Bollywood filmmaker Karan Johar has written his first picture book for children — The Big Thoughts of Little Luv ( Juggernaut Books). It stems from his experience of being a single parent to his twins, Yash and Roohi. In his preface to the story, Karan Johar states that his family debunks the notion of a traditional family as he is a single parent to his children, born through surrogacy. His mother also helps look after the twins. It is a sweet little story that attempts to challenge the very gendered notions of bringing up kids and permitting them their freedom to explore and develop as individuals in their own right.
But I have a couple of quibbles with this book. Children are very sharp and perceptive readers. They are also very literal minded. So when Karan Johar declares that he is a “proud mom”, the illustrations of the woman in the story fulfilling the role of a mother are pretty confusing. Secondly, he insists on referring to his set of “mixed twins” which is wrong. A boy and girl pair of twins is always referred to as fraternal twins. Mixed twins are non-identical twins born to multi-racial families and differ in skin colour and other traits considered to be racial features. This muddle is carried forth in the story where in the opening line Luv says “I am confused. Everyone says my twin, Kusha, and I are just the same.” Again, this is wrong. Fraternal twins are never identical. Boy and girl twins are always fraternal. Same sex twins maybe fraternal as well. Being a fraternal twin myself, these silly lapses in storytelling are plain annoying as it is perpetuating the myth of twins being freak shows and having this uncanny ability of being same-same.
Having said that I am pleased that Karan Johar has made his foray into storytelling for children. Ever since I first read his memoir-essay about learning how to tackle his stammer with his drama teacher, I have always wondered why he never wrote more often. I wish he did. Hope he writes regularly in the future, perhaps for a slightly older readership. He will be excellent at it.
In May 2020, I was sent a YouTube link by academic and novelist Tabish Khair. It was a short clip of film actress Shabana Azmi reading a story. I began to listen. I realised it was a brand new story written by Tabish Khair. Soon we were exchanging furious messages over WhatsApp. I had a 1001 questions to ask him about the project — The Decameron 2020. Ever since I discovered the project, I have been listening to the stories on a loop.
The Decameron 2020 is a collaborative project of like-minded creative folks. The unifying factor is their ability to tell stories magnificently. The differentiating factor is the medium they opt to tell their stories. This extraordinary project is the brainchild of the Italian novelist, translator and poet Erri de Luca. According to him, “We imagined short novels because, in times of distress, we need to concentrate our words in the same narrow place we are restricted in. We imagined isolated actresses and actors around the world who give their voices as oxygen for the breathless.” His colleagues are producer Paola Bisson, filmmaker Michael Mayer, the Spanish publisher Elena Ramirez and Jim Hicks, Executive Editor, The Massachusetts Review. The Decameron 2020 project invites storytellers around the world to submit original stories for the project. These stories are then read out aloud by professional storytellers, mostly film actors such as Julian Sands, Fanny Ardant, Pom Klementieff and Alessandro Gassman. They read against a backdrop created by Richard Petit, co-founder and Creative Director, The Archers, whose mesmerising artwork unites these distinctive stories. Commenting upon the creation of these unique backdrops for the Decameron performances, Richard Petit says, “The experiences – both reading these extraordinary texts and responding to them visually – have marked this period of social isolation in an unforgettable way. Beginning by depopulating the masterworks of Florentine artists – in many cases, contemporaneous to Giovanni Boccaccio’s original setting – and collaging them with fragments from works by Italian Futurist painters, my goal has been to create beautiful but somewhat disquieting stage settings that visually connect these stories of quarantine, separated by nearly seven hundred years.”
It is an extraordinary layering to the original story. Much more than just a dramatic performance. There is something quite special about the telling. It is almost as if one has to as a listener be present “within” the storytelling, shut out all the sounds of life around one, and be wholly immersed in the storytelling. It is like recreating the experience of being “locked in” the story to experience it. I have no other way of describing it.
