Lewis-Carroll-Feature

To, But Not Restricted to, Children. Love, Lewis Carroll

There are a handful of books that every child is made to read during their growing-up years. For parents, syllabus committees and English teachers, they are akin to an instruction manual which they hope will instill a love for reading in children and strengthen their grasp over the English language. Popular inclusions in the list include Secret Seven, Famous Five, Chronicles of Narnia, Wind in the Willows and Lewis Carroll’s gem, Alice in Wonderland. Unfortunately, irrespective of whether the same children grow up to enjoy fiction, one hardly ever returns to these books because they are relegated as writing for kids. So, when I found that January 27th marked the 189th birth anniversary of Lewis Carroll, I tried hard to remember what his writing was about.

Apart from glimpses of Cheshire Cat’s smile and few stray anecdotes from Alice in Wonderland, everything else was a blur. So, while going through Carroll’s Wikipedia page, I was completely caught off-guard by the sheer expanse of his genius that even the most avid reader has ignored because once again “he’s not for grownups”.  Not only was he a master of wordplay, puns, and imagery, but he was also a proof that science and arts can merge beautifully without emitting a pungent smell of discord. His writing floats lightheartedly on the confluence of mathematics and language.  

Born as Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, Lewis Carroll led a fascinating life in which he donned many hats; each contributed to his fine sense of nonsense, rhyme, and lush imagery. Carroll exhibited an immense liking and strong talent for mathematics, cyphers, chess and puzzles, culminating in his lifelong studentship in mathematics at Christ Church, Oxford. His deeply analytical tendencies percolated into his creatives, rhyme scheme, labyrinthine landscapes and highly stylised verses with hidden clues. In short, Lewis Carroll being tied down by the burden of being “a children’s author” is probably one of the worst sins a literary academic could commit.

In fact, when Martin Gardner approached publishing houses for commissioning a version of Alice in Wonderland that contained scholarly notes, they were quick to dismiss his idea. No one does all this for a children’s book. Gardner went on to author The Universe in a Handkerchief, a comprehensive volume delving deep into the works of Lewis Carroll; from his popular fiction down to his puzzles and letters. It is an excellent book, and I recommend it highly just so that we can acquaint ourselves to the genius we have missed out upon. 

As standard with most fabulous creators, Carroll was mostly associated with one of his many dazzling creations. Of course, its Alice in Wonderland. But many remain blissfully unaware of his pioneering contribution to the criminally underrated world of nonsense verse. Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll were the earliest proponents of this form of writing. In India, Sukumar Ray’s (father of Satyajit Ray) Abol Tabol is the nonsense poetry handbook for Bengali children. Every child is acquainted with Bombagorer Raja (The King of Bombagor) who did absurd things like frame dried mangoes while his crazy Aunt chased pumpkins with a bat. 

Carroll’s Jabberwocky is one of the most refined examples of nonsense verse appearing in Through the Looking Glass. It is a ballad, a good versus evil story but primarily remembered for its funky language and unique visual and sonic quality. In the poem, a father warns his son of three vicious monsters: the Jabberwock, the Jubjub Bird and the Bandersnatch. It is a concise poem, about 28 lines, and you can see why it is handy to instill dread in children. When we are kids, we are told of many unnamed monsters who are out there. They wait for kids to misbehave or not finish their food, and then they’ll appear. For most of our lives, these monsters remain faceless, just like Jabberwocky and its evil partners. The feeling of fear comes because we don’t know why we have to be scared of the Jabberwocky, Jubjub Bird and Bandersnatch or what they do that makes them vicious. Typical to Carroll’s storytelling, he uses unknown words like galumphing, vorpal, mome raths and borograves

Another favourite, particularly in schools, is Caroll’s The Walrus and the Carpenter. The poem is a mix of narrative and nonsense; about a walrus and carpenter who lures oysters into a conversation and then eats them all. It’s a funny, absurd poem full of outlandish settings where the sun and moon are in the sky simultaneously, and oysters wore shoes although they had no feet. The Walrus and the Carpenter hugely inspired culture and wild interpretations. A faction believes that they represent Buddha and Jesus Christ. Others thought that they stood for the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Of course, Martin Gardner rubbishes both sections. The poem did appear in iconic pop culture references. Beatles’ I am the Walrus refers to the poem. Much later, Lennon regretted doing so because he hadn’t realised that the walrus was the antagonist. Lines have been quoted in Dr Who, Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead and Agatha Christie’s The Clocks.

