Thursday, February 25, 2010

why only a fly on the wheel?

T.H. Lewin recently got extended bytes on a web forum and what was intriguing about the discussion was the currency he commands more than a century after he left the Chittagong Hill Tracts in 1873. Rather than focus on the questions raised in that discussion, this posting briefly looks at what seems to be among the more accessible of his writings, A Fly on the Wheel, or How to Helped Govern India (1884). Written and published after Lewin's return to England, like Wild Races, this book was drawn from diary notes and personal letters from his time in the Chittagong Hill tracts.

FoW opens with Lewin as an eighteen year-old cadet in the service of the British East India Company’s expeditionary force sent to quell the Mutiny of 1857 and closes with his departure from those Chittagong Hill tracts about sixteen years later. Within this short period he moved from a Company officer to the Queen’s 104th regiment. Climbing the bureaucratic ladder rather effortlessly, he was appointed Superintendent of Hill tribes of the Chittagong Hill tracts in 1866, and this appointment was augmented within a few months to that of a Deputy Commissioner and Political Agent of the Hill Tracts of Chittagong and was moved from the 104th to the Bengal Staff Corps (191). The narrative details this progression and more importantly, how Lewin's maverick service to the British government went abegging. Most Mizo readers will identify with the terrain, landmarks, and events that embellish the narrative—more importantly how Lewin negotiated the release of Mary Winchester from the Howlong chiefs through his trusted friend Rutton Puia (var. Rothangpuia).

Why “Fly on the Wheel”? The book's title draws on the opening sections of Francis Bacon’s essay “Of vain-glory,” “It was prettily devised of Aesop; ‘the fly sat upon the axle tree of the chariot wheel, and said, What dust do I raise!’” A preliminary reading would suggest Lewin’s self-effacing insertion into a larger narrative of how Britain came to rule India and its “frontier” regions in particular. However, by the end of the book one gets the feeling that FoW is an attempt to air out some dirty laundry for having been denied the recognition that, in Lewin’s estimation, he deserved. “What is wanted here is not measures but a man. Place over them an officer gifted with the power of rule; not a mere cog in the great wheel of Government, but one tolerant of the failings of his fellow-creatures…Under a guidance like this, let the people by slow degrees civilize themselves. (Wild Races, 351)” Lewin seems to entitle himself as having fulfilled this standard without receiving the acknowledgement it deserved.

What is the value of “Fly on the Wheel”? On Feb 12, 1885, John Ruskin responded to the publication of the book by writing to Lewin, “I am beyond everything I can say interested in your book and in you, but I have a feeling that you have lowered the tone of it by making it…a hunting story book.” In a second response dated 10 March 1885, Ruskin writes, “Again, those cursed publishers are the pestilence of literature. They have made you destroy the dignity and simplicity of your book and robbed it of half its historical value.” Implicitly, one can read in these letters that the publishers had touched up the details for a wider audience. Does this compromise the integrity of FoW? What do we make of his first diplomatic venture to gain the trust of Rutton Puia, which he did by means “not quite regular” (FoW, 203, 204)? We have no way to prove which parts were spiced up and must leave that investigative project to any textual critic/analyst with the time and investment to decipher. Until such a time, we might as well let FoWstand on its own merit.

If one were interested in the issues broached above, Whitehead's Thangliena would be strongly recommended. Some interesting titbits I gleaned from it were:
- Lewin apparently had a child with Dari (var. Darthuami, Darthluangi). This child died soon after birth. In 1915, H. Lorrain even wrote to Lewin-now married and almost on his last breath- about Dari living in Lungsen village. Had Lewin become a White Mizo as the other inculturated "white Mughals"(Dalrymple) had?
- Lewin met up with Mary Winchester (Zoluti) much later in England. She was now Mary Innes Howie (nee Winchester)but Lewin didn't think much of her because she was "a stuck-up conceited little half-caste woman..." One wonders what Mary did to instigate her one-time liberator to such libelous estimates?

Some references:
T. H. Lewin, Wild Races of Southeastern India. London: Wm. H. Allen & Co., 1870.
John Whitehead, Far Frontiers: People and Events in North-Eastern India 1857—1947. Putney, London: BASCA, 1989.
John Whitehead, Thangliena: A Life of T.H. Lewin. Gartmore, Sterlingshire: Kiscadale Publications, 1992.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

parrying the other

Parry's account builds on previous works such as that of Shakespear (see previous post). Without doubt, these accounts preserve for us data that is informative and accessible where other such written sources were unavailable. Nonetheless, critical restrospection must delve beyond their face values to attempt—speculative, no doubt—at conjuring backgrounds that are broader, synchronistic, and analytical in order to account for the discursive regimes underlying their narrative constructions. Though sounding more esperanto than plainly communicative, such projects might inform and instruct the stories and narratives we make about both ourselves and our proximate "Others."

