Googling the home of George Orwell in colonial Burma invariably returns images of a burnt-red two-story house in Katha, Sagaing Division, which has long been considered the former residence of the famous 20th century British writer. But now, just as plans are in motion to restore the old structure to draw tourists to the upper Burma town, locals are casting doubt on the true provenance of the house.
The colonial homes of British officers, including Orwell’s, once dotted the landscape in Katha, a colonial outpost on the Irrawaddy River. Those dwellings have since been left in varying states of disrepair after decades of neglect in independent Burma.
But despite widespread belief to the contrary, Orwell’s old house is no longer among them, says Orwell-ophile and local Katha resident Nyo Ko Naing.
A local graphic designer who also practices cartography, Nyo Ko Naing has closely studied Orwell’s life in 1920s Burma, where the Briton served as a district superintendent of the Indian Imperial Police.
Nyo Ko Naing told The Irrawaddy this week that he “was wrong about Orwell’s home,” claiming that the red house he and others had pegged as the writer’s was actually the residence of a district commissioner. Orwell’s old home was destroyed in an earthquake in 1986, he insists.
“I realized after studying the old maps and through more conversations with the elders who have lived here over the last 80 years,” the geography graduate said.
“In October 2013, I found an old map from 1911-12, which shows the building plots with the title of their [British colonial residents’] rankings,” Nyo Ko Naing explained, adding that homes were typically inherited by the succeeding officer when a colonial official left his post.
Orwell was the district superintendent police officer and local residents knew him by his title, DSP, and his residence was referred to in the Burmese language as Eain Ni, meaning “red home.”
Tint Swe, a 65-year-old Katha resident who says his family was the last to live in the real former Orwell home, told The Irrawaddy that his family moved out in 1979, fearing that a ghost haunted the structure.
“My father was a forestry official and we were allowed to stay in that house in the 1970s,” said Tint Swe. “We stayed there for over three years, we were the last family.
“The house was infamous for ghosts. We did not know at first, when we found out, we moved. And then later it was used by drug users. It was left in disrepair and was falling apart when the 1985-1986 earthquake hit Katha.”
A former secondary school teacher in Katha, Myint Myint Thein, echoed Tint Swe’s ghost story.
“We did not believe in the ghost, so my mother and I went to visit to the house in December 1979. Water was thrown on me, I looked up and I saw nothing. It was in the daytime,” the 78-year-old former schoolteacher told The Irrawaddy.
Foreigners who make the rugged trek to remote Katha are drawn by the prospect of seeing Orwell’s residence, a tennis court once used by colonial administrators, a British clubhouse, and the Saint Paul Anglican Church, all of which are portrayed in Orwell’s first novel, “Burmese Days.”
Orwell’s old home and the still-standing house of the British deputy commissioner were constructed in the same style and in close proximity to one another, possibly leading to the confusion, said Nyo Ko Naing.
The deputy commissioner’s old home is now owned by the township’s administrative department, with some civil servants and their families taking up residence there.
“Since early 2000, I have seen many foreign visitors arrive to Katha in quest of the characters in ‘Burmese Days’ and George Orwell,” said Nyo Ko Naing.
“Their visits compelled me to study more about the great writer George Orwell and his old life in Burma.”
A campaign pushing for renovation of the building thought to be Orwell’s kicked off in February after it was learned that the structure would be torn down to make way for a skate park.
Win Myint, an 85-year-old old man who was a Katha police official in the1950s-60s, said his office was the former Orwell home from 1958 to 1963, after which it was turned over to forestry department officials.
Katha locals told The Irrawaddy this week that the concrete foundation of Orwell’s old home remains, located about 100 feet away from the building long-believed to have been his residence. Only the house’s chimney was left standing after the quake, but that vestige was torn down in 2005 when authorities let civil servants build on the surrounding land.
“Now there are about 21 houses, built surrounding the plot of the old house we used to live in,” said Tint Swe.
A passage from Emma Larkin’s “Finding George Orwell in Burma,” a novel in which the author traces Orwell’s life in the country, appears to make reference to the chimney. Larkin, however, goes only so far as to speculate that it was the site of the former home of the Lackersteens, a fictional family whose niece is unsuccessfully courted by John Flory, the book’s protagonist. That assertion was based on a map drawn by Orwell himself, Larkin writes.
Nyo Ko Naing said it was unclear whether plans to restore the red home formerly thought to be the British writer’s would go forward.
Orwell came to Burma as an Indian Imperial Police officer, assigned to Katha in 1926. The town 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 by their British colonial overlords.
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.”