BOOK REVIEW / A bureaucrat goes native among the hill folk: Thangliena: The life of T H Lewin - John Whitehead: Kiscadale, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Online
THOMAS Herbert Lewin (1839-1916) was one of the last men to go to India from England as an ensign under the pre-Mutiny rules of 'John Company' and actually caught the tail end of the fighting in 1857. He made a name for himself as a linguist and ethnologist, with a talent for 'going native', like Kipling's Strickland.

He worked as a superintendent of police in eastern Bengal, explored the country of the Shendu tribe, was promoted to captain in 1865, and worked as a political officer among the hill tribes of the north-eastern frontier. On learning that a headman's name was Twekam Tongloyn he hit on the idea of claiming kinship via the local pronunciation of his own name (Tongloyn - Tom Lewin) and was ever afterwards known in the hills as 'Thangliena', a modified form of the original.

Lewin published grammars and guides to the language and culture of the hill folk, rose to the rank of deputy commissioner at Darjeeling, and retired at 40 on a pension of pounds 171 a year after 20 years' service.

British policy at the time was to insist that tribes make nominal submission to the Raj, then pay them an annual subvention on condition that they kept the peace. Lewin's job as political officer was to promote this policy and to advise military expeditions, like that against the Lushai tribe in 1871-72.

But he was happy only when following his 'lone wolf' inclinations. Prickly, authoritarian, a martinet and the scourge of servants, Lewin's was a man whose 'socialisation' had occurred under the old East India Company rules, but who was required to endure what Max Weber called the 'rational-legal' modes of orderly, hierarchical bureaucracy. Unsurprisingly, he was always getting into scrapes.

The late 19th century in India could never be a dull subject, but the problem with Whitehead's book is that his jungle is one of detail, and there is too much information of a kind significant only to old India hands or Kipling buffs. Another snag is that the story is largely a one-dimensional tale of the old- fashioned 'district commissioner bashes unruly wogs' type. The personality of Lewin - a man without any noticeable inner life - is too thin to carry the weight Whitehead wants to put on him; we are seldom, if ever, aware of his inner conflicts, though there is material on his clashes with superiors. It is with relief that we turn to the personalities who appear during Lewin's long retirement in England. His Aunt Harriet was a proto-feminist who married George Grote, of History of Greece fame. His brother, William, was well known in the West End as the actor Will Terriss, and became even better known in 1897 when he was murdered by a failed actor, angry that Terriss had taken 'his' parts. We learn also of Trewin's mother complex and his marriage in his mid-thirties to a wealthy widow. He settled in Surrey, where Meredith was a friend and neighbour, though Whitehead does not explain how Meredith's well-known radicalism absorbed a deep-dyed conservative such as Lewin, so straitlaced that he regarded most actresses as prostitutes, and tried to keep his servants in a state of abject infantilism.

There is much of interest in this book, and one applauds the enterprise of a publisher prepared to defy the safe-playing 'who he?' attitude of most mainstream publishers, who prefer to turn out the nth life of Mary Queen of Scots rather than break new ground. Nevertheless, a question mark does hang over this particular endeavour. Minor British figures in the story of the Raj earn their place if, like Sergeant Forbes-Mitchell, who left a valuable memoir of the Indian Mutiny, they took part in great events. But no one has thought of writing a biography of Forbes- Mitchell, and the puzzle remains as to why anyone thought the life of T H Lewin worth writing. He was no different from thousands of other worthy but dull Victorian souls who served their time in India, married money, retired and then spent 40 years in rather pointless retirement. Having by now read several of these lives of minor servants of the Raj, I feel inclined to echo Churchill: 'One voyage to India is enough; the others are merely repletion.'