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DEMONS FOR DINNER

Of late, there have been three significant happenings in the Roald Dahl universe. One, a previously cut chapter of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that was deemed “too wild” and “dark” for British children has been released — it describes a Vanilla Fudge room for pounding and cutting, where two children visiting the factory eventually land up. Two, a major bookstore chain in Australia has taken off the shelves Dahl’s collection of Revolting Rhymes after concerned parents objected to the use of the word “slut” in it. And three, Penguin has released the 50th anniversary edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with the photograph of a precocious little girl wearing an unsettling amount of lipstick, mascara and fur on its cover. All three incidents have given rise to varied reactions among parents and teachers in the West who are still debating Dahl’s possible impact on young, impressionable minds. After all, one should not get the wrong ideas about violence, death or sex from children’s books — those literary pleasures are reserved for grown-ups. However, nobody seems to be too concerned about the proliferation of fictional teenage vampires biting their way in and out of love.

The anxiety over what children should be reading is significantly less in our part of the world. And it is only natural; after all, most children here, by the time they are old enough to accompany (grand)parents to the local market, have witnessed the pulling apart of still-clucking chickens with bare hands, thus getting silently introduced to the face of death. Apart from the lovely lunch that usually follows such a sight, Bengali children, in particular, also get to feast on fairy and folktales, which are peopled with polygamous monarchs and their demon wives, who bear half-human, half-demon children. The latter often end up as the demon mother’s dinner but are later reborn (out of eggs this time) to kill not only their mother but also hosts of demon citizens, by dousing them all with hot oil. The ‘pounding’ and ‘cutting’ room in a chocolate factory, in comparison, might seem a little less intense. Yes, English children’s classics and Bengali fairytales originate from two very different modes of storytelling. But both are for the delectation of children of roughly the same tender age.

While no one has ever accused Thakurmaar Jhuli of being gory, Dahl’s stories never had that luck — even at the peak of his popularity, he was repeatedly criticized for indulging in dark, even macabre, humour that was allegedly unsuitable for children. Matilda’s parents, the gluttonous Augustus Gloop and the insufferable Veruca Salt, meet particularly horrifying ends, which are at once gratifying and hilarious. Dahl does his best to affirm that the world is a miserable place, with all sorts of wicked people. And if you are a wicked person yourself, bad things will probably happen to you as well — you will die a nasty death, and worse, others will laugh when you do. Perhaps this is the part where adults, with their keener awareness of time’s wingéd chariot flapping near, get frightened out of their skins. They, poor things, cannot see that there is no better way to deal with death than to laugh at it. They will call this gift of joking about death audacity and punish all children who think on these lines — providing no more reason than, “I am right and you’re wrong, and I’m big and you’re small and there’s nothing you can do about it.” They will not tolerate dead mice in candy jars.

No (they think), that isn’t funny — especially because a misogynistic, Jew-hating, sexually hyperactive spy like Dahl indulged in such acts as a child. Nevermind that he wrote some fantastic stories capable of delighting adults (even if they won’t acknowledge it) and children alike.

Dahl’s stories indeed seem different when read through grown-up eyes. Suddenly, one sees implications that are sinister. Does it come from knowing that nasty people do nasty things but nice people do worse? Is this what one calls growing up? What is being a child anyway? Perhaps childhood is simply the refusal to make do with a uni-dimensional reality. Maybe it is inextricable with belief in the wondrous possibilities of several realities, worlds, universes — even those made of chocolate.