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Sunday, 3 March 2013

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All about Alice and the maths professor

Kauda bola mey Alice? is a Kaffreigna Baila hit tune in this island washed by cross currents of culture. The later lines conjure a vision of a bustling, buxom housemaid dusting, polishing, cooking and washing while weaving a love net around the boys in the family and their gyrating pals. By the way, Alice is an English personal name imported here and added a suffix Nona plummeting her to household drudgery.

The name set me thinking about the British Alice who lived in the glorious Victorian times when her ships cruised oceans. Then I forgot all about her till a few weeks later I happened to be walking along Colombo's streets when my attention was drawn to a glitzy board before a cinema hall which read "Alice in Wonderland.."

Not sophisticated enough to walk into a cinema hall unchaperoned yet I could not resist the temptation to see the show. I had read the book many times fascinated with the surrealistic nature of its contents. So, why miss the chance especially as it was 10 a.m. and the show was to begin at 10.15 a.m.

But I was disappointed at the counter. A school had booked the whole hall. Relenting, the officer told me sometimes there will be some seats left. "Wait and you can see it free", he added.

Incredible

So far, so good. Then the show began. I waited for little Alice to meet the White Rabbit checking his wristwatch and then follow him to a world where the most incredible happen but soon the screen was full of flying machines, huge mortars, rockets, booming guns and what not. A tall woman fully armoured and in brown uniform ran helter skelter followed by vicious looking males ready to bludgeon her. Surely this could not be Alice in Wonderland. Yet she was so, in a modern version of it that the male students saw with glee.

Alice Liddell, on whom the character of Alice was based photographed by Lewis
Carroll in the late 1850s.

Needless to say, I left early and for some time that was my last contact with Alice. The poor girl had just been massacred by modern cinematic techniques. Then on a rainy afternoon in an old magazine I came upon the girl again and also on her creator. The creator was not God but a man wielding a pen. The man who wrote all that stuff, sometimes bordering on the ludicrous, I learnt was a professor of Mathematics at Oxford University. Though his public name is Lewis Carrol his real name is Charles Lutwidge Dodgeon. His first book on Alice had been out as early as 1895 when queen Victoria reigned in England.

She had become a fan of his and had sent for his other books, if any. When treatises on trigonometry and the binomial theory arrived by mail, her Majesty was flabbergasted for she could not understand a word, though she could understand all the gibberish exchanged at the Mad Hatter's Tea Party held underground with the Dormouse sitting fast asleep. She just loved all that mad stuff that made no sense at all Utter nonsense.

Little girls

Lewis Carrol had however based the character of Lewis on an actual girl named Alice Liddel. Alice, Lorina and Edith were the daughters of Henry Liddel, dean of Christ Church, Oxford. In July 1862 the author, who loved little girls and disliked them when they grew up (he never married) had rowed the three girls up the Thames from Oxford for a picnic. On this trip he had narrated Alice's adventures underground to spend the time. Some 30 years later it had come out as a book.

Those who took the trouble to analyse the author's character say that he wished to remain a child himself. He was very religious and wished to be away from the real world. So, that led him to create out of the world fancy characters that children and even adults including the Empress loved. Perhaps England was undergoing a very prosperous period what with all her colonial conquests leading to literary sophistication that included a love of nonsense. (When one is down and out nonsense just has no place) "This "nonsensical literature" later graduated to "Surrealistic" literature and had infected France too.

The author himself is a double-character-a brilliant logician and mathematician on the one hand and a writer of children's books on the other. He also had been a fine photographer and artist. Via his two books he has left to the world endearing characters such as the white Rabbit, the Ugly Duchess the Queen of Hearts, the White knight and of course Alice in Wonderland. The Alice I saw recently on the silver screen is a gun-toting Alice nearly six feet in height and hefty built.

It nearly made me cry. But those reading between the lines could subscribe to the view that the original Alice herself is extremely bossy. When the queen in the pack of cards threatens to cut Alice's head, Alice retorts, "Who cares for you. You are nothing but a pack of cards". Carrol also has created characters that we are very familiar with. Listen to Humpty Dumpty on the wall.

King's horses

"Now take a good look at me. I am one that has spoken to a king. Maybe you will never see such another. To show you that I am not proud you may shake hands with me ... The king has promised with his very own mouth to send all his horses and all his men."

And he leans forward to shake hands with Alice and falls off the high wall as he brags. One is reminded of the Rajuta Atha Dun family in our country (the kinsmen who shook hands with the king). They had not washed their hands for some time and as to when they fell from grace is not recorded...

Books written by clever hands are for all seasons and times and countries. And the authors never die.

 

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