It would not be a complete discussion if we didn’t touch upon Alice in Wonderland, the book that catapulted Carroll into fame that lasted across centuries. This book and its sequel Through the Looking Glass are swarming with banter, math, puzzles, and paradoxes. The narrative is full of riddles. Everyone must vaguely recollect the Mad Hatter’s famous “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”.

Interestingly, Carroll admitted that he too had no answer to the riddle when he wrote it. The puzzle perplexed many, including Aldous Huxley. In the later versions, the answer was included. According to Carroll, “Because it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in the front.” Notice how he misspells nevar as a rearrangement of the word raven. His narratives frequently included acrostic poems, a writing style in which every stanza provides clues to a particular word. 

The fact that we know so little about Lewis Carroll stands testament to the systematic marginalisation of children’s fiction as just for children. Several other books suffer the same fate of not being taken seriously because their central readership continues to be kids. Whether its Wind in the Willows or Gulliver’s Travels, we do tend never to revisit the books we’ve read and loved even if fiction, reality, and language were just half-baked concepts in our innocent minds. Somedays, it is imperative that we stop to thank the authors who we’ve perhaps given fame but not enough credit for shaping our imagination. 

Lewis Carroll, thank you for normalising the weird. Thank you for providing children in every house of the world a rabbit hole to jump into and explore in their dreams.

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As Real as Real Can Get: Reading James Joyce’s Dubliners

Every avid reader is often consumed by a sense of guilt. Guilt at their inability to finish a seminal piece of literature. This could be due to different situations. Perhaps at that moment, the book was too lengthy. Maybe it needed more patience. Or, you couldn’t comprehend the societal and historical context. This happened when I attempted reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. A milestone whose cultural and linguistic nuances I failed to grasp. Moreover, to keep Googling for the meaning of every second sentence was tedious. It extracted the joy out of reading. So, to go easy but not be deprived of Joyce’s genius, I opted for Dubliners. Equally rich but comparatively more accessible, this collection of short stories describes the Irish life in the early years of the 20th century, chronicling routine existence, love, politics, sexuality and coming-of-age.

Dubliners captured the socio-political and economic zeitgeist, intricately weaving the currents in the experiences, actions and language of the characters. It was published in 1914, a time caught in poverty, Irish nationalism, and Modernism. Oppressive colonial domination by the British government in Westminster had resulted in destitution, widespread squalor, and repression of indigenous culture. The Celtic Renaissance was working towards renewing nation’s cultural identity and brining Irish folklore, authors, and literature to the forefront. Modernism was itching to grow. The style was gathering momentum and ultimately, Ulysses would become its magnum opus. This was the hotbed of change in which the book was embedded.

Every story in Dubliners is a study of society, survival and even grammar! Since it isn’t possible to discuss each, I’ll share certain observations about the ones that for me, made an overwhelming impact in terms of the themes they address, the realities they reflect, the variations in form and the atmosphere they weave around the reader.

The Sisters is about an unnamed boy whose mentor, Reverend James Flynn has died. In the mourning house, the sisters of the deceased describe the priest’s increasingly insane and distorted actions and his involvement in Church scandals. The death kickstarts Dubliners and its consistent commentary on themes such as paralysis, indecision, and demise (both literal and metaphorical). Instead of sadness, the boy feels free. This is an allusion to the suppression of the Irish by the British government and the Roman Catholic church, the latter embodied by Reverend Flynn and his influence over the boy. An interesting aspect is the author’s deft inclusion of ellipses (). This method is used liberally, a powerful way of conveying human distraction and the act of zoning out in midst of a conversation.

Two Gallants reveals the dead-end Irish existence. Lenehan and Corley are scheming men who trick girls into stealing from their employers and giving them money. On a particular evening, they plan to dupe a housekeeper. While Corley is the chief strategist and executor, Lenehan is eager to catch a glimpse of the woman. They are competitive, each fearing that the other will cut them out of the plan. As Corley enjoys his date, Lenehan is left feeling lonely. Eating a meal of beer and peas, he longs for a stable job and a happy home. He is more reflective than Corley but ultimately, both are crude and desperate for easy money. They have little prospects and are worried about betrayal, representing a generation of Irish youth who have been disappointed by delayed Independence. Well, there’s nothing gallant about these two!

