By Shashi Tharoor
“The Hindu”, Online edition of India’s National Newspaper
July 6, 2003
BETWEEN the writing of this column and its appearance in The Hindu, George Orwell’s birth centenary would have fallen, on June 25, 2003.
I have no doubt that readers will have already read, in the days since then, everything they could possibly have wanted to know about the gaunt, brilliant Eric Arthur Blair, who died at the peak of his fame of tuberculosis at the tragically young age of 50. I have long admired Orwell’s writing and even more, his deep personal integrity, but it is not of these matters that I propose to write today. My own tribute on his hundredth birthday is a personal one.
The story begins for me and my former wife, Minu, 23 years ago. It was 1980, and we were on our first visit to Spain, then newly emerged into democracy after four decades of Franco’s fascism. We had announced our desire to travel to Huesca. But Huesca was no tourist spot: it was an obscure town on the way to nowhere. To get there, we would have to risk country roads of unpredictable quality. And then our homeward ascent through the Pyrenees, we were warned, would be unnecessarily arduous. “Forget it,” our friends said.
We couldn’t. There was something we had to do in Huesca.
So we wound our way tortuously through the rugged hills of the Sierra de la Peña, till the road flattened out across deserted scrubland and a weatherbeaten sign told us we had reached our destination. Huesca was as nondescript a provincial town as our friends had said it would be. But we had a specific objective in mind. Not the cathedral, to which our Michelin guidebook accorded one star. Not even the traditional bustling marketplace, which Hemingway might have immortalised in a couple of paragraphs. What we wanted, as we’d explained to our disbelieving friends, was something altogether simpler. We had come to Huesca for a cup of coffee.
My wife scanned the storefronts as I turned into unfamiliar streets. Twice I nearly stopped the car, but Minu’s sense of occasion was not satisfied. “No, not here,” she said. “It’s not quite right.” I drove on.
It was springtime, as it had been decades earlier, in 1937, when Huesca had acquired its brief spasm of importance as a military stronghold of Franco’s army in the Spanish Civil War. The ragtag Republican forces, resisting him in their forlorn fight against fascism, had encircled the town. Their ranks included a motley collection of international volunteers — idealists and opportunists, anarchists, communists and passionate democrats. Amongst them was a gaunt, consumptive English writer who called himself George Orwell.
The Republicans, poorly armed, badly led, hopelessly organised and racked by treachery and dissension, besieged Huesca for months. Amidst the blood and grime of the gruelling campaign, the inspiriting word was passed through the frontlines: “Tomorrow we’ll have coffee in Huesca.” Orwell took heart from the prospect. “Tomorrow we’ll have coffee in Huesca”: it was the kind of false promise that sustains morale in every war, like “we’ll be home for Christmas”. The siege of Huesca dragged on, and the slogan’s optimism rang increasingly hollow. Attrition took its toll on lives, strategic objectives, hope. Huesca, impregnable in fascist hands, seemed to represent the utter futility of the cause of freedom.
George Orwell, destined to become one of the world’s great voices of freedom, was wounded in action on the outskirts of Huesca. He left for home on a stretcher, bitter in his disappointment. “If I ever go back to Spain,” he wrote in his searing Homage to Catalonia, “I shall make a point of having a cup of coffee in Huesca.” But Huesca did not fall. Franco and Fascism triumphed in Spain, and Orwell never saw Huesca again.
“Here,” Minu said abruptly. “This is it. Stop the car.” We were at a modest little cafe, as unremarkable as the ones she had earlier rejected. But across the road, its sign bright in the sun, stood an imposing building. For 40 years under the Franco regime, the long arm of the law had ended in a clenched fist — that of the dreaded Guardia Civil. Minu had stopped me in front of its local headquarters.
“What will you have, Señor, Señora?” the waiter asked us as we sat down. “Lunch? Dessert?” I looked over his shoulder, across the road, at two civil guards in the uniform of their newly-restored democracy. They stood stiffly at attention, rifles in hand, guarding the gates of their establishment.
“No, thanks,” I replied at last. “All we need is a cup of coffee.”