These are surreal times. I like the parallels drawn with a war zone by Jim in his essay since it enables an experimentation with the story form too. There are no expectations of the writer / actor / listener about the act of storytelling. The story gets completed in the classic sense by the listener’s participation. Yet it is storytelling at a global level with the stories/performances such as Luigi Lo Cascio’s having a very rich local texture. What comes through beautifully is the shock everyone feels at the sudden end of life as we knew it. There is no precedence for such a global catastrophe. So behavioural changes cannot be mimicked. Nor is there any memory of such an experience being handed down generations. There is no witnessing of it either by those alive today. As a disaster management expert told me recently, “Difficult to find a narrative for what we are going through”.
It is also precisely why I am very intrigued by The Decameron 2020 project as it tries to make sense of our new world. The creative experimentation of making writers and film actors to collaborate while in isolation and across time zones is extraordinary. It lends itself to many interpretations in the performance of putting the readings together. If everyone had been together in a room ideating, there would have been multiple layers and I am guessing a completely different output. Instead working remotely, across time zones, the onus is upon every individual involved at different stages of production to interpret the story for themselves. Ultimately every stage — writing, reading out aloud, recording, editing, adding a unique backdrop, publishing on YouTube, listening — add layers to the performance. It is palpable but not disruptive to the experience.
The Decameron 2020 team were very kind in replying to some of my questions. So here is an edited version of the interview:
Q1. What sparked this idea for The Decameron 2020? ( Btw, did you know that #DecameronCorona has been started by Daniel Mendelsohn on Twitter?)
Erri: The Decameron and Boccaccio are pillars of our literature, so the idea sprang shape to Paola Bisson and me. We imagined short novels because, in times of distress, we need to concentrate our words in the same narrow place we are restricted in. We imagined isolated actresses and actors around the world who give their voices as oxygen for the breathless.
Paola: I can add that I had a personal need to reverse my isolation and discomfort in this “pandemic” time into a new alliance. I felt like a truck driver who sends radio messages looking for other drivers on the same highway, to share the journey.
Michael: When Paola talked to me about it for the first time I had to wrap my head around the logistics of such a project. We all knew it was going to be a challenge, but the creativity and ingenuity of everybody involved was really inspiring to me. Everybody who joined us has had such a positive and easy attitude that we were able to tackle all the practical obstacles.
Q2. How were the authors for this project selected? Who are the writers and actors invited to participate in this series?
Erri: As the epidemic covers the planet, we wished to invite writers of all the continents, to form an ideal chain with the exceptional readers of their tales.
Paola: The authors of this project were suggested by us (Erri, Michael and me), and by the precious help of professor Jim Hicks and the Spanish publisher Elena Rico Ramirez. The French publisher Gallimard (they publish Erri’s books) connected us with Violaine Huisman…but the “brigata” is still growing with new suggestions.
Michael: Erri and Paola know so many wonderful and talented writers and with the help of Elena Rico Ramirez and Professor Jim Hicks were able to reach even more.
Q3. What is the brief given to the author when commissioning the story?
Erri: We asked authors to write pages from the unpredicted siege, no limit to the argument, just to be read in around five minutes. Then the director Michael Mayer gave hints and guidelines for the video.
Paola: The brief was written by heart, at least for me…I learned English in the US, watching movies. For once in a while, I have been shameless writing to everybody.
Michael: No brief, except trying to keep it around 700-1000 words. Some writers submitted a short story, one wrote a letter, another a poem, while others gave us their personal journal entries. So far it has been an absolute privilege reading all their wonderful contributions.
Q4. Are the actors decided beforehand or are they selected after the story is submitted? Is it imperative that the writer and the actor have to belong to the same nation as in the case of Tabish Khair and Shabana Azmi?
Erri: There are no rules for the interpreters; with my story, the British actor Julian Sands accepted to give his voice and talent for the character of the tale.
Paola: Everything has been a pure collaboration and mutual suggestion. Still, The Decameron 2020 is growing this way.
