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Roald Dahl’s rules of the game

Parvati Sharma | Updated on October 04, 2019 Published on October 04, 2019

Blind spots: Roald Dahl (1916-90) chronicled the excesses of British colonisation with the indulgent humour one reserves for eccentric relatives

Roald Dahl’s work for children rings with a clear support for the underdog. But when it comes to the story of Mdisho, his ‘boy’ in Dar es Salaam, there is a sting in the tale

Reading Roald Dahl has its consequences. Cigar-wielding grandmothers, witches without toes, headmistresses who shot-put their young charges through the school air — these are not images that fade easily. It was Dahl who made me believe that you really could, if you had the manic flair, make a magic potion with syrups and pills. That rivers of chocolate and bubble gum meals were a possibility. That even the real, even the anodyne was touched with fantasy. I grew up thinking of gobstoppers — which Dahl sucked upon as a boy — and of Dar es Salaam, where he worked as a young man, as wonderfully exotic, located just beyond the thin line that separates flying elevators from the world as we know it.

Gobstoppers remain a mystery to me, but a hospitable friend made it possible for me to visit Dar es Salaam in Tanzania last month. This is where Dahl arrived, 80 years ago, as an executive for Shell. He was in his early 20s, lured by the lions and green jungles and black mambas of east Africa. In Going Solo (a sequel to Boy — together they comprise his autobiography) Dahl writes about the journey by sea to what was then Tanganyika, and his encounters with the various colonisers on-board, who entertain him in strange ways, from running around the deck in their bare flesh to eating oranges with knives and forks. “When the British live for years in a foul and sweaty climate,” writes Dahl, “they cultivate bizarre habits that would never be tolerated at home. They maintain a tenuous grip on reality by allowing themselves to become completely dotty”.

Dahl describes these imperialists — each of them having spent decades of their lives administering the Raj — with the kind of indulgent humour one reserves for beloved but eccentric relatives. Reading Going Solo, you get the clear impression that Dahl thinks of himself as a very different breed — he is the young explorer, off to find adventure in Africa, not subjugate it. In these “benighted days of the British empire,” writes Dahl, it was considered unfitting for Africans to read, but “I didn’t hold with all that”. Promptly, in fact, he begins to teach his ‘boy’, Mdisho, the English alphabet.

All of Dahl’s work for children rings with a clear support for the underdog. Charlie, who lives on a diet of cabbage soup enlivened by one annual bar of chocolate, eaten in nibbles; Matilda, whose ghastly parents won’t let her read; the monkeys and birds trapped and tortured by Mr and Mrs Twit.

Perhaps this isn’t peculiar to Dahl alone — the performance of justice runs through children’s literature, from fairy tales to Harry Potter. Charlie gets a chocolate factory, the Twits are suspended upside-down; the good win over the bad. A moral balance is achieved. When it comes to Mdisho, however, there is an odd sting in the tale.

Dahl discovers his servant’s illiteracy as they are discussing the imminent outbreak of World War II. Mdisho, on learning that Germans are the enemy, is all set to launch a pre-emptive attack on German residents in Dar, but Dahl explains to him that this is not how war works: “I’m afraid we have very strict rules about war. Nobody’s allowed to kill anybody until the whistle blows and the game begins.”

“There are no rules in war,” Mdisho replies, but he relents. Eventually, however, war is declared, Mdisho does kill a German — an “extremely unpleasant” plantation owner, whose head Mdisho slices off with an Arab sword Dahl keeps in his living room. When the young man returns, “a wild ecstatic look upon his face”, Dahl orders him to tell no one of what he’s done, then gifts him the sword, to assuage Mdisho’s palpable dismay at Dahl’s lack of enthusiasm for his intrepid attack.

It’s revealing of many things, this exchange between Mdisho and his “young white English master”, as Dahl describes himself. Of Dahl’s paternalistic racism, of course — but also of the artifice and vanity of war. All wars claim to be fought for ‘justice’, but that justice can only be fought for — honour can only be gained, valour can only be exercised, tragedy can only be experienced — by those allowed into the game. When Mdisho arrives at Dahl’s door, holding Dahl’s bloodied sword, he thinks he has followed the rules he was meant to, but learns, instead, that he has thrust himself into a game that was never his to play.

The consequences of his act are clear and immediate: Dahl decides to enlist in the Royal Air Force, Mdisho disappears into the moonlit night. One becomes a storyteller, the other his story. And justice, such a clear and powerful force in the stories we read as children, emerges rather more contingent and blurry as we cross the thin line into the adult world.

Parvati Sharma   -  BLink

 

Parvati Sharma is a Delhi-based writer and the author, most recently, of Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal

Published on October 04, 2019
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