George Orwell was employed in the Indian Section of the BBC’s Eastern Service during World War Two but no recording of his voice has survived. A cache of his BBC radio scripts was discovered forty years ago – but many are still lost.
My lengthy list of ideas to pursue, people and sites to visit – including archives and libraries – was never going to be ticked-off in one six-week research trip to India. Gaining a deeper understanding of Orwell’s complex relationship with his Anglo-Indian family identity by locating primary sources at regional archives and learning from local historians in Motihari (where he was born) and in Nainital (where his parents married) kept me busy for most of the time.
Besides finding out more about Orwell’s parents and his extended family who had lived and worked in India, there were many other incidental byways to be explored. Some may be considered a little unlikely or even quixotic – but nevertheless were important by my estimation. Could Orwell’s ayah be identified – or was this unknown woman truly lost to history? Did Orwell’s mother leave India with her children after her son was bitten in his cot by a rat?
On the last full-day researching in the archives, one of these longer research shots – pertaining to Orwell’s many Indian colleagues at the BBC – hit an unlikely bullseye.
Although many radio scripts from the 1940s have been lost, there is an almost complete record of “Programmes as Broadcast” (PasB) which provides an invaluable inventory of what was transmitted. It occurred to me some time ago that Orwell’s guests and co-workers may have kept copies of the missing radio scripts. Possibly his long-dead colleagues had bequeathed literary estates to relatives or state institutions that contained these lost programmes or letters.
The late Peter Davison, who edited The Complete Works of George Orwell, noted a PasB record for a programme broadcast on the 15th January 1942 which had not survived: “The Meaning of Scorched Earth” written by E. Blair and read by Balraj Sahni (1913-1973).
There was a small lead contained in a letter to Mulk Raj Anand (1905–2004), written shortly afterwards, on the 27 February 1942 and signed “Eric Blair”, which indicated that Orwell posted exemplar transcripts of BBC broadcasts to prospective speakers as “guidance copies”:
I wonder if you would like to do a series of talks on Sundays, which
would mean recording the talks normally on Fridays? I recently wrote myself two talks explaining what is meant by scorched earth and by sabotage, and it afterwards occurred to me that as we have about five Sundays vacant, we might have a series, discussing similar phrases which have passed into general usage in the last year or two, and are flung to and fro in newspaper articles, broadcasts and so forth, without necessarily being well understood.
I would like you, if you would, to do these talks, starting with one on the phrase Fifth Column, and following up with talks discussing propaganda, living space, new order, pluto-democracy, racialism, and so on. I am sending you as a sort of guidance copies of the first two talks I did. You will see from these that our idea is to make these catch-phrases more intelligible, and at the same time, of course, to do a bit of anti-Fascist propaganda. Could you let me know pretty soon whether this would interest you?
The National Archives of India in New Delhi is home to a large collection of Mulk Raj Anand’s private papers. Could these transcripts be located among the writer’s literary estate? It was worth an hour or two of precious archival time to see what was still extant.
The pages were fragile, frayed and browning, a few words were illegible and it was slightly truncated – but the “guidance” copy Orwell had slipped into an envelope over 80 years ago had survived!
I excitedly read, photographed, endeavoured to faithfully copy the text without correcting typos, counted word length and considered the broadcast time, comparing it with other scripts. It seemed complete, except for the last few words, or possibly paragraphs which may have been on a discarded third page.
AS BROADCAST: 15TH January 1942, 15.00-15.12 GMT. Eastern T [illegible] “THROUGH EASTERN EYES” - “THE MEANING OF SCORCHED EARTH” by George Orwell
The Meaning of Scorched Earth
Anyone who listened to this broadcast in mid-January 1942 was thoroughly and rationally briefed about the concept of “scorched earth” across several theatres of war. The tone is appropriately dispassionate, as a police officer would report on the violent murder of a citizen in neutral, un-emotive language.
Orwell correctly identifies that the term “scorched earth” was first used in a report made during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–45) but it is odd he does not mention to his audience that this concept had been employed militarily since antiquity.
Did you notice, considering it was read aloud for radio, that Orwell erred a little – probably due to the hurly-burly of relentlessly having to prepare content for broadcast – in the first sentence of the second last paragraph by writing, “as I noted above” rather than something like, “as already mentioned”?
Life for Londoners like Orwell, living in the ruins of a city that had been blitzed by the Luftwaffe, was austere when “The Meaning of Scorched Earth” was broadcast. The German U-boats were menacing British convoys; the war in the North African desert was going poorly; the Germans were approaching Moscow; and, the number of loved ones lost on land, sea & air was mounting. There must have been some resurgence of hope that fascism would be defeated, considering the Americans had finally entered the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, but life was grim.