Michael: Every case is different. Dareen Tatour, a Palestinian poet, asked that her poem be read in Arabic, by a woman. Fang Fang asked that her diary, originally in Chinese, be read in Spanish, or English. Other writers had no specific requests. Naturally, we treat every request with utmost respect, even if it means taking longer to find the right talent for each story.
Q5. When will the project conclude? Or will it continue as long as the lockdown continues?
Erri: Paola Porrini Bisson and Michael Mayer decide the terms.
Paola: I hope it will last forever, like an anti-pandemic vaccine.
Michael: We originally intended to do 10 stories, but soon realized we had so many beautiful tales, we had to extend the project. To me, The Decameron 2020 is no longer about the pandemic, but about the connections created among artists and about having a chance to collaborate with people you wouldn’t necessarily have had the opportunity, or even the reason to collaborate with.
Q6. How was the production team selected? How did the collaboration happen? What are the pros and cons of working remotely to put together such a magnificent creative project?
Erri: Paola was the producer of last Michael Mayer’s movie, Happy Times, so the essential team was there. We got the strong help of Elena Rico Ramirez, Spanish publisher. From my point of view, there is no pro, working in distant time zones, which reduces the mutual exchange of a few hours. To match it, we are engaged at every hour.
Paola: I work since ever with Erri. I am also the President of his Foundation. With Michael, I started collaborating a few years ago in a film project. With time we became friends too. Last year we made a movie together.
Michael: Paola, Erri and I recently finished working on a feature film together, so luckily we had a pool of talented people we already had a relationship with.
A big con is the challenge of communication.
The biggest pro for me is the necessity to learn to let go. This project forces me to let go a lot of control, as actors film themselves on the other side of the world. It’s a humbling experience as a director.
Q7. How do you accommodate diverse languages?
Erri: In my case, my Italian has been translated into English by professor Jim Hicks, a good friend who has supported in every way the project since the beginning.
Michael: Between all the members of our little team, we cover 6 or 7 languages.
And we’re not shy when it’s time to ask for help!
Q8. How is The Decameron 2020 being promoted across platforms? How do you find your audience?
Erri: I am poor in this matter; I just agreed about everyone’s free contributions, and the network.
Michael: Social media, personal contacts, press announcements and word of mouth.
Q9. What are the pros and cons of creating stories solely for the Internet?
Erri: No publishers, no paper, no cellulose from trees: I think that a writer has to be generous and share for free a part of his tales.
Michael: The ease of use and the ability to reach a global audience. For a project of this sort, I can’t think of a con.
Q10. In the past year there have been major shifts in the way films have been released in theatres and on subscription TV. Now the pandemic has forced many film producers (at least in India) to consider releasing their films first on television and later when cinema halls reopen via traditional distribution channels. Plus, the Global Film Festival has been made available for free on YouTube. Do you think these rapid shifts in storytellers finding their audiences will impact the future of storytelling? If so, how?
Michael: I am not much for making predictions but I believe there is room for all types of media and formats and I believe new technologies add to our media landscape rather than cannibalize it.
Q11. What next? When the world opens up, will you develop similar projects?
Michael: Having worked now with all this diverse talent from all over the world I can’t imagine restricting my work to just one nationality or language. So yes, I definitely hope so.
Jim Hicks sums up the project beautifully in this note he emailed:
I suspect that, like most good ideas (and, of course, Margaret Mead is invariably quoted in such contexts), everything begins with a “small group of thoughtful, committed citizens.” You begin by working together, and inevitably each person brings in others, and the network expands progressively, sometimes exponentially, getting richer and stronger as it grows. Though I believe that Erri’s original idea was for a “Decamerino” of ten writers and ten actors each telling one story, and I also believe that there are already at least that number in the pipeline, as Paola writes, when something is clearly working, there’s certainly no reason to quit, so this “Decamerino” could well add additional rooms, even becoming a house with many mansions, so to speak. And it is exciting to see Boccaccio inspiring so many projects today… another is unfolding at the online magazine Words Without Borders.
