Tag