Wednesday, January 27, 2010

writings on writing

These next few posts are summaries of some of the earliest extant texts on the modern state of Mizoram. Rummage through contemporary (read: academic) works on the same geo-political area attempting to erect some historical perspective to their narratives and you’ll see these titles crop up constantly. There seems to be the instinctive accordance of privilege to written/texted narratives as stable histories—histories that seem to unlock how peoples are constituted and made to tick. Yet these very texts are culturally located within wider geo-political templates of particular time periods. Hopefully, these summaries will instantiate more critical responses on why we prize such texts. The selection is not entirely fastidious and there will definitely be others that should have been covered. Give me some time…or better still, link me to your own take on your own list.

The first on my list is one of the earliest works by one who we favorably remember as "Thangliena" (var. Thangliana)

T. H. Lewin, Wild Races of the South-Eastern India. London: Wm. H. Allen & Co., 1870.

Written in the style of the emerging ethnographical accounts that bridged the gap between the metropolitan center and the frontiers of the Empire, Wild Races sets out to introduce to its readers (Europeans/British) the “races of people of whom but little is known, and whose habits and customs have never been described. (1)” The accounts are drawn from daily entries “simply noted down” as Lewin heard “tales, traditions, or striking customs that fell under my observation in the course of my wanderings among them. (3)” As to why he compiled his notes in order to highlight these erstwhile “unknown” peoples, Lewin’s reasons may be summarized in what he later refers to as a true “Liberal,” whose cardinal dogma is the belief in the perfectibility of the human race (Fly on the Wheel 144; Wild Races 3, 4). In style, the three hundred and fifty pages of Wild Races follow what David Spurr theorized as “rhetorical modes” of colonial writing about other people as objects of knowledge.

Of the three sections of the book, part one surveys the land and the description is peppered with topographical details including climate, soil conditions, produce, rivers, cultivation, and so on. Section two starts as an exercise in sorting, classifying, and describing the ethnographical observations into neat and accessible categories. The hill tribes are categorized as “Khyoungtha” or dwellers on the river banks who are predominantly of Buddhist persuasion, and “Toungtha” or dwellers of the hills who are, “more purely savages than the Khyoungtha (72).” The section continues to describe the Khyougtha: their social habits, religion, dress, origins, and so on. In section three of the book, the Toungtha category is further subdivided as subject tribes under British administration (the Tipperah and Kumi tribes), tribes paying no revenue but subject to British influence (the Bungee and Pankho tribes), and entirely independent tribes (the Looshai and Shendu tribes). The description of the Toungtha that follows employs the categories employed in the description of the Khyoungtha, and are often employed to contrast the two. In contrast, the Toungtha are best captured in their independence and savagery, tropes that are employed and constantly reinforced in the descriptive exercise to provide a reasonable cause for the introduction of British mediated “civilization.” The closing quarter of the section accounts the unsuccessful expedition into Shendu territory and Lewin’s near death encounter.

In the concluding section of the book, Lewin assesses the stakes in further contact and cultural transactions with these "wild" races. “Civilization” seems to be a catch phrase he employs in this assessment. However, he is also informed by Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution, A History (1837) whose dictum—ubi homines sunt, modi sunt (347)—seems to inflect Lewin’s assessment. Imposed civilization as was practiced in other parts of the Empire would not improve but only exterminate these wild races (344). Favoring a more conscious but nevertheless paternalistic tack, Lewin suggests that further interactions be geared towards administration of the hill tracts for the, “well-being and happiness of the people dwelling therein,” adding that “Civilization is the result and not the cause of civilization. (351)” Part of Lewin’s vision is that the people will gradually civilize themselves. One leaves the pages with what the socio-political implications might be in naming a phenomenon as "civilization" and the power relations instigating the urge to civilize.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Funeral TBD!

It’s been a rather somber week. A phone call from my brother roused me as I was about to segue into my second REM sleep phase for that night. Dreamily aware of the ominous odd-hour phone call, I hesitated as I grudgingly answered the call. A close family friend had just passed away after an unsuccessful surgery to treat a cancerous stomach already in its terminal phase. To add to the pall creeping in, a cousin’s grandson also did not make it through what I gathered was a freak but fatal accident while playing with some friends. A five-year old life nipped in the bud.

