The Dahl Factor


Children, as psychologists contend, can offer amazing insights. As physicist Robert Oppenheimer once articulated, “There are children playing in the street who could solve some of my top problems in physics because they have modes of perception that I lost long ago.” This is not all. If we think as most of us do — that children are little, lovely angels — our childhood is a wonderful window of opportunity. Children love to explore the world around, just as adults learn about themselves. Childhood is obviously a wonderful phase, the theme song of joy, dreams and imaginative ecstasy too. To quote Samuel Woodworth, the American author, “How dear to this heart are the scenes of my childhood/When fond recollection recalls them to view:/The orchard, the meadow, the deep-tangled wildwood,/And every loved spot which my infancy knew.’’

Not every child’s canvas is a happy experience, though. Picture this: child abuse, trauma, rape, terror, parental hypocrisy. The list is endless. Add to this the plight of kids being caught between ethnic crossfire, as in the killing fields across the world, and you have a disturbing, appallingly pathetic scenario: of terrifying moments which become memories emblazoned in the child’s emotional circuitry. Of horrors, frozen in memory, including a complete sense of helplessness.

Roald Dahl’s classy fictional chemistry had this distinctive element: a twist of cruelty. A case in point: Dahl’s bestselling children’s book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in which naughty kids are turned into giant blueberries, or sucked into chocolate rivers, never to be heard of again. Yes, Dahl’s use of violence and surprise denouement was brilliant, craftily masterful, and as appealing as moralistic fairy tale candour. And, his way of justice?  “Hansel pushes the witch into the oven.” Quite simply, macabre. Yet, millions of children and adults alike read his books and watch[ed] movies made from his screenplays. Why? Dahl has, doubtless, touched on something that all people on the living planet have in common.

Dahl’s only intention, as he himself once wrote, “is to teach children to read.” That Dahl’s own childhood was replete with the same sort of bad luck that his fictional children experienced was more than coincidental. His father died while Roald was still a child. The family was not in the abyss of poverty, or penury, all right: they owned a farm in Oslo, in their native Norway. And, Dahl attended some of the best schools until he was 18. He joined the Exploring Society’s expedition to Newfoundland too. Soon enough, he joined Shell Oil, and was working in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, the backdrop for most of his excellent stories, when Adolf Hitler’s sinister blitzkrieg — World War II — began.

Dahl [1916-1990] joined the Royal Air Force without wasting time. In 1943, when he was posted in Washington DC, destiny was manifest. C S Forrester, author of Captain Horatio Hornblower, asked him to write a few pieces about his war experiences for the Saturday Evening Post. It was a small, though major first step.

In the course of time, Dahl wrote a book and a few collections of short stories. He made his mark in the world of words in 1953 with Someone Like You, a collection of articulately well-crafted morbid stories. In the 1960s, Dahl and his wife, actress Patricia Neal, began writing stories for their five children. Reason? In Dahl’s own words, “Children are great judges of stories…  Any parent who does the bedtime ritual of spinning fairy tales into nightly serials knows this only too well.’’

The story of James’s parents being eaten by a rhino at the zoo was the launching pad for Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, which is yet another deliciously evil work of fiction. The year: 1961. Come 1964, Charlie… was a huge success. The tale was also made into a movie starring Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, the weird chocolate-maker.

Dahl’s contribution to movies — all significant and memorable, at that — was not restricted to adaptations of his own stories. His other screen adaptations include Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a 1968 Walt Disney film, and You Only Live Twice, a James Bond spy thriller, starring Sean Connery. His contributions to television featured 22 stories, specially adapted from Tales of the Unexpected. It also goes without saying that Dahl, the iconoclast, disliked most of the films that were adapted from his works. In one instance, he asked for his name to be dropped from the credits.

His eccentricities apart, Dahl rarely did, or said, what was expected of, or from, him. His adult life was not without its setbacks, either. The Dahls lost one of their children, Olivia, in 1962: and, Patricia suffered paralysis in 1965. After they had nursed her through three gruelling years, the Dahls, as [ill]luck would have it, signed their respective divorce papers — 30 years after their wedding.

Six months later, Dahl married Patricia’s close friend, Felicity Crosland and became a sitting duck to critics and intrusive tabloid excursions. What was more pertinent, Dahl’s literary status also took a beating from critics. They called his works anti-social, anti-feminist, and certainly too violent for children.

A stoical Dahl rejected such concerns, lock, stock, and barrel. He revealed the formula for his successful children’s stories: “It is the path of their affections… Parents and school-teachers are the enemy. The adult is the enemy of the child, because of the awful process of civilising this thing that when it is born is an animal with no manners, no moral sense at all.” On this credo alone, Dahl was, perhaps, more than equipped to understand children — and, most importantly, the secret lives of adults.

Dahl, who was known for his paranoid, anti-Semitic rants, which, at one time, blighted his image, also denounced Salman Rushdie as a “dangerous opportunist.” Yet, there was no denying his class. Dahl was, irrefutably, one of the most successful and well-known children’s writers of his time and beyond.  His stories have carved a niche of their own: classics of the future. For one simple reason — Dahl had that uncanny knack of knowing how to steer an “unwavering course along the hairline where the grotesque and comic meet and mingle.”

The best part: Dahl’s surreal stories always had that bizarre thread of the grisly; they also, quite remarkably, articulated extraordinary humour. In the opening story in his collection, More Tales of the Unexpected, there is a steady build-up of suspense, but the denouement was, also is, startlingly inventive and evokes full laugh of relief and delight.

Dahl, who won the 1983 Whitbread Award, also wrote two volumes of autobiography, Boy and Going Solo, aside from a host of gripping tales for children — including Matilda. His tales and books, which have received extraordinary acclaim, have been translated into several languages. They have become bestsellers all over the world.

A handful of Dahl’s tales are set in India too. They make a jolly, good read — bizarre, fascinating and vivid. Here’s one pick.

“I had never before encountered that peculiar Empire-building breed of Englishman who spends his whole life working in distant corners of British territory… More English than the English, more Scottish than the Scots, they were the craziest bunch of humans I shall ever meet… If they lived in India, then all their manner of dialects was intermingled. Supper was tiffin… The Empire-builders’ jargon would have filled a dictionary. All in all, it was rather wonderful for me, a conventional young lad from the suburbs [Note: Dahl was born in Wales, UK], to be thrust suddenly into the middle of this pack of sinewy sunburnt gophers and their bright bony little wives, and what I liked best about them was their eccentricities…”

Or, take this. “Under his bunk he kept a tin trunk and a black leather case. There was nothing odd about the tin trunk, but the case puzzled me.  It was roughly the size of a violin case but the lid didn’t bulge as the lid of a violin does, and it wasn’t tampered. It was simply a three-foot-long rectangular box with two very strong brass locks on it. ‘Do you play the violin?’ I had once said to him. ‘Don’t be daft,’ he had answered. ‘I don’t even play the gramophone.’” It was typical Dahl — terse, witty and unnerving — “a compulsive blend of wide-eyed innocence and fascination with danger and horror.”

Dahl was in his own right and ‘write’ inimitable — a story-teller who will captivate his legion of fans till kingdom come.

— First published in Madras Courier

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