Monday, August 27, 2012

leafing through


Here's book that tells a story quite differently, especially for the bibliophile with an angle for the early British-Lushai dispensation. A year after Alexander Mackenzie published his History of the Relations of the Government with the Hill-Tribes of the North-East Frontier of Bengal in 1884, he sent a copy of the book to his friend Thomas Lewin. By this time, Lewin was already waltzing through retired life on the Parkhurst lawns in England. Among his post-retirement activities, Lewin was putting together the last few details for his upcoming memoir, Fly on a Wheel.*
Back in the day, you didnt just scribble your name on the book. If your estate had any standing of repute, you emblazoned your possesion with your family crest. Lewin's family crest had the motto "Dieu scait tout." The choice of French, or even Latin, to phrase a family's motto came with the subtext of education and hence some standing above the inarticulate rabble. On this side of modernity, the internet is a great leveller. Run "Dieu scait tout" through a google translate/search and you'll get something like an acknowledgement of an all-knowing God; one can also feign mastery of those bourgy romance languages!

Leafing through the pages, age and the passage of time are palpable. Thin cracks line the inner spine where the binding glue has dessicated to crusty patterns. Similarly, the pages are so brittle that even an inadvertent slight will result in a crumble rather than a tear.

An extra sheet before the title page has weathered to an aged ochre. On it, Mackenzie inscribed a note to the recipient.
It reads, "To Tom Lewin, With ...(illegible), Best wishes". Mackenzie repeats the epigraph on the title page with the words "Thos. H. Lewin from the author. 1885."

Both epigraphs have very similar handwriting styles. The way they loop their L-s is hard to miss. I have no way of telling whose it is; only that the first autograph would most probably by Mackenzie. If Lewin was writing those words to himself . . . um . . . loser!

It's also interesting how the few notations in pencil (or a graphite) are near references to Lewin. On second thoughts, let me insist: every reference to Lewin in the book is marked by vertical lines flushed left and/or right. For instance:

Kinda self-indulgent if these underscorings were by Lewin himself. Again, I can not be sure unless we carbon-date the graphite, and then link the results to Lewin's pencil. But if it were so, it seems to fit in with the story of Lewin. As an aspiring officer, moving through the ranks from the Company Army to the Queen's battalion, he thought he had outshined himself, if not his peers, in the consolidation of the British empire's territories, especially in the Chittaging Hill Tracts. And yet he seemed to have been jilted by the very establishment that, he felt, owed much to his effiency and tact. To have himself acknowledged, by name, and in an extensive manner, in one of the most definitive of compendiums on British designs in the northeast might have been a nod to his very private gripe. And hence, those penciled notations . . . just in case you missed the reference! Lewin got to vent his gripe in Fly on Wheel, which came out the next year . . . but that's a whole other story.

* According to the National Archives, Fly on a Wheel was published in 1884. A copy of the first edition came out in 1885.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

chick'n pick'n

Since reading Vandana Shiva’s Monocultures of the Mind, that thing we eat called food has never been a simplistic and natural response to hunger. Critical documentaries such as Food Inc. have highlighted the disastrous and predatory effects when multinational corporations, food production, and biotechnology intersect. While these implications registered at a rather cerebral level, it was the recent newsfeeds about Chick-fil-A that brought home the concerns at a very palpable level.

This is not a sequence of “facts,” just a sequence of how the issue unfolded. Chick-fil-A is a fast-food chain in the United States serving a rather generic chicken-based fare. It could evade the radar under the reams of press coverage about fast-food chains such as McDonalds at the London Olympicsm, and so on. But in an interview on the Ken Coleman Show in mid-July, among many of the responses by Chick-fil-A CEO, Dan Cathy, he was quoted saying,"I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, 'We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,'" Cathy said. "I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about." When confronted about his company's stand for traditional family values, his glib answer "Well, guilty as charged" might have been more charged than he bargained for.

At first glance, the quote could skim along as innocuous. But LGBTQ supporters and activists picked up on the quote’s loaded inference. In a related story, Equality Matters, an activist website for LGBT (the website omits the Q) equality, published findings that Chick-fil-A had dumped millions of dollars over the last nine years into groups that were interpreted as professedly anti-homosexual. Major media networks across the United States jumped on Cathy’s statement, and its implications for the polarizing issue of traditional family sensibilities. Blog sites were abuzz with visitors lining themselves into two opposing camps on the issue.

( Robyn Beck / AFP/Getty Images / August 1, 2012 )
Only to stoke the fire, mayors of cities such as New York and Chicago spoke out publicly against Chick-fil-A’s alleged homophobic inclinations; some cities issued "not welcome" messages to Chik-fil-A. Activists picketed Chick-fil-A outlets; each picketing receiving extensive coverage in the news media.

Rather than just sit back and soak up the media focus, conservatives gloved up. Former Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee declared August 1 as “Chick-fil-A appreciation day” and encouraged people visit Chick-fil-A outlets across the country in support of the embattled CEO. As responses to Huckabee’s appeal on his facebook page hinted, supporters came out in droves to make a clear statement about their support for the CEO’s stand on traditional family values.

We are yet to see the long-term effects of the ruffled feathers (no pun intended) in the Chick-fil-A kerfuffle. Questions remain unanswered. Until such a closure is achieveddoubtful thoughwhat remains unmistakable are the deeply polarizing culture wars that get hyperrealized by the political discourses in these parts. That the presidential elections are only a few months away does not help bridge these polarized sensibilities. It was a CEO’s statement on a personal issue. Chick-fil-A has a clear record with regard to company policies; no employee has been disfavored on grounds of sexual orientation. As much as LGBTQ folks have the right to express their opinions, so too the CEO on an issue that he obviously espouses.

While one might be inclined to dismiss the issues relating to LGBTQ equality, it might help to put things in perspective. As an extremely litigious society, much of what/how things are done in the United States require legal sanctions. For instance, to claim dependents when filing taxes, dependency is determined by filiation or marriage. Claims to visitation rights in hospitals are also determined by similar factors. But when the legal system normalizes marriage as the union between one man and one woman, cohabiting LGBTQ folks are left out from the equation, and denied rights accorded to heterosexual unions. Which is why sexual orientation becomes a civil rights issue.

But to link up with where I started: Chick-fil-A reported record sales on August 1 without specifying a figure on what they raked in. While supporters made a cultural and political statement by buying Chick-fil-A's fare, what must not be missed out is that Chick-fil-A is also a corporate entity with bottomline figures to square up at every financial quarter. One need only stare down the rabbit-hole and follow through into how food is more than just something edible.  

As the story unfolds, reports came in of an outlet in Torrance, California, being vandalized. Conservatives are peeved at the unmistakable intolerance.

Also as a response to Huckabee's successful "Chick-fil-A appreciation day", gay rights activists have called for a "National Same-Sex Kiss Day" where same-sex couples kiss in front of Chick-fil-A outlets and keep a photo or video record of their kiss.