Despite this cause for optimism, most must have realised it was going to be a long war and that the destruction wrought, in such a catastrophic and all-encompassing conflict, would make the peace a difficult one for citizens, especially those who had been displaced. The rationing and scarcity, so omnipresent in the bleak, war-ravaged world of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) was to be an ongoing, grim reality for countless millions across Europe and Asia after the war officially ended.
In the month after the broadcast, the impregnable British naval base at Singapore fell to the Japanese and the Battle for Australia commenced. Few would have guessed the absolute horror that was to unfold before the war finally concluded.
There was the imminent psychological terror of V-1 flying bombs for Londoners and the catastrophic loss of life in the fire-bombing of Dresden for the Germans. Orwell, serving as a war correspondent, would see the death camps, before the newsreels publicly screened in the cinemas, the shocking enormity of Hitler’s, “Final Solution”. A terrifying new weapon of mass annihilation, chillingly demonstrated at Hiroshima on civilians, was soon to mark the beginning of a new epoch of human history in August, 1945.
Orwell was certainly not immune from the psychological impact of these horrors on his sense of optimism about what the future might hold. His mother died in 1943 and wife in 1945. Orwell now had the responsibility of raising a son in a world where “the atom bombs are piling up in the factories”. The bleak outlook that pervades Nineteen Eighty-Four is understandable, even without factoring in Orwell’s own worsening tubercular illness.
Almost immediately, on reading the transcript, there was one line that struck me as embodying Orwell’s strange ability to write with completely convincing authority, something which, when pulled-apart logically is completely dubious:
“To carry out the scorched earth policy implies that you know what you are fighting for, that you care more for liberty than for profits.”
Orwell’s analysis in mid-January 1942 – that any nation implementing a “scorched earth” policy had a genuine commitment to “liberty” over “profits” – was not a belief he sustained while drafting Nineteen Eighty-Four in the years following the Second World War. The war against German fascism had been won but the creeping threat of totalitarianism and the mind-boggling scope of the destruction during the last few years would not permit any rational acceptance that a scorched earth policy was any longer about “liberty”.
It seems worth taking a moment to reflect on the evolution of Orwell’s thinking from this radio broadcast in early-1942. The experience of broadcasting wartime propaganda – although he felt he made “slightly less disgusting than it might otherwise have been” – significantly influenced his last novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.
It is not hard to imagine Winston Smith, the protagonist, writing in his diary an analysis of Oceania’s scorched earth policy in their unending wars with Eurasia or Eastasia. The evolution of Orwell’s thinking on this matter is discernible in Emmanuel Goldstein’s, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, the political tract within the novel which purports to analyse the function of war in that totalitarian state:
“The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labour. War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent.”
Orwell, the writer, ultimately placed his faith in the primacy of language, not weapons or planned destruction, for fighting totalitarianism and ensuring liberty. This is evident throughout his major postwar essays and in the appendix, The Principles of Newspeak, which concludes his final novel. Orwell’s core message: resist organised impingement on the individual’s liberty by any group – religious, political or artistic – who believed in “concealing or preventing thought”!
Mulk Raj Anand & Balraj Sahni
Mr. Anand is one of the small group of Indian writers who prefers to write in English, and whose appearance during the past twenty years marks an important turning-point in Anglo-Indian relations. George Orwell, Manchester Evening News, 9 August 1945
There was a second transcript in Anand’s private papers at this same archive; one that had not been lost. “The Meaning of Sabotage”, also mentioned in Orwell’s letter to Anand, was broadcast on 29 January, 1942. No other BBC transcripts could be located amongst his papers (although there may be more) which appears to confirm my theory that these are the transcripts mailed by Orwell.
This second talk was also read by Balraj Sahni (and censored by R. C. Hardman). The transcript was not annotated in Orwell’s hand at the head of the first page – ‘As broadcast. 10 mins 10 secs’ – like the copy Davison accessed for CWGO but is the same text.
Mulk Raj Anand and Balraj Sahni ‘s relationships with Orwell are contextually interesting and worthy of further consideration.
Anand, born in the Punjabi city of Peshawar, had his talent nurtured in England. He first visited London courtesy of a scholarship awarded on the silver wedding anniversary of George V and Queen Mary in the 1920s. During these four years he embraced left wing politics and the Indian independence movement. He joined a Marxist study group conducted by a trade union and was to become a lifelong socialist. He was a successful student and this first experience of England culminated in the award of a doctorate in philosophy from University College London.