According to me, A Little Cloud was the most relatable of the lot. It speaks of a reunion of old friends. Little Chandler is a timid clerk, burdened by his cyclical and deadpan existence. Once an aspiring poet, he has long abandoned his creative persuasions. On the other hand, Gallagher is flamboyant, well-travelled and a powerful man in the London Press. As the evening progresses, Chandler is disheartened listening to his friend’s extravagant (yet superficial) adventures and blames his inability to write on the pathetic condition of Dublin and his claustrophobic marital life. Interestingly, he spends more time thinking about poetry and fame than translating his wild passions into actions. When Chandler returns home, he loses his temper and berates his infant. As his wife soothes the sobbing baby, Chandler is utterly remorseful.

The Clay is fascinating on account of its unassuming nature. At the first go, it appears to be about nothing. It describes an evening in the life of an unmarried maid named Maria. She spends Hallows’ Eve with the family of boys she used to care for as a governess. Maria is docile, compassionate, and loved. They play a game where a blindfolded participant must place their hand in one of the three saucers on the table. Each contained a different element that carries a specific meaning. In her first try, Maria places her hand in the saucer containing clay. She cannot discern what it is and is asked her to choose another plate. This time, she touches the prayer book and they guess that she will soon join the convent. The evening continues. It is only when you delve deeper that you realise in Irish tradition, clay is a symbol of death. The family listens to Maria sing and convinced of her ill-fate, do not interrupt when she repeats the same stanza twice.

Technically, Dubliners is an assemblage of short, seemingly unconnected, tales of survival in Ireland. However, my experience is more complex. This isn’t a novel. But the episodic structure is more interconnected than one would assume. Themes frequently mirror one another. An idea that finds infant expression in one story is taken to its logical conclusion in the next. Let’s observe A Little Cloud and Counterparts. Both are about frustrated men who vent their anger on innocent family members. While Little Chandler shouts at his infant son, Farrington from Counterparts mercilessly hits his boy after a bad day where he is humiliated at work and social circle. They don’t do much to alleviate their position. However, it takes them no time to project their failures onto children who have nothing to do with it. I felt that the final half of Counterparts is the most chilling part of the collection. As Farrington beats his son, the child cries and promises to say a prayer for his father if he stops hitting him.

Death penetrates Dubliners like a sharp knife cutting through the cake. Apart from actual deaths such as those of Reverend Flynn, Charles Parnell, Eveline’s mother and Mrs Sinico, characters suffer spiritual deaths. This is signified by the morally ambiguous ways they make money, ethical corruption and an invisible, endless loop of failure that encircles their life.

An Encounter follows the journey of a young boy who meets an old man whose speech is full of discomforting sexual innuendos. Whether it’s the conmen in Two Gallants or the party workers in Ivy Day in the Committee Room, the broader objective is to make a quick buck san feeling, integrity or passion. Dubliners have no glossy lacquer. The filth, scarcity, and unappealing lives of the characters tend to dampen the reader’s temperament. Was progress so stunted? Were lives that meaningless? Was there nothing to celebrate? 

To be honest, yes. These are tales of domination, exploitation, and futility. Neither are they adventurous. No story promises glorious adventures or unimaginable twists. These are the most accurate geographical and emotional description of the city from those turbulent times. Down to the pubs visited by the characters and the songs they sing, they are real. The sadness, politics, planning and plotting, marriages and affairs – hauntingly accurate.

Of Chocolates, Leg of Lambs and Giant Peaches: Remembering Roald Dahl

When Willy Wonka, Charlie, Grandpa Joe and the group of obnoxious children and their parents float down the Chocolate River whilst seated in a pink boat made of boiled sweets, they pass by a door labelled “STOREROOM NUMBER 71. WHIPS- ALL SHAPES AND SIZES.” Veruca Salt, described by the Oompa Loompas as a bratty child who is pampered and spoilt like a Siamese Cat, confronts the chocolatier, “What on earth do you use whips for?”. Willy Wonka answers with absurd confidence and sardonic wit that perfectly exemplifies his creator’s downright strange and incredible imagination. He says, “Whipped cream isn’t whipped cream at all if it hasn’t been whipped with whips, just like poached eggs isn’t poached eggs unless it’s been stolen in the dead of the night.”

That’s Roald Dahl. Eccentric, hilarious, magical and frightening! His could beautifully synthesize diverse sensibilities and conjure stories that shaped generations of children and adult consciousness. And as September celebrated his 104th birth anniversary, it’s time we reflect upon his works and discern what makes them distinct from his predecessors and contemporaries in fiction.

