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A tea party with Topiwalla and Alice

Cover of a Telugu version of ‘Alice in Wonderland’.  

Two years ago, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland turned 150 years old. This year, India celebrates the book anew — it is the centenary year of the publication of the first translation of Alice in any Indian language — in this case, Gujarati. Over the years, there have been several translations of Alice in different Indian languages, making for a colourful and quirky patchwork quilt of Alices all over the country.

Eight years ago, eminent American bibliophile Jon Lindseth assigned me the task of co-ordinating the Indian chapter of ‘Alice 150’, a series of events that took place in and around New York in 2015. We were to look for Indian Alices in different locations: it turned out to be a wild goose chase. Only those who have ever tried to locate rare copies in the book market will vouch for Warren Weaver’s account of his experience in Delhi in 1964. (Warren’s book, Alice in Many Tongues, was published in 1964, in preparation for the centenary year of Alice in 1965.)

“[T]he publishers apparently print small editions, which disappear promptly. When I asked about the possibility of trying to locate second-hand copies of the earlier editions, the dealers quite clearly considered it inexplicable that anyone would want another edition of a book he already had and obviously could not read. When in recognition that a twenty-odd thirty-cent translation did not merit a great deal of effort, I offered to pay a few dollars each for any of the missing editions, the dealers promptly concluded — or so it seemed to me — that they were dealing with an insane person, and did their best to get me quietly out of the shop.”

Cover of a Gujarati version of ‘Alice in Wonderland’.

Cover of a Gujarati version of ‘Alice in Wonderland’.  

Even as late as 1964, Weaver could track down only a few of the many editions of Alice in Indian languages: Odia, Bengali, Hindi, Urdu and Kannada. Our experience in 2009 was no better. The indifference and intractability of book sellers that Weaver describes remained, making it hard to locate copies. But by now we know this: Alice has appeared in at least 12 Indian languages, with a few languages like Bengali and Hindi getting multiple translations.

Playing truant

Alice arrived late in the subcontinent and then played truant. After appearing in Gujarati in 1917, there was a lull of 17 years before the first of the many Bengali versions came out. Tamil saw a translation only in 1957. Among some of the last translations to come out were one in Assamese (1980) and one in Nepali (1992). Two Urdu translations came from Pakistan.

One of the chief reasons behind such belatedness could be the one that has nagged Alice from the first — its perceived untranslatability.

Carroll himself had testified to the nature of the challenge even before the first one had been attempted: “Friends here (in Oxford) seem to think that the book is untranslatable into either French or German, the puns and songs being the chief obstacles.” This, of course, is equally true for Indian translators.

Cover of a Marathi version of ‘Alice in Wonderland’.

Cover of a Marathi version of ‘Alice in Wonderland’.  

Early translators of Alice were confronted by the huge cultural gulf between Europe and Asia in matters of dress code, food and eating habits, and, above all, manners. Even within subcontinental cultures, the diversity was immense. For a European child, a rabbit looking for its hand fan and gloves may be part of fantasy; but for an Indian child, these sartorial items might look strange even on human beings. Thus, in a few Indian languages, gloves are substituted by moja or socks; sometimes by gold bangles, sometimes even a Japanese fan.

For the English reader, the association of a hat-maker with madness may be an interesting instance of intertextuality that an Indian reader might miss. In most parts of India, the hat is simply called topi. Thus, the Hatter becomes Topiwalla, Topwalla, Hatwalla or variants of this, such as the Man with Topi, across languages. More enthusiastic nationalist translators have substituted the hat with a turban or umbrella even while retaining the rest of the Western attire. Consequently, the Hatter is called ‘pagdi babu’,‘maker of umbrellas,’ or ‘maker or seller of turbans,’ and so on.

A Western rat

Then, there was the Duchess. This is an unknown regal designation in India. So, she is referred to variously as the “smaller” or “younger” queen in a few versions, or as Jomidarginni or Zamindarini (wife of a feudal landlord) in some others.

As to the animal characters, both the rabbit and the hare are called khargos. A dormouse is not a natural part of the Indian fauna; it has often been made into the more familiar squirrel, or just a mouse or a fat mouse (Motachuha in Hindi), sometimes a lion-sized rat, a tree-rat (gechho indoor in Bangla); or, more ingeniously, a Western Rat (Paschima Musa in Odia). In one particular instance, it is rendered into a ‘bandicoot’. The etymology of bandicoot, interestingly enough, can be traced back to the Telugu word pandi-kokku. Words seem to have a way of traversing cultures and coming back to the places of origin, but in a slightly altered form.

Cover of an Odia version of ‘Alice in Wonderland’.

Cover of an Odia version of ‘Alice in Wonderland’.  

The March Hare too is handled intelligently by some translators to convey suggestions of seasonal craziness — Jalha Khargosh (Hindi/ Urdu); March or Marchi Khargosh (Hindi); Badule Khargosh or Baisakhi Khargosh (Bengali).

Translators had a tough time finding local equivalents for certain items of food and drink, which denote different codes of morals and manners in different cultures. For example, the March Hare offers Alice some wine. In Indian culture, wine has been synonymous with any alcoholic beverage and therefore not just taboo for children but also virtually unmentionable in children’s literature for a very long time. Translators have mostly substituted it with ‘grape juice’, ‘syrup’ or ‘sherbet’. There is one instance of a more descriptive name, in Hindi, which specifies the source of the drink as “an intoxicating beverage made out of grapes”.

