoped to make the site a tourist destination. A boundary wall was built, a plaque installed, and a bust of Orwell’s likeness erected. Plans to build a museum and library were announced by local politicians. Headlines ran the story around the world. Meanwhile, the state proposed building a park to honor Gandhi right next to the Blair house. As state money funneled into the park, the Blair house was largely left to the elements.
The museum and library remain only a dream. Once a month or so, a visitor—usually a writer—comes along to pay their respects, according to the security guard, and every year, on Orwell’s birthday, the Rotary Club’s Orwell committee invites academics to give talks on the author’s relevance to the area. A few dozen people usually show up.
I had made secular pilgrimages before—once to the outskirts of Birmingham, Alabama, to convene at Sun Ra’s grave, another time in Barcelona to see the final resting place of anarchist revolutionary Buenaventura Durruti, who died during the Spanish Civil War—but somehow the journey to Motihari felt different.
Why was I drawn to Orwell after all these years? Was it only because I was six months from turning the age at which Orwell died and I was now brooding over my own mortality? Was it simply that we both shared a love of books and a personal Indian connection? I first read Nineteen Eighty-Four in my teenage years, at a time when I imagined that the world could be divided into neat binary categories (good and bad, victim and oppressor), when punk rock lyrics were nudging me toward anti-authoritarian politics. Orwell came along with his “doublethink” and “newspeak” and his “picture of the future” as “a boot stamping on a human face—forever,” and it scared me out of my wits. But I needed to be scared. It motivated me to make ethical changes.
In my mid-twenties, I wound up living in anarchist communes in Barcelona, where I read Homage to Catalonia. My friends and I saw our struggles as distant echoes of those battles the anarchists fought against the fascists during the Civil War. What I found so refreshing about Orwell’s book was how he admired his comrades but described them honestly, even if that meant unflatteringly.
You see the same nuanced approach in his anti-colonial essays, and it has given his critics ammunition against him. For example, he wrote an audacious essay about Gandhi a year after his assassination and within a year of Orwell’s own death from tuberculosis. He saw Gandhi as a good man and a devoted revolutionary, and he admired him for his rare egalitarian convictions in a caste-heavy context—“he did not think of people in terms of race or status.” Yet he criticized him for his passivism and ascetic, sober ways. It wasn’t personal—“even Gandhi’s worst enemies would admit that he was an interesting and unusual man who enriched the world simply by being alive”—but rather a tactical and perhaps aesthetic concern. It isn’t that “the average human being is a failed saint,” Orwell wrote, but that “[m]any people genuinely do not wish to be saints.” In this group, Orwell included himself. To wish for sainthood would be to lose some part of one’s humanity.
In the early essay “A Hanging” (1931), perhaps my favorite, Orwell describes a grotesque rite of passage for Burma police cadets that entailed witnessing an execution. The police are ushering a condemned “Hindu” man to the gallows when he steps “slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path.” Why, the reader wonders, would a condemned man bother? Orwell utilizes the gesture to reflect on its significance:
It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive [...] and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone—one mind less, one world less.
Orwell never names the crime the man was accused of committing. That could invite justification for the punishment. The essay can be read instead as an indictment of both the death penalty and the whole colonial apparatus, but it also cleaves closer to the aesthetic concerns of literature than mere polemic.
In “Why I Write,” Orwell says that a primary goal when he sits at his typewriter is to tell the truth and “to make political writing into an art.” That is what he is doing in “A Hanging”— making political writing into an art. “An enormous relief had come upon us now that the job was done,” he writes after describing the hanging. “One felt an impulse to sing, to break into a run, to snigger. All at once everyone began chattering gaily.” Someone makes a joke, and they all laugh obscenely—everyone, including Orwell himself.
A charitable reading of Orwell will recognize that he was a brilliant rhetorician but a flawed man of his time, which is the tack readers generally take. The harsher critic may focus on his shortcomings and call them near misses—he was so close to getting so many things “right” but then shot his own foot.
Orwell certainly possessed hang-ups and idiosyncrasies, but if you read his body of work front to back, you see an ethos develop and mature over time. From the moment he left Burma in 1927 and began seriously to write, his moral compass pointed toward social equality. Yet his memory has been sanitized. Christopher Hitchens, a notable admirer and author of Why Orwell Matters (2002), wrote, “I sometimes feel as if George Orwell requires extricating from a pile of saccharine tablets and moist hankies; an object of sickly veneration and sentimental overpraise, employed to stultify schoolchildren with his insufferable rightness and purity.”
During the month I stayed in Bihar, my in-laws wondered aloud if the monsoons would even arrive. A heat wave had swept the entire globe, wearing people down, even killing some of the most vulnerable, and it occurred to me that heat wave was an insufficient and possibly deceptive term. This inferno was simply what had become of our summers. We had once again resorted to using euphemism to mask painful truths, as Orwell warned against. Euphemism isn’t just sugar to help us swallow bad news; it’s also a linguistic sleight of hand that protects those responsible for the bad news.
The drive home was uneventful, but that evening, I began to feel woozy and, by morning, had fallen ill. Eventually my in-laws hauled my ailing body to a nearby hospital, where I would spend the next 30 hours in bed with an IV in my arm. Diagnosis: heat stroke. In my feverish condition, I turned my thoughts again to Orwell’s writing and his sacrifices to it and came to realize that, in many ways, Orwell cut a figure of the writer I aspired to be. I don’t always love his prose or agree with his conclusions, but I admire him as a dogged practitioner of his craft, one who didn’t confine himself to one genre but instead wrote whatever pleased him in the moment. I admire that, within his limited purview, he offered honest appraisals of himself and the world as he found it. I admire that he resisted commercial and political pressures to water down his ideas, or to keep them quiet, and this earned him enemies across the political spectrum.
Even as he lay dying of tuberculosis, he never gave up on his intellectual and creative work, and, in the end, he made peace with his failures. Was I succumbing to “sentimental overpraise”? Perhaps so. Or perhaps I saw Orwell as just another flawed man, a “failed saint” who made a good faith effort to find the truth in all the messiness of the world, which is all any of us can hope to do.
Featured image: Frances Hodgkins, Ruins, 1937, Dorset, England. Gift of Mrs. Joshua Shields in memory of her husband, 1940. Te Papa (1940-0003-1). Accessed January 18, 2024.
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