Anand returned to India in 1929 and cleaned latrines for three weeks at Gandhi’s ashram in Ahmadabad. He was criticised by Gandhi for his Anglicised clothing and appearance. Anand also had the opportunity to attend a session of the Indian National Congress held in Lahore.
On returning to England he was befriended by Virginia and Leonard Woolf who organised employment for the young writer at their Hogarth Press. T. S. Eliot published his work in The Criterion and Anand rubbed shoulders with many literary luminaries of his age, including D. H. Lawrence, W. B. Yeats and George Bernard Shaw.
E. M. Forster was Anand’s most influential early advocate, assisting with the publication of his first novel, Untouchable (1935). Forster wrote the preface. Reputedly, the novel had been rejected nineteen times by publishers. Many of Anand’s obituarists recount an anecdote about Gandhi providing feedback on an early draft of the novel which led to Anand making significant changes:
“Your untouchables sound too much like Bloomsbury intellectuals. You know an untouchable boy wouldn’t talk in those long sentences”.
Orwell was also a strong advocate, recruiting Anand to work at the BBC on a range of programmes that were never likely to find much of an audience. He suggested the title for Anand’s 1942 novel, The Sword and the Sickle, and reviewed it positively. Orwell also wrote to the Times Literary Supplement objecting to unfair reviews of Anand’s work.
Douglas Kerr has pointed out that “Anand was an anti-imperialist, a socialist, and an Indian nationalist. This was tricky for Orwell, who was highly suspicious of nationalism. But he defended Anand from charges of being anti-British and unfriendly to Anglo-Indians in his writing”.
Orwell always recognised Anand’s literary importance but a note in his wartime diary (on the 3rd April 1942) is an important clue as to why Orwell was such an advocate during the early years of the war against Hitler. Orwell appreciated that this ardent Indian nationalist and anti-imperialist was “genuinely anti-Fascist, and has done violence to his feelings, and probably to his reputation, by backing Britain up because he recognises that Britain is objectively on the anti-Fascist side”. He was in the same situation himself.
Eric Blair, who broadcast by agreement with the BBC under his pseudonym George Orwell, was conscious of potential damage to his own credibility. Ethically, he felt that defeating Hitler was more important than pursuing “one’s own revolution”. Orwell knew he was being “used by the British governing class” to broadcast propaganda to India and wrote to a friend explaining his position, that “one can’t effectively remain outside the war & by working inside an institution like the BBC one can perhaps deodorise it to some small extent”.
Balraj Sahni was already working as an Indian Programme Assistant when Orwell joined the BBC in 1941. He had been educated at Harvard and knew Gandhi well, having lived with him for a year at an ashram during the late 1930s. This is where he met the Eton-educated Lionel Fielden, who was the director of All India Radio (AIR) in Delhi. Fielden, who Orwell detested (which is a fascinating tale but outside the scope of this piece) recruited Sahni to join the BBC’s Hindi service in London during 1939 where he was soon broadcasting propaganda to Indian soldiers.
Sahni’s son and brother wrote biographies which emphasise Balraj’s flamboyant non-conformity:
“He was unlike anyone else in the family. Influenced by the Romantic poets, he was a swash-buckling adventurer always looking for and taking on dangerous new challenges. He was a non-conformist and not one to pursue traditional lines of work … Dad was ‘independent and impetuous by nature’ and would ‘do things that were off the beaten track’. ‘Nothing risked, nothing gained’ was his motto all his life.”
Orwell was very active in supporting his friend professionally. He introduced Sahni and his talented wife Damyanti (pronounced Dammo-ji) to Norman Marshall and organised for them to collaborate on “Let’s Act It Ourselves”, a programme of discussions on dramatic presentation. Marshall, another non-conformist, was the owner of the Gate Theatre Studio and a champion of what he called “the non-commercial theatre”. He developed expertise in avoiding the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship rules by ensuring the audience were paid members of a theatre club.
Orwell’s personal and professional networks were extensive and not always in plain sight. It is possible that Orwell knew Marshall via his aunt, Nellie Limouzin. She was an actress and had been a significant source of information for her nephew’s first professionally published article, about censorship in England, “La Censure en Angleterre”.
Anand was later to have the melancholy task of telling Sahni that Orwell’s wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, had died in late March 1945. Sahni wrote to Orwell fondly and compassionately:
“…you endeared yourselves to us greatly, through your work and your sincerity. This news has made us very sad indeed”.