Another short burst of activity on the phone. This time a text message. It read, “Thanks for your prayers. Mom passed away. Funeral TBD.” My colleague had left a voicemail saying that he had to leave on an emergency to be with his mom. I managed to catch him while in transit on his way home. He gave me no details but the tone of his voice spoke more than an elaborate run-down of the situation. His text message came in the day after this brief conversation on the phone. I was busy dispatching the news to our circle when I thought I’d find some distraction on the television—maybe a sappy reality show or a dose of celeb-gossip pulp on TMZ. Flicking randomly through the channels, I found myself stuck on a news channel flashing computer generated maps interspersed with hazy handy-cam images; some of the first images emerging from earthquake-ravaged Haiti.

Being far removed from the immediate scenes of loss, we might have been padded from the raw pathos of encountering the irretrievable presence of a loved one. We dust up memories to try and re-animate that blank spaces left behind. Remembrances only conjure up fleeting apparitions that merely dissipate like the trace of breath on a mirror. What audacity to ask of death, “where is thy sting?”

Monday, January 4, 2010

a time to cast away

Two-in-ones, VHS players, pagers, OHP-s…these are a few of my favorite things that, unlike raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, no longer figure on my must-have list. With the turn of a new decade and its ever expanding list of new gadgets and gizmos out in the market, one gets to look back and see the left behind-s as we chug along this train of progress. The Huffington Post put up an interesting photo-essay on “12 Things that Became Obsolete this Decade” with a plug for readers to vote on the list of obsoletes. I thought I’d chime in on a few.

Calling: Text messages, sexting (graphic picture messages), twitter, facebook, and the list goes on. Communication by way of electronically generated words seems to have replaced orally enunciated expressions, OMG! Text message numbers in the US doubled over in 2008. Texters have evolved. I remember some of the hrat lutuks in Bangalore who could even thumb in a complete and coherent message blind! And then the text lingo that I don’t think I will ever master: LOL, LMAO, LSHITIPAL (laughing so hard I think I peed a little)—I think a hearty mutual laugh would be better. Texting is definitely instant and convenient but I’ll stick to calls. Hearing the live voice of the person I want to communicate with just makes it a lot more human. So, call me:(800)768-HUNK!!

Dial-up: Yup this is definitely obsolete. I’m glad we transitioned quickly to DSL, broadband, wifi, and other more efficient accesses to the web. Those crackles and buzzes before you finally hooked up online only to have your patience tested once again as the “this page cannot be displayed” slowly evolved on your screen—uh, uh!

Encyclopedias: Students in classroom settings seem to have all the subject info down pat. One need only look closely to their laptop screens to see a wiki page feeding their pretensions of knowledgeablity! With the amount of information easily and freely available on the internet, the printed encyclopedias are definitely on their way out. Their only sustained currency would be libraries and old fogies such as I who still prefer to leaf through time worn pages of printed material. Moreover, because of the anyone-and-everyone-add-content set up on sites such as wiki, I'd rather take my chances with peer-reviewed editions.

CDs: I have never bought music online (amazon, itunes, etc) but have quite a music collection; thanks to a friend who has broadband and frequents the bittorrent website! Paaji ‘s Pyramid store in Palika Bazar was my regular go-to for recorded cassettes and videos. Since the webble burst, he’s also switched to selling cell phones and other more current gadgets and gizmos. I was told that music in Mizoram now premieres directly via music videos on local channels. The underlying idea seems to be copyrights and royalties, which I’m all for. My point though: running with a clunky cd-player in hand is so 2000 and late!!

Landline phones: Collateral damage of dial-up’s exit!!

Handwritten letters: these have definitely been replaced by emails, text messages, phones, skype, and other modes of communication. I do not recall the last time I wrote or received a handwritten letter but the excitement while eagerly waiting for the postman to bring one was worth it.

Film/film cameras: Load roll, shoot all 36 shots, print, scan, convert to jpeg, upload as profile pic...really? The digital camera made photography and all its applications so much easier and convenient. It also democratized what purists would call an art form so that every Thanga, Kungi, and Remi can now wax eloquent about aperture, composition, angle, and ISO.

The list could go on. One also notices that the common denominator in this list is technology and the rapid advances it makes/effects- instant, convenient, and efficient being their USP. I reread this post and realize that some of the categories/terms I use could themselves be outdated. So even as i hats off to y'all who bring out these innovations, please dumb them down a little so that tech-challenged folk such as I, can be more up-to-date than have to evolve only in time to be obsolete all over again.