Dahl normalised the ridiculous, seamlessly imbibing magical fantasy into the humdrum of everyday life. His characters were odd, nasty and nice and he invented bizarre ways of dispensing justice. Recollect the Twits? Undoubtedly, the Twits are the most ludicrous married couple to exist in literature. Retired circus trainers, they spent their days plotting repulsive pranks. While Mrs. Twit lovingly fed her husband spaghetti with worms, Mr. Twit tied her to balloons, hoping she would fly away and never return. Together, they tortured the Muggle-Wump family of monkeys by training them to do everything while standing upside-down. Yes, they were foul. And they met with a ghastly end. The Muggle-Wumps, assisted by a group of birds which the duo had planned to trap and bake, glued all the furniture to the ceiling. Under the impression that they were upturned, the Twits stood on their heads and finally, vanished into a heap of clothes. Critics disapprove of the harsh treatment Dahl meted out to adults. To this accusation, the author said, “Beastly people must be punished.”

Dahl’s greatest strength was never infantilising his young readers. His sarcastic, anti-establishmentarian tone does not attempt to sugarcoat concepts of death, institutional violence and evils of character. He explicitly details Ms. Trunchbull’s barbaric methods to civilize students, how James’s parents are eaten alive by a rhinoceros and Augustus Gloop’s nauseating gluttony. Now, the question that arises is why kids devour his work despite the morbid inclinations? Simply, it’s because they adore Dahl’s unconditional support. He indulges their fantasies, penalises adults and allows the children to triumph. So, in the end, Charlie Bucket gets to live in Willy Wonka’s factory and the insufferable others return with permanent disfigurements. And James, who had an awful childhood with his abusive aunts, befriends the children of New York City while his guardians are squashed to death under the peach. Coming to Matilda and Miss Honey, they live happily while the school improves under a kind headmaster.

The complexity of Dahl’s writing reveals to kids a spectrum of sentiment. Suddenly, they could experience what adults are wary of them knowing. It mirrors their powerlessness when faced with authoritarian figures like parents and teachers. But simultaneously, children are told (and convinced) that it is perfectly possible to overcome odds, rebel against autocratic influences and be the master of their lives. At the core, is always a tale of fulfilling dreams. 

Dahl’s relationship with adults is just as intriguing. He once said, “Grown-ups are complicated creatures, full of quirks and secrets.” Funnily, this becomes the current permeating his short stories. He doesn’t shy from experimenting with gore and macabre deaths. Ordinary men and women perform haunting actions. The mundane is elevated to the horrific.

The protagonist of Lamb to the Slaughter, the pregnant Mary Maloney, clubs her disloyal husband to death using a leg of lamb and then cooks it. She hoodwinks the officers and as they enjoy that very lamb, the policemen discuss the possibility of the murder weapon being right under their nose. In the next room, Mary giggles and we are left unnerved. In Man from the South, an old man and young naval cadet participate in a preposterous bet. If the latter can ignite his lighter ten times in a row, he gets the former’s Cadillac. But if he fails, the man will chop his finger using a butcher’s knife. As the cadet prepares to test his lighter for the tenth time, a woman bursts into the room. To reveal what unfolded would be a sin. Dahl truly masters the art of building tension. He neatly arranges every element, constructing a house of cards balanced on intrigue, horror and humorous repartee. 

This discussion is incomplete without talking about the more controversial elements of his life and writing. Grown-ups don’t enjoy certain aspects of Dahl’s storytelling. He’s been accused of misogyny, teaching children all the wrong things and pandering to violent fantasies. His controversial personal life (his wife named him Roald the Rotten) and anti-Semitic views constantly come under the scanner. Interestingly, even his closest competitor in children’s fiction, Enid Blyton, has been often accused of racism and sexism.

However, to deny Dahl’s genius is criminal. Having never written a mega-series (like Blyton’s Secret Seven or C.S. Lewis’s Narnia), he continues to be the most widely-read children’s author across decades. The subversive and uncomfortable plotlines are a grave reminder for adults that all is not rosy in a child’s life. A little boy or girl’s reality is frequently plagued by shadows, a sense of powerlessness and fear. And for children, he fashioned unbelievable spaces that are the perfect balance of light and dark. Here, they weren’t looked down upon. Dahl wanted them to be playful, true to themselves and wild and save the day utilising such unruly qualities. Never before was disruption packaged so deliciously.