Sahni was to become an accomplished film actor and director in India. Principled, and revered for his portrayals of the underprivileged, Sahni was a leading star during the Golden Age of Indian cinema. He also experienced the grief of losing his wife. Damyanti Sahni died unexpectedly in 1947.
Both Anand and Sahni were likely sources of up-to-date information about Gandhi. Peter Davison’s speculations regarding the extent to which Sahni’s knowledge of the Mahātmā influenced Orwell’s writings on Gandhi, especially the important essay written in 1949, the year after the Indian’s assassination, are worthy of further reflection.
Collaboration & Research Opportunities
There appeared to be vast swathes of Mulk Raj Anand’s literary estate left to catalogue in New Delhi. Anand had such a significant collaboration with Orwell at the BBC there could possibly be missing transcripts or letters to be discovered amongst these papers.
A knee-deep pile of folders – marked “photographs” – that I was not permitted to view needs further investigation. There may be images of the literary and BBC circles that Anand and Orwell shared. Shots, taken of Orwell during his BBC days, first appeared in the book, Talking to India (1943), which he edited and graces my bookshelf. It is possible that there were other photos taken during that shoot which did not make the cut but could be in those folders.
Please feel encouraged to make contact if you are planning to pursue research in the National Archives of India in New Delhi (or the state archives in Lucknow, Patna or Kolkata) as there are many leads to pursue. I am more than happy to help out with areas worthy of further investigation.
Who knows what treasures, hidden away in archives, are yet to be found!
Reflections on the Transcript
How would you, with the considerable benefit of hindsight, evaluate Orwell’s commentary from 15th January 1942?
Please feel encouraged to post a comment below.
Anand, Mulk Raj, Untouchable, London: Penguin, 1940
Bluemel, Kristin, George Orwell and the Radical Eccentrics: Intermodernism in Literary London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004
Brander, Laurence, George Orwell, London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1954
Fielden, Lionel, The Natural Bent, London: Andre Deutsch, 1960
Kerr, Douglas, Orwell and Empire, Oxford University Press, 2022
Marshall, Norman, The Other Theatre, John Lehmann, London, 1947
Niven, Alastair, Mulk Raj Anand (1905–2004), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Orwell, George, “The Meaning of Scorched Earth”, BBC Eastern Service, 15th January, 1942 (courtesy of the National Archives, New Delhi)
Orwell, George, “The Meaning of Sabotage”, BBC Eastern Service, 29th January, 1942 (courtesy of the National Archives, New Delhi)
Orwell, George (ed.), Talking to India; A Selection of English Language Broadcasts to India, London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd Book, 1943
Orwell, George, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Complete Works of George Orwell – Volume 9, Secker & Warburg, 1997
Orwell, George, All Propaganda Is Lies: 1941–1942, The Complete Works of George Orwell – Volume 13, Secker & Warburg, 1998
Orwell, George, Keeping Our Little Corner Clean: 1942–1943, The Complete Works of George Orwell – Volume 14, Secker & Warburg, 1998
Orwell, George, I Belong to the Left: 1945, The Complete Works of George Orwell – Volume 17, Secker & Warburg, 1998
Orwell, George, Smothered Under Journalism: 1946, The Complete Works of George Orwell – Volume 18, Secker & Warburg, 1998
Orwell, George, It Is What I Think: 1947–1948, The Complete Works of George Orwell – Volume 19, Secker & Warburg, 1998
Orwell, George, George Orwell: A Life in Letters, London: Harvill Secker, 2010
Sahni, Balraj, Balraj Sahni: An Autobiography, Hind Pocket Books, 1979
Sahni, Bhisham, Balraj Sahni: My Brother, National Book Trust, 2017
Sahni, Parikshat, The Non-Conformist: Memories of My Father Balraj Sahni, Penguin, 2019
West, W.J. (ed.), Orwell: The War Broadcasts, Duckworth & Co/BBC Books, 1985
West, W.J. (ed.), Orwell: The War Commentaries, Duckworth & Co/BBC Books, 1985
West, W.J., The Larger Evils: Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Truth Behind the Satire, Edinburgh: Canongate Press, 1992
Zivin, Joselyn, “‘Bent’: A Colonial Subversive and Indian Broadcasting.” Past & Present, no. 162, 1999, pp. 195–220
Thank you to the staff at the National Archives of India in New Delhi for their assistance. As ever, the late Peter Davison‘s research provided the information necessary to track down this lost transcript and to understand contextually Orwell’s relationship with Balraj Sahni and Mulk Raj Anand.