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.


diary said...'re quite the detective. How did you come by this book again? It seems to qualify for a museum piece

Philo said...

Checked it out from our library and I'm guessing it'll remain in the stacks when i return it. I'm mulling over a request for it to be placed in the archives, primarily because the book is very fragile. Maybe some rich Anglolushaiphile(s) will endow something along the lines of a museum collection.