N. E. Parry, A Monograph on Lushai Customs and Ceremonies. Shillong: The Assam Government Press, 1928.

This 130-paged account of customs and cultural procedures dealing with folk in the Lushai district along with a glossary of colloquial terms replays the western knower-native as object binary. Parry is clear on why he undertakes this compilation: it will be of use to officers and chiefs engaged in the administration of justice in the district (Introduction). Precolonial social configurations were altered to accommodate allies in the Lushai wars. “Vacant” lands were allotted to such allies who then constituted a new set of landed chiefs in addition to the chiefs from precolonial times. Texted and readily accessible knowledge seemed necessary because of the reshuffling of land related practices and chieftaincy, their attendant privileges and also modes of restitution in cases of infractions on these privileges.

Although the title of the book suggests a compilation of the Lushais’s modes of social organization and structure, colonial agency is privileged and inscribed as the final arbitrator in the execution of administrative procedures. For instance, in describing the position and role of the chief, his authorization of a new hamlet requires ratification by the Superintendent (4), and also the prior requirement of the Superintendent’s permission when compelled to shift village sites owing to the exigencies of cultivation (5). Other customs and ceremonies documented include marriage customs, divorce, inheritance, sacrifices and feasts. In writing such varied and previously un-documented practices, the resultant written history is privileged with an ontological power to provide assumptions on how the real social and natural worlds are constituted; and hence may also be administered.

Reminiscent of what Bernard Cohn identified as the “historiographic modality”[Colonialism and It’s Forms of Knowledge, 5] in the colonial mode of knowledge production, the collection of data in Lushai Customs codifies and reinstitutes the ruling practices and customs of previously non-literate community. Effectively, the knowledge of the history and practices of the Lushai community provided the resources for building the colonial state.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

refracting "Tarmita's" vision

The second edition of “writings on writing” focuses on Col. Shakespear's (also called "Tarmita") wellknown work because it registers as an authoritative source text for kan pi pute len lai. Rev. Zairema credits the book as being the first, “chanchin kimchang…Kristian rin danin a pawlh viau hma thu a ni a, a ngaihnawm bik hle (Pi Pute Biak Hi. 2009, 2).” Amidst contemporary negotiations on what it means to be Mizo—blogsites, media, and academia providing some of the most heated debates—one often notices the invocation of kan pi pute hunlai both as an emotional anchor and/or rhetorical speaking point for what a Mizo “essence” might be. Despite increasing awareness of identity and cultural essence being highly negotiated and contested categories, Shakespear’s work continues to register as an important source material among others. So even as its reading is recommended, a reading against the grain would be more helpful to make sense of the constructions and contemporary implications of the linguistic baggage we inherited.

Lt. Colonel J. Shakespear, The Lushei Kuki Clans. London: MacMillan and Co., Limited, 1912.

Published after his transfer from the Lushai Hills, Col. Shakespear’s Lushei Kuki Clans provides one of the earliest writings about the inhabitants of the Chittagong Hill Tracts with sustained attention to parsing the cultural and linguistic intricacies of a formerly “unknown” people. The minute details and the intent of the book echo the emerging attempts in anthropological constructions of mythobars as was most famously outlined in J. G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890). While noting affinities and also variations between Lushei and Kuki clans-the subjects of his monograph, he notes wider similarities with other Hill Tribes, for instance, in Major Playfair’s account of the Garos and Sir Charles Lyall’s account of the Mikir (xiv, xv). Colonial expansion was gradually opening up strange and inaccessible frontier worlds, and new forms of knowledge were being collected and meticulously recorded by colonial agents such as Shakespear. Discursive connections were strung across distant and often disparate landscapes in this effort to rein in these frontier parts. Seen through this geo-political lens, Lushei Kuki Clans thus lends itself to the problematic inscription of a people-their ways of life and thought-as objects of knowledge and rhetorical validations for colonial intervention.

The book is divided into two main sections. Section one is devoted to the Lushei clans and is richly embellished with details ranging from general observations on domestic life and structure to detailed descriptions of their cultural components including their religion, folklore, and encoding the various clan members. Section two details what Shakespear calls the “non-Lushei clans,” peoples he encountered when he transferred further north to Manipur. He expends much ink in tracing the genealogical histories of the various clans via clan etymologies, folklore, and cultural practices. The last chapter and the appendix present an interesting triglot to account for the linguistic morphology and genealogical connections between the various Lushei and non-Lushei clans. Additional information provided include a glossary, maps, and photographs (unlike lithographs employed in earlier publications).

While many commentators note the silence of the observed, Shakespear acknowledges the voice of his subjects (e.g. 13, 62, 66, 58). However, despite Shakespear’s acknowledgment, these native voices emerge only on terms dictated by the speaking western subject. For instance, “An old lushai once asked me why I was troubling myself about family and branch names, on my explaining that hoped to make a complete list of them he muttered, ‘Can you count the grains in that basket of rice?’ and turned from me to the zu-pot. (42)” The native voice ridicules the elaborate surveys and censuses undertaken by the white administrators as if to talk back at the new forms of knowledge being collated and constructed about it's self. Note how the ridicule is rendered innocuous by immediately relegating the speaking voice to the zu-pot (rice beer), zu being a trope that reinforces the discursive construction of lethargic and enervated natives. The issue of the speaking voice underscores the problem of observing, writing, as they are situated in power-knowledge frames of a colonial dispensation.