Fast and curious

Meher Marfatia‘What — is — this?’ he said at last.
‘This is a child!’ Haigha replied eagerly, coming in front of Alice to introduce her. ‘We only found it today. It’s as large as life and twice as natural.’
‘I always thought they were fabulous monsters,’ said the Unicorn. ‘Is it alive?’
— Lewis Carroll

“We want to be in the Guinness Book of Records,” my son had announced. “Or at least, the Limca Book of Records,” his sister trailed.

wordsI was about to check what for, when they enlightened me — “As children with the most number of books written for them.”

They did get almost a dozen, thanks to yours truly typing these out as their birthday gifts (published with due dedications too). Then they were keen to know, “What’s the best book you’ve read dedicated to
a child?”

Alice in Wonderland was the answer straight off.

Celebrating its 150th anniversary worldwide this week, the timeless title has for long been my favourite. I recall grabbing a dog-eared double edition of Alice and Through the Looking Glass to browse by candlelight, on nights the family huddled in the dark at the wail of the 1971 war siren. Bemoaning eye strain, my mother would whisk away the book. But chapter and verse stuck in the head, I babbled its passages and poems, especially “Jabberwocky”, to myself.

To think a July 4th afternoon boat ride on the Thames that a 10-year-old Victorian girl shared with a stammering Oxford don produced a beloved benchmark of literature. Bored by the tranquil scenery Alice Liddell and her sisters, daughters of the Christchurch Dean, begged the mathematics professor whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson: “Tell us a story.”

He spun a yarn deliciously twisted and irreverent. Alice repealed the laws of nature with quirky aplomb (cake handed round before being sliced) and offered John Tenniel’s ingenious illustrations way ahead of any formal graphic design aesthetic (The Mouse’s Tale neatly inked to resemble a rodent’s tail). The first run of 2,000 copies was actually withheld when Tenniel was bothered by its print quality.

A century and a half after the hookah-puffing caterpillar atop a mushroom curiously asked Alice ‘Who are you?’ many continue to question likewise.

Understanding Carroll is likened to dissecting a soap bubble. As a fervent fan I plead: why dissect at all? We needn’t roil everything in erudition and spoil it. Keep it light because it begs to be. Yes, the text mirrors altered states. Sure, the fevered narrative raises issues of skewed perception plus speedy personality shifts. And much like the bizarre riddles its memorably mad characters pose, the book can be one big complex conundrum.

Still... enjoy the riotous ride. Simply sit back, smiling at the magic and mystery that unfold. Read for fun and yet see how it sharpens the senses, stirs the brain, fires the imagination. Alice’s body shrinks and stretches, resonating in an age when identity is as fluid, changing, vexing. Delighted by the sheer drollery, mind-bending wit and illogical nonsense, even someone as serially sombre as Virginia Woolf admitted Carroll managed “what no one else has been able to do — return to the world of children. The two Alices are not books for children, they are the only books in which we become children again.”

Among the homespun fantasies Carroll inspired is Sukumar Ray’s Hajabarala. Here a runaway boy falls asleep in a garden, having fled from the monotony of maths — ironic considering the original tale-teller’s academic preoccupation with this subject. A crow perched on the tree he rests beneath proceeds to teach him absurd maths. Scholars in Chennai university circles suggest Carroll’s work, with its constant inversions and equations, be read as the output of a fine mathematician.

Returning from derivations to dedications... Totally in tune with a vision which burned brightest when it turned things topsy-turvy, Carroll is supposed to have entertained kids playing music boxes backwards. He started letters with ‘CLD, uncle loving Your’ and signed at the end ‘Nelly dear My’. Children meant everything to him. They also made apt studies for his other metier, photography. They evoked hallucinatory images he described with a spontaneity matching young innocence.

In their presence he lost his stutter.

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