Personally, what excites me most about this project is Erri’s idea that from a variety of corners, all across the globes, collaborators can come together, sharing a great variety of stories and styles that, like a grand quilt, create a record and response to this global lockdown, but also a refusal of imposed isolation. Breaking the siege. Years back, I heard a talk given by another friend and frequent collaborator, the activist, poet, essayist, and translator Ammiel Alcalay; he described how a rather simple project of translation and editing, in the right place and time, could have a truly profound effect, and help to break a different sort of siege. Not that long ago, Ammiel worked to put together an anthology of Israeli Arab writers, some of whom had never before appeared in print, and some of whom lived literally blocks away from each other, but had never even met until their work appeared in the pages of a single book. For me, the chance to find great work, and great souls, from all around the planet, makes Decameron 2020 an incredibly exciting project, one that I’m both honored and enthused to put my energies, and what little talent I have, into…
For now, have a listen to the stories uploaded (at the time of writing) on YouTube:
Luigi Lo Cascio – “A message for my friends in isolation.”
Julian Sands reading Erri De Luca – “A Novella from a Former Time”
Shabana Azmi reading Tabish Khair “River of no return”
Pom Klementieff reading Violaine Huisman – Field Munitions
Mouna Hawa reading Dareen Tatour – “I… Who am I?”
Alessandro Gassmann reading Álvaro Rodríguez – “The Eternal Return of Chet”
Venita Coelho works with images, words and paint. She is a writer who has worked in film, television and literature. Her published work includes Dead as a Dodo which won the Hindu Award for the Best Fiction for Children 2016. The Washer of the Dead was long listed for the Frank O’Connor award. She is a screenwriter with films for Dharma Productions and Sanjay Leela Bhansali Productions to her credit. As an artist she works with charcoal and with acrylic paint on glass. She is about to set off on a great adventure – having converted a Tempo traveller into a caravan, she and her daughter are off to travel across India.
Venita Coelho’s recent young adult novel Boy No. 32is an incredibly gripping book about Battees, an orphan named so after the number given to him — 32. ( In Hindi, the number 32 is called “battees”.) The story is about Battees winessing the presence of a dreaded terrorist, Kashmiri Lall, in his city, Mumbai, and he is now the only one who can help put him behind bars. It is a tremendously well-paced and tautly written book. Impossible to put down once you begin it. Also for the fact Venita Coelho never for an instant “talks down” to youngsters, nor is ever apologetic about the violence around us. Absolutely fantastic!
In this novel intermixing the orphans’ quest for locating Kashmiri Lall with encounters with the eunuchs, the Beggar King, and the horrific complicity of even the adults responsible for them such as Aunty and the cop, is done crisply. The “traditional” bad guys of literature like the eunuch are actually shown to be humane with a little more insight on how their community operates. Equally well-made are the cop and the “aunty” who are so incredibly corrupt, they would do anything for a few extra bucks. Venita Coelho is constantly challenging pre-conceived notions about characters. For instance, instead of giving the warden of the orphanage a name, she is referred to as “Aunty” — a big learning curve for Indian readers who are taught to practically revere an older woman, inevitably calling her “Aunty”, sort of seals this relationship.
Boy No. 32 is highly recommended!
Here are excerpts from an email interview:
I could not help wonder how you came upon this idea? Why?
It came out of the years I spent in Mumbai. The many times I caught the last train out of Churchgate and chatted with all the urchins in the compartment. It came out of all the stories they gave me and the adventures that the city gave.
How long did it take to write? How many revisions did it require?
I am a three draft writer. Knocked the first draft out across one November ” Nanowrimo”. That is ‘National Novel Writing Month’. You sign up at the website and for one month you get cheerleaders who push you along as you frantically write. People around the world are racing to finish their novels and the collect energy is quite astounding. The next two drafts took about eight months. But that was along side being a single mum, earning my living, and surviving Hindi films.