A few translators, however, choose to censor the conversation. For the most ludicrous rendering of wine, a Bengali version takes the cake — the March Hare offers Alice payesh! But when brandy is offered to Bill the Lizard, translators tend to retain the word, possibly because of the known restorative medicinal properties of brandy. Even so, a few skip the episode altogether. Tarts, too, are an unrecognisable food item. In a few translations, it is changed to achar (pickle) or phuluri (fried gram flour). One Bengali version titles the chapter, ‘Who Stole the Tarts?’ as ‘The Trial of the Phuluri Thief’.

Rhyme without reason

But, of course, translators of Alice faced their severest challenge when confronted with linguistic puns and parodies of popular rhymes that Carroll’s original has. In his version, the Hindi poet Shamsher Bahadur Singh uses the same name, William, but turns “father” into “dada”, that is, grandfather, for the poem ‘You Are Old, Father William’ in Alice. Using the evidence of the illustration, Singh’s Alice pokes fun at ‘Dada William’s’ big belly by using a humorous colloquial expression for ‘pot-bellied’ — tond. The lines about Father William in our back translation run thus:

Grandpa William, Grandpa William! your paunch is so roly-poly!

All your remaining hair is gone; and now, why this posture melancholy!

Indian translators have invariably tried to adapt-translate ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little bat’ in the target language. In a couple of cases (Hindi and Urdu), however, the translator uses slightly different expressions. One such in the back translation from Hindi goes:

Blink blink, blink blink

glitter, glitter, little bats!

Cover of a Tamil version of ‘Alice in Wonderland’.

Cover of a Tamil version of ‘Alice in Wonderland’.  

One Bengali translator wants to give a clue to the child reader that it is a parody; he makes Alice try to correct the Hatter, who sings, “Twinkle, twinkle, fluffy owl…” by saying “in my school we were taught a song… Twinkle, twinkle, little star...” But Mad Hatter goes on with the fluffy owl.

In the Marathi version, the translator parodies two lines of a popular Marathi nursery rhyme that goes: “Moon, oh dear moon, are you tired?” In Alice, he makes this Dear Mouse, Oh dear mouse, / Was it so tiring?/ Why are you hiding behind the neem tree?The translator has taken the liberty of converting Carroll’s “bat” into a “rat.”

The ambiguity of the verb, ‘draw,’ which can be used both in the senses of ‘sketching’ and ‘pulling’, fortunately, has many equivalents in different Indian languages, making the job easy for translators. The verb lends itself to puns: khinchna, taniba.

One of the Telugu versions carries a footnote by the editor/ publisher that says: ‘“To draw” in English has two meanings: drawing pictures and drawing water. The translation has chosen the meaning of drawing water since the preoccupation here is with the well, and it also connects ‘well’ with the three sisters surviving on jaggery water.” “Murdering the time” (“‘Well, I’d hardly finished the first verse,’ said the Hatter, ‘when the Queen jumped up and bawled out, ‘He’s murdering the time! Off with his head!”’) has similarly been rendered to ‘samaya ka khoon karna’ but the ambiguity goes missing in this.

Alice in a sari

Sometimes, translators avoid the double meaning of “murdering the time” and simplify it with alternatives in the text. An imaginative play with the word comes in an Urdu translation. Here the translator uses a rare expression for ‘killing time’. Instead of using Qatal, the common Urdu verb for ‘killing’, he opts for the compound verb khoon kar raha hai, which adds fluency to the translation.

Cover of an Urdu version of ‘Alice in Wonderland’.

Cover of an Urdu version of ‘Alice in Wonderland’.  

Most of the editions in Indian languages carry John Tenniel’s illustrations from 1865. But many of them also have their own sketches; sometimes by anonymous illustrators. A few editions have a funny mixture of Tenniel’s and their own illustrations.

The cover illustrations are richly diverse too. In a few places, Alice is clad in a sari, although Indian girls her age hardly ever wore saris. In some cultures, where girls wear a blouse and a petticoat, Alice can be found clad in these. She is also often given very long hair, because Mad Hatter complains that Alice’s hair is long and uncut. An illustration on the cover of a Tamil Alice has her with two snaky plaits, which is clearly a case of overdoing it. In a few instances, the cover illustration seems to have gone horribly wrong. They have simply been made colourful with no relevance to the narrative.

The most significant ‘transcreation’ of Alice has to be the two pieces by Rabindranath Tagore. In 1893, Tagore published his short story, ‘Ekta Ashadhe Galpa’ (A Tall Tale), which he later turned into the famous dance drama, Tasher Desh, or Land of Cards. The story begins with the lines (translated here by me): “Far away beyond the seas is an island where there was were only Kings of Cards, Queens of Cards, Aces of Cards and Knaves of Cards and finally the King and Queen of Hearts.”

Around the time that Tagore published a review of Trailokyanath Mukhopadhyay’s Kankabati (in which he says the fantasy reminded him of “an English tale called Alice in Wonderland), he was writing Ekta Ashadhe Galpa. So it is entirely possible that he got the idea of the card people from the last four chapters of Alice where Alice runs into a land inhabited entirely by animated packs of cards.

In a version of Tasher Desh from 1933, he introduces the card people in the second act; their manner of entry is quite similar to that in Alice. In 1921, Sukumar Ray came up with HaJaBaRaLa, which, while having elements in common with Alice, like a slippery Cat and a mock trial, is a landmark of nonsense literature in its own right.

Alice may have arrived late in India but the hospitality for which India is famous has been extended warmly to her. Should Alice wake up here one day, she would certainly recognise it for a greater wonderland than Carroll ever dreamt of, where godmen perform daily miracles, idols and snakes drink milk, and damsels have their “long and uncut” tresses mysteriously chopped off.

The author is Fellow at Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, and former professor, Department of English, University of Delhi.

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Printable version | Jun 22, 2021 5:26:27 PM |

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