Eric Arthur Blair, lifespan (25 June 1903 – 21 January 1950) was better known by his pen name George Orwell. He was an English novelist, essayist, journalist and a critic. His work is prominent by his lucid prose, his fancy for social injustice, opposition to totalitarianism, and outspoken support for democratic socialism.   Very few would know that George Orwell was born in Motihari, Bihar, under British India.

     As a writer, George produced literary criticism, poetry, fiction and polemical journalism. He is best known for his allegorical novella Animal Farm (written in 1945) and the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (written in 1949). His non-fiction works include, The Road to Wigan Pier (written in 1937), documenting his experience of the working-class life, in the north of England, and his homage to Catalonia (1938), an account of his experiences, soldiering for the Republican faction, of the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), are as critically respected, as his essay on politics, literature, language and culture. In 2008, The Times ranked George Orwell second among “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945”. The book I liked the most out of George’s stable was the Burmese Days written in the backdrop of Burma during the British Raj. Since the book centrally is, anti-British, and publicises his opposition to totalitarianism it didn’t get the prominence it deserved. 

    Orwell’s work continues to remain influential and popular in various political and social cultures. The adjective “Orwellian” –describing totalitarian, and authoritarian, social practices – is part of the English language, like many of his, other neologisms, such as “Big Brother”, “Thought Police”, and “Hate week”, “Room 101”, the “memory hole”, “Newspeak”, “doublethink”, “proles”, “unperson” and “thoughtcrime”.

    George Orwell described his family as ‘lower-upper-middle class.’ His father, Richard Walmesley Blair, worked in the Opium Department of the Indian Civil Service. His mother, Ida Mabel Blair, grew up in Moulmein, Burma, where her French father was involved in speculative ventures. George had two sisters: Marjorie, five years older; and Avril, five years younger. When George was one year old, his mother took him and Marjorie to England. His birthplace and ancestral house in Motihari have been declared a protected monument of historical importance.

    In 1904 Ida Blair settled with her children at Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. George was brought up in the company of his mother and sisters, and apart from a brief visit in mid-1907, the family did not see their husband or father, Richard Blair, until 1912. His mother’s diary from 1905 describes a lively round of social activity and artistic interests.

    Before the First World War, the family moved to Shiplake, Oxfordshire where Orwell became friendly with the Buddicom family, especially their daughter Jacintha. When they first met, he was standing on his head in a field. On being asked why, he replied, “You are noticed more if you stand on your head than if you are right way up.” Jacintha and Orwell read and wrote poetry, and dreamed of becoming famous writers.

    At the age of five, George was sent as a day-boy to a convent school in Henley-on-Thames, which Marjorie also attended. It was a Roman Catholic convent run by French Ursuline nuns, who had been exiled from France after religious education was banned in 1903. His mother wanted him to have a public school education, but his family could not afford the fee, and he needed to earn a scholarship. Ida Blair’s brother Charles Limouzin recommended St Cyprian’s school, Eastbourne, East Sussex.   

    He later took up a place at Wellington, where he spent the Spring Term. In May 1917 a place became available at King’s Scholar at Eton. George remained at Eton until December 1921, when he left midway between his 18th and 19th birthday. Wellington was “beastly”, George told his childhood friend Jacintha Buddicom, and he was “interested and happy” at Eton. George was briefly taught French even by Aldous Huxley. 

    George’s academic reports suggest that he neglected his academic studies, but during his time at Eton he worked with Roger Mynors to produce a college magazine. His parents could not afford to send him to a university without another scholarship, and they concluded from his poor results that he would not be able to win one. Steven Runciman a friend noted that he had a romantic idea about the East and the family decided that George should join the Imperial Police, the precursor of the Indian Police Service. For this he had to pass an entrance examination. In December 1921 he left Eton and travelled to join his retired father, mother, and younger sister Avril, who that month had moved to 40 Stradbroke Road, Southwold, Suffolk, the first of their four homes in the town. George was enrolled at a crammer there called Craighurst, and brushed up on his Classics, English, and History. He passed the entrance exam, coming seventh out of the 26 candidates who exceeded the pass mark.

    George’s maternal grandmother lived at Moulmein, Burma, so he chose a posting in Burma, which was then a province of British India. In October 1922 he sailed on board SS Hereforshire via the Suez Canal and Ceylon to join the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. A month later, he arrived at Rangoon and travelled to the police training school in Mandalay. He was appointed as Assistant District Superintendent (on probation) on 29 November 1922 with effect from 27 November and at a base salary of Rs 325 per month, with an overseas supplement of Rs 125/month and a Burma Allowance of Rs 75/month (a total of Rs 525). After a short posting at Maymyo, Burma’s principal hill station, he was posted to the frontier outpost of Myaungmya in the Irrawaddy Delta at the beginning of 1924.

     In April 1926 he moved to Moulmein, where his maternal grandmother lived. At the end of that year, he was assigned to Katha in Upper Burma, where he contracted dengue fever in 1927. Entitled to a leave in England that year, he was allowed to return in July due to his illness. While on leave in England and on holiday with his family in Cornwall in September 1927, he reappraised his life. Deciding against returning to Burma, he resigned from the Indian Imperial Police to become a writer, with effect from 12 March 1928 after five-and-a-half years of service. He drew on his experiences in the Burma police for the novel Burmese Days (which he wrote in the year 1934) and the essays “A hanging” (in 1931) and “Shooting an Elephant” (in 1936). In England, he settled back in the family home at Southwold, renewing acquaintance with local friends and attending an Old Etonian dinner. He visited his old tutor Gow at Cambridge for advice on becoming a writer. In 1927 he moved to London. In early 1928 he moved to Paris. In December 1929, after nearly two years in Paris, George returned to England and went directly to his parents’ house in Southwold, a coastal town in Suffolk, which remained his base for the next five years. 

    In April 1932 George Orwell became a teacher at The Hawthorns High School, a school for boys, in Hayes, West London. This was a small school offering private schooling for children of local tradesmen and shopkeepers, and had only 14 or 16 boys aged between ten and sixteen, and one other school master. While at the school he became friendly with the curate of a local parish church and became involved with activities there. There he joins hands in the publishing of ‘A Scullion’s Diary for forty pounds advance.

    At the end of the summer term in 1932, Blair returns to Southwold, where his parents had used a legacy to buy their own home. Blair and his sister Avril spend the holidays making the house habitable while he also works on his novel ‘Burmese Days.’ He was also spending time with Eleanor Jacques, but her attachment with Dennis Collings remained an obstacle to his hopes of a more serious relationship. He later takes up a job in Hampstead to sell second hand books.

    George Orwell sets out for Spain on about 23 December 1936, dining with Henry Miller in Paris on the way. He returns to England in June 1937, and stays at the O’Shaughnessy home at Greenwich. He finds his views on the Spanish Civil War out of favour. Publishers reject two of his works.

    He later publishes Animal Farm in 1945 and 1984 in the year 1949. Orwell was an atheist who identified himself with the humanist outlook on life.

    It is sad when you discover many of these iconic writers of the past have seen very bad times financially, yet they still shine like bright stars.

By Kamlesh Tripathi



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