I can see it easily adapted for a school theatre performance — was that your intention?
It’s a movie! We don’t make children’s films in India. Every Hindi film with its songs and dances is essentially a children’s film. There is never a budget to make a ‘children’s film’. So I just put it in a book – Item number and all.
How did these characters come about? Which one struck you first?
Definitely Battees. He’s based on all the cocky little boys who sat down next to me at stations and launched into long stories. I so deeply admire the sheer courage and unputdownability these kids display, and I really wanted one of them to tell his story in his voice. And I have a very big soft spot for Item. Such courage. Such a diva!
Has your day job of writing scripts for the Indian film industry help craft young adult novels?
Not really. Hindi films have no idea of how to talk to young adults. All they ever offer them are mushy love stories. In fact to switch from writing films to books I normally have to do a couple of weeks ‘detox’ when I consciously switch from writing scenes and move to writing descriptions. Another level is moving from the superficial level of films to a deeper emotional level for books.
What has been the response of the kids who have read the book? Have you encountered them at your sessions in different cities?
We’ve had riotous sessions. The kids always love the elephant story – and it gets them thinking about real patriotism. And I always tell them that only one thing separates them from the kid on the street – sheer luck. They could have been born anywhere. And it is their duty to pass that luck on. It always makes for lively discussions.
Do you get different responses to your stories from boys and girls or does a gendered reading not matter?
I haven’t found that gender makes much difference to the response. Girls tend to ask more questions though.
Do you write with a specific reader/audience in mind?
Nope. Never do that. You can never tell how a story is going to turn out. An adult story might find it’s own way to be a children’s story. A writer can’t really predict how pitch and tone will finally tune itself. I let the story find it’s own audience. I try to write interestingly enough for anyone at all to be able to read the story.
Before publishing, do you “test” the story out or go with your instinct. I ask since I found the novel pitch perfect.
I did have three readers for the final round. It was a first for me. I got some good feedback and I will try it. again. But basically I have had so much damn writing practice doing television that it’s finally coming easy. When you do a daily soap you write 5 episodes a week. That’s ten hours of TV a month. That’s a heck of a lot of writing!
What is next on the cards?
I’m working on three different books. I tend to bounce between books. The one closest to my heart is a story based on my growing up in Kolkata. I grew up in a building that the Indian government had acquired to house the jews that it rehabilitated after the holocaust. I grew up hearing stories of the concentration camps. Now I’m finally ready to write them down.
Would you ever consider writing a series arc for young adults?
Of course. Just finished the first book of what is meant to be three books in total. I love the space that ‘Fault in our Stars’ occupies. Now that is really young adult space. So I have done a book that is for really young people, with a love story at the heart of it – but also the issues of terrorism, violence and ahimsa. Let’s see how it does!
Venita Coelho Boy No. 32 Scholastic India, Gurgaon, India, 2017. Pb. pp.186 Rs. 295
( My article on Alice in Wonderland has been published in Hindustan Times popular and widely circulated Sunday supplement Brunch on 18 October 2015. It is a generous two-page spread in print with the title “Curiouser And Curiouser”. I am c&p the text from the digital version here. The original url can be viewed at: http://www.hindustantimes.com/brunch/alice-in-wonderland-continues-to-inspire-readers-across-the-world/story-NKnM2TiOACiTMXQXtUI51M.html )
Scottish writer George MacDonald persuaded Carroll to self-publish Alice. It had been tested out on the MacDonald children by their mother – and the family loved it. (Above, Carroll with Mrs MacDonald and her children.) (Getty Images/Science Source)
Who’d have thought a self-published story written for the daughters of a friend would become a world classic, eagerly bought, borrowed and downloaded even now, 150 years later?
Alice in Wonderland was written in 1865 by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a mathematics professor at Oxford, better known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll. He wrote it for Lorina, Alice and Edith, the three daughters of his friend, Reverend Henry Liddell.
