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It’s pointless to go back to the past with a red pen

Roald Dahl should have just been left alone. We cannot keep tweaking the past to keep it in the good books of the present

Roald Dahl outside the shed where he used to write, in Buckinghamshire, England.
Roald Dahl outside the shed where he used to write, in Buckinghamshire, England. (Getty Images)

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Roald Dahl is going through an extreme makeover.

He is not being cancelled but Dahl, the author of many beloved children’s books like James And The Giant Peach and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, is going through a cultural makeover. He has been rewritten to remove bits that modern readers supposedly find offensive. The Dahl estate says these are “small and carefully considered” tweaks rather than rewrites. It just wants to ensure that his “wonderful” stories continue to be enjoyed by “all children today”. Rather than wonderful Dahl it all sounds wonderfully dull.

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Salman Rushdie has said both the publisher, Puffin, and the estate should be “ashamed” because while Dahl was “no angel”, this is “absurd censorship”. The changes were done in partnership with Inclusive Minds, a collective that works on children’s literature and diversity. However, some argue that this kind of woke vigilance will backfire. Even those who are all for more diversity and inclusion quickly get fed up with the finger-wagging sensitivity police, especially when it starts poking holes in their childhood.

Dahl’s anti-Semitism is well-documented but most of the rewriting deals with gender, race and body image. A “weird African language” in The Twits is no longer weird, just African. The Oompa Loompas in Charlie And The Chocolate Factory are no longer “small men”. They are “small people”. In the Giant Peach, “Aunt Sponge was terrifically fat / And tremendously flabby at that.” Now “Aunt Sponge was a nasty old brute / And deserved to be squashed by the fruit.” By the way, isn’t this new version rather ageist? Do old ladies deserve such a rotten end more than “terrifically fat” ones?

The prize for the most awkward rewrite goes to The Witches, where an entire paragraph has been inserted to explain why witches might be bald underneath their wigs. “There are plenty of reasons why women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.”

What does feel wrong, however, is the idea of a humourless committee nitpicking through our childhood with a fine toothcomb.

The project is not without its supporters. Writer and pop culture expert Ashley Esqueda tweeted: “It’s good to evolve with the times. It’s fine. Very tired of people demanding we remain locked into their childhoods.”

It is true that in retrospect much of what we enjoyed in childhood seems utterly sexist, racist and insensitive. Enid Blyton, we are looking at you. What we read and watched in childhood does shape us in ways we don’t realise, no matter how innocuous it seems. I loved Enid Blyton for the adventures and didn’t care about the whiteness of it all. But she did colonise our childhoods in ways we don’t even realise.

Alisha Purandare, a parenting blogger, told the BBC that she discovered that in The Family At Red-Roofs, a father about to go on a trip leaves the household in the charge of his young son, even though there’s an older daughter. That passage was dropped from a later edition. Even the tomboy George backs down when a male cousin tells her that though she looks and behaves like a boy, “girls have got to be taken care of”. No wonder the Royal Mint nixed proposals to put Blyton on the 50-pence coin.

When a furore erupted over store owner Apu’s Indian accent in the animated series The Simpsons, many Indian immigrants rolled their eyes. At a time when brown faces were hardly to be seen on American television, many desis were genuinely fond of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. Many even marvelled that a non-Indian like Hank Azaria could pull off that accent. Yet as Indian-American comic Hari Kondabolu explained in the documentary The Problem With Apu, it also meant that a generation of Indian-American children grew up with the Apu stereotype thrust upon them. In a way, it was an immigration divide—immigrants could be amused by Apu but their children had to bear the burden of that stereotype, constantly taunted with the Apu accent or being asked to ape it.

In Apu’s case, much of the anger was about Azaria voicing the character. Some called it brown voice, much like blackface. Kondabolu said it was like a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of his father. Yet watching newer, more culturally hip series like Miss Marvel and Never Have I Ever, I wonder if an Indian-American putting on what they think of as an Indian accent while playing an immigrant parent is any less offensive. It still grates, perhaps even more than Azaria.

The Simpsons responded to the Apu controversy with an episode, No Good Read Goes Unpunished, where Marge tries to read a childhood favourite book, “The Princess in the Garden”, and finds it culturally offensive. Rudyard Kipling appears in a dream sequence and tells her it’s okay to be racist but when Marge tries to rewrite it to be more acceptable, it loses its punch and doesn’t satisfy her or her daughter Lisa.

At that point, Lisa, always the most woke among the Simpsons, addresses the audience and says: “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” And the camera pans to a frame picture of Apu. There is one line inscribed on it—“Don’t have a cow!”

Now fast-forward five years and you have right-wing pundit Ann Coulter sneering at Indian-American Nikki Haley’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination. “What’s with the worshipping of cows? They’re all starving over there and they’re worshipping cows? Do you know they have a rat temple where they worship rats? Hey babycakes, why don’t you go back to your own country and reconsider that history?” Suddenly, the Apu cow joke feels much less funny.

The real point is trying to figure out where to draw the line. What worked for The Simpsons 20 years ago might not work any more and we should have the good sense to accept that and move on, as The Simpsons eventually did.

But we cannot keep tweaking the past to keep it in the good books of the present. It feels ethically murky because now a future generation will not know what’s Roald Dahl and what’s Inclusive Minds when they read his books. It also creates a fake, sanitised avatar of Dahl.

Sensitivity reads are fine for books yet to be published. Sufiya Ahmed was commissioned by the publisher of Enid Blyton to continue the adventures of the Famous Five but make them more reflective of modern times. They are still eating “scrumptious suppers” of sandwiches and ginger beer but now there’s a South Asian girl named Simi in Kirrin village. Another has a police chief of Nigerian heritage. At some point, the Famous Five might even add samosas to their potted meat picnic lunches.

It’s one thing to “modernise” the Famous Five going forward but pointless to go back to the past with a red pen. In general, childhood, like home, is something we can never really go back to. And we should not even try because ultimately nothing would stand the rigorous scrutiny of our times. It just provides more fodder to the likes of Vivek Ramaswamy, the entrepreneur who also wants to run for the White House as the “CEO of the Anti-Woke, Inc” and calls woke culture a “cultural cancer” that reduces your identity to “your race, your gender, your sexual orientation full stop”.

All this to say Roald Dahl should have just been left alone because no matter what one changes, there’s always room for someone or the other to be offended about things we haven’t even thought about yet. As the Old-Green-Grasshopper told James in James And The Giant Peach, “There are a whole lot of things in this world of ours you haven’t started wondering about yet.” Like what’s with the carnivorous rhino that escapes from the zoo and eats James’ parents?

By the way, why does it have to be James And The Giant Peach anyway?

We rarely saw a fuzzy peach at our fruit market in Kolkata, giant or small. When they appeared, they would be rock-hard and super expensive.

“Jamboo and the Giant Banana” would have felt more culturally relatable. Or better still, J and the Giant <Insert your local fruit here>.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.


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