George Orwell’s Burmese Home Comes Back to Life

By Nang Thiri Lwin 4 May 2013

An ancient building in northwest Burma, once home to George Orwell, will be restored for visitors after a long period of disrepair under the former military regime.

Now largely abandoned, the old red building in Sagaing Division stands at the end of a narrow path overgrown with grass. Two trees flanking the edifice enhance the seclusion of the home where the famous British writer lived during British colonialism, plotting parts of his famous book “Burmese Days.”

“We started talking to community leaders about repairing the building, and now we’re collaborating with tourism agents,” said Thaung Htike Oo, a township administrator. “The repairs will be complete this year.”

Orwell came to Burma as an Indian Civil Service officer, assigned in 1926 to a remote town in Sagaing Division along the west bank of the Irrawaddy River. The town, Katha, was the inspiration for the fictional district of Kyauktada in “Burmese Days,” which was published in 1934. The book presents the dark side of British colonialism in Burma, then part of the British Indian empire, with biting descriptions of discrimination against the Burmese as well as feelings of isolation among the British colonial officers.

Orwell’s former two-storey home is now owned by the township’s administrative department, with some civil servants and their families taking up residence there.

The historical building has never been repaired; vines snake up cracked, concrete walls, while the doors hang off their hinges. The floor lies beneath piles of garbage, with insects rummaging between. Weeds curve alongside the fireplace and dust covers the railing up a broken staircase.

Soon, however, the township hopes to breathe new life into the neglected residence, and to attract tourist dollars in the process.

Foreigners with an interest in the famous British author have long journeyed to Katha to view for themselves the landscapes painted in the novel.

“Tourists choose the Irrawaddy River cruise to Katha,” said Daw Tint Tint Lwin, managing director of Irrawaddy Princess River Cruise. “All the tourists want to see the building” where Orwell lived.

In February, news spread that Orwell’s former residence might be torn down by investors to make room for a skate park, but plans for renovation ultimately won out.

“The value of our colonial heritage may fade away if they turn this place into a skating ground,” Daw Tint Tint Lwin said.

Still, she stressed that reconstructing and repainting the crumbling building should be done carefully.

“We want to charge a fee for entering and visiting the building,” she said. “With that income, we can repair and maintain the building without disturbing its historical value.”

She criticized the building’s current tenants for failing to care for the space.

“They’ve put two [township] employees’ families in this building, and now it looks like a local hut,” she said. “All the buildings, including the British Club and tennis court, need to be repaired and maintained properly so this place can be a tourist attraction with entry fees.”

The British Club, which makes frequent appearances in “Burmese Days,” was a popular gathering spot for British colonial officers and their families to socialize on the verandah with a view of the Irrawaddy River. Coconut trees line the road leading to the club, which was built on a hill and is separated from a tennis quart by an open field and living quarters for laborers.

Orwell was born in India in 1903 and moved with his family to England one year later. He joined the Indian Imperial Police in Burma in 1922 but despised colonial life and resigned several years later. In addition to “Burmese Days,” he is known writing the dystopian novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and “Animal Farm.”