Start of many things
Alice in Wonderland is about a girl named Alice who falls down a rabbit hole in pursuit of the White Rabbit and discovers a nonsensically delightful world with colourful characters like the Red Queen, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and the March Hare. More writers, artists and creators all over the world have credited Alice as an inspiration than any other book, thanks to its imaginative world filled with fantastic linguistic acrobatics in rhyme and prose.
That the book should have emerged in the staid Victorian era of verbose and righteous prose says much for the power of creativity. Carroll was persuaded to publish Alice with his own illustrations, by Scottish author and poet, George MacDonald.
The story had been tested out on the MacDonald children by their mother. The family thoroughly enjoyed the tale, and Carroll self-published it. Then, it was edited and published by Alexander Macmillan.
Lewis Carroll requested the well-known artist of Punch, Sir John Tenniel to create the illustrations, many of which were ultimately based on the original drawings made by the author. To commemorate the 150th year of its publication, Macmillan, the original publisher, has produced a scrumptious edition of The Complete Alice, with the original Tenniel illustrations in full colour. It is unusual for a publisher to be celebrating 150 years of a text, but Alice in Wonderland is perceived to be “a world text”.
Alice in Wonderland is about a girl named Alice who falls down a rabbit hole in pursuit of the White Rabbit. On the left is an illustration of the character by Carroll himself, and next to it (right) by Tenniel. (Photos: Stapleton Collection/Corbis, The Print Collector/Corbis)
“It’s one of those texts that IS, like Shakespeare,” says graphic novelist Samit Basu. “Its constant reinterpretations in everything, from zombie comics to action-fantasy novels, have kept the original text alive, and that’s the greatest thing that can happen to any book.”
This is evident by the text’s vast influence across creative platforms and genres – storytelling, play on words, visual arts, filmmakers, still photography and translations.
According to filmmaker and author Devashish Makhija, a lot of motifs from Alice have been uncannily replicated across the world. “Tweedledum and Tweedledee seem to have inspired Herge’s Thompson and Thomson in Tintin,” he says. “Batman’s Joker seems to have shades of the Mad Hatter, at least in his inexplicable (but profound) reliance on creating some sort of chaos in anything he communicates.”
And there’s more. When Alice fell down a rabbit hole to discover a topsy-turvy world, Makhija argues, she opened a clear story-telling device for creators of the future. “The ‘hole’ – although in existence before this book – was used pointedly for the first time as a portal connecting two dimensions through which a character ‘travels’.
It has since been used in versions in almost ALL of fantasy writing: the wardrobe in CS Lewis’s Narnia series, the square drawn with chalk in Pan’s Labyrinth, platform 93/4 inHarry Potter, the bridge of Terabithia, HG Wells’s time machine and even the bathtub in Anurag Kashyap’s No Smoking.”
Follow that rabbit
“Every reader will leave with a different reading,” says Anil Menon, author of speculative fiction. “Fortunately, Alice in Wonderland has remained what it was intended to be: an invitation to play.”
Let loose in the imaginative world of Alice’s Wonderland, children often find their own wonderlands when they become adults, says photographer and musician Ed Valfre. “Several years ago, I wrote two children’s books about a boy in the backseat of a car who creates stories from all that he sees on the road. As Alice decides to go down the rabbit hole to discover the fantastical world of Wonderland, my hero goes down a similar path but it is inside his own head. The rabbit I follow is some ordinary thing we see every day. The rabbit hole is our imagination and we simply have to pay attention to discover it.”
Jeff VanderMeer, who won the Nebula 2014 for his novel, Annihilation, says that Alice “was such an influence. I started a far-future novel when I was 13 in which a human-sized bio-engineered white rabbit is found murdered at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro. What appealed to me was the surreal aspect of Carroll’s book, even more so than the kind of mathematical logic and the humour. I couldn’t escape Alice even if I tried. It’s one of those constants, or compass points, that for some odd reason draws out originality despite being riffed off again and again.”