One may conclude that Roald Dahl is not everyone’s cup of tea. Particularly not his English teacher’s. When Dahl was 15, his report card read “A persistent muddler. Vocabulary negligible, sentences mal-constructed. He reminds me of a camel.” Now, that’s quite horrigust. What’s horrigust? That’s the word he invented for something that is both horrible and disgusting. But in the end, we must admit that a Roald Dahl book will never cease to be zozimus…the stuff that dreams are made of.

Cover Image: Rob Bogaerts / Anefo / CC0

Ruskin Bond Photo

On Ruskin Bond’s Birthday, Revisiting His Writings and Their Impact

Ruskin Bond’s writing has always been a constant in my life since reading his stories in my English school textbooks. While the world only recently is going gaga over cherry blossoms, I still vividly remember reading in school about the quiet innocence and perseverance of Rakesh from the short story, The Cherry Tree, and how he planted the seed and despite all odds, was rewarded with the pink blossoms.

The depiction of the utmost simplicity in the characters’ actions and the vastness and joy that nature provides them has made Ruskin Bond’s writing endearing and lovable.

Most of his novels are set in the hills. The stories profess the writer’s close bond with the mountains and its people. His stories will always have characters that also, like the author, share a close bond with the nature that surrounds them. The closer they are to nature, the fuller and better their lives are. These characters will cherish the tiniest of miracles that nature offers to them like Rakesh’s delight at seeing the cherry tree blossom. These innocent delights, bereft of any greed, make Bond’s characters memorable. They enable the reader to take a break from the rat race and appreciate the simple pleasures of nature.

Ruskin Bond was born on this day in Kasauli in 1934 and after living in different cities in India and outside, he decided to make Mussoorie his home. He continues to live there in the Ivy cottage and regularly haunts the bookshops of the famous hill station.

Bond blithely intertwines his own experiences in his stories too so that on reading them, one  might feel one knows the author better and along the way, can also take a trip down memory lane of how things used to be before in the towns and hills. Several of his stories therefore are coloured with an autobiographical tint, revealing the tidbits of the author’s many journeys in life.

The other literal journey that Bond often depicts in his stories is the railway journey. Trains are an indispensable mode of transport even today, despite the boom in the airline industry. Back then, when Bond was younger, trains were perhaps the only affordable means of travelling across the country. Railway journeys with all its delights and discomforts are another portrayal of India in his stories. These portrayals will make one feel nostalgic about one’s own past journeys on the train.  The Night Train At Deoli and Time Stops at Shamli are two such short stories that feature a rail journey and the autobiographical element. Both are stories that I fondly remember. Who can forget the little girl selling baskets at the station at Deoli that mesmerized the author protagonist in the former story? The latter story is about the adventures that lay for the author when he got off at Shamli station on an impulse, instead of going to his destination, Dehradun.

Delhi Is Not Far is one of Bond’s rare novels that are not set in the mountains. Instead, it takes place in the fictional small town, Pipalnagar, in the plains. All the characters have small jobs and dream of moving to the big city, Delhi. It is only the narrator, Arun, an aspiring Urdu writer of detective novels, who takes the leap and boards a train for Delhi. What makes the novel special is the portrayal of the idea of Delhi or the big city as well as the lucidity of each character’s aspirations and the empathy the writing evokes in the reader for them. At a time when migrants have become homeless in their own country, this novel remains relevant for its moving portrait of the common man.

The Kitemaker is another short story set in a city, possibly Delhi again but that is not mentioned outright. What the story projects clearly instead is the inevitability of change and how the relentless march of time has transformed the city and the profession of the kite maker, Mehmood. He reminisces fondly the days when he was well-known for his majestic kites throughout the city, when children and men alike had time enough to fly them and how his masterpiece, Dragon Kite, had created a stir and attracted crowds. The story not only describes briefly the kite maker’s life but also allows the reader to pause and understand the ephemeral nature of time and the disappearance of the joys in the simple things, ‘like kites and daydreams.’

Thus, in an increasingly busy world, where we are caught up with our own races and demons, we must reread and revisit Ruskin Bond’s writing. His writing is an indulgence that allows us to stop, reminisce, and remember the simpler and older ways of life that gave everyone moments to rest, reflect, and appreciate the little things and people around us.

Cover Image by Jim Ankan Deka – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0