There are no white rabbits in filmmaker Paromita Vohra’s work, Unlimited Girls, but Vohra says it is deeply influenced by Alice in Wonderland. In the film, a young woman is drawn into an Internet chat room – kind of like a rabbit hole – and then proceeds on a journey through the world of feminism where she meets all kinds of characters and undergoes all kinds of transformations.
“I think Alice is (like a good Bollywood film, almost) one of those works that gives you permission to make a work out of what you see, what you feel as one,” says Vohra.
In many ways, Alice is a nonsense book. Not in the sense that it is the product of a muddled mind, but because of its willingness to see more in the world than a single outward façade. That’s the aspect that influenced children’s author, known especially for nonsense writing, Anushka Ravishankar the most.
“I remember reading Alice as a child and being fascinated, but also really disturbed because of the strange creatures and the weird, unworldly goings-on,” she says. “It was only much later that I began to appreciate the other elements – the nonsense, the logical games and the clever theories which the nonsense hid. I studied mathematics, so I do believe that Carroll’s mathematical mind came up with things that seem nonsensical but are actually possible given a different mathematical frame.”
It is extraordinary that a story spun to entertain a six-year-old girl on a boating trip has continued to brighten the lives of generations spanning more than a century.
And so just like the way it began in the beginning, Alice in Wonderland remains what it is – a story to delight children.
“My greatest joy,” says Samit Basu, “was the completely context-free sizzle that went through my brain when I first read it as a child, and there’s nothing that can either truly explain or analyse that.”
Looking back through translations
On 4 October, 1866, Lewis Carroll wrote to his publisher Macmillan, stating, “Friends here [in Oxford] seem to think that the book is untranslatable.” But his friends were wrong as the editors of Alice in a World of Wonderlands: The Translations of Lewis Carroll’s Masterpiece, would tell Carroll if they could.
Alice in a World of Wonderlands: The Translations of Lewis Carroll’s Masterpiece documents the classic’s translations in 174 languages and over 9,000 editions and reprints. (Pictured in it is Alice Liddell, the little girl the book was written for)
This book, edited by Jon A Lindseth and Alan Tannenbaum, documents translations in 174 languages and over 9,000 editions and reprints of Alice in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass.
“There are nine translations of Alice into Tamil, plus an unpublished draft, a short story, a serialised story, and a graphic version,” says Dr Rajamanickam Azhagarasan, contributor to the book. “It was popular among those involved in the movement for children’s literature from the ’40s through the ’70s. Each translation was unique, depending on which aspect the translators wished to highlight.”
Alice has been translated in Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Konkani, Malayalam, Marathi, Oriya, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, Nepali and Sinhala. Here (left to right) are translations in Malayalam (2000), Urdu (1981) and Oriya (2002).
Much like the way storytellers have always found new stories to weave out of the Indian epics, Alice’s translators in India have created different Wonderlands – for instance, by weaving mythological elements into the story.
“The Telugu translation of Alice was available as early as the mid-1950s,” says Suresh Kosaraju, trustee, Manchi Pustakam, Secunderabad.
Editor Sushama Sonak says, “Mugdhachi Rangit Goshta (The Many Coloured World of Mugdha) written in Marathi by short story writer GA Kulkarni was heavily influenced by Alice.”
In Malayalam, the first translation was published by Balan Publications. Lewis Carroll certainly influenced the well-known children’s nonsense writer in Bengali, Sukumar Ray, as well as Hemendra Kumar Roy, who wrote wonderful detective stories in Bangla and translated Alice in Wonderland: it is called Ajab Deshe Amala.
Even Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita, translated Alice into Russian. According to translator Sergei Task, “By and large, [Nabokov] translated the text as is, except for Russifying the names (Alice/Anya, Mabel/Asya, and the Rabbit got a last name – Trusikov) and introducing pre-revolutionary forms of address such as barin (master) and vashe blagorodiye (your honour). Of course, with the playful verses, he had to take liberties – again, trying to adapt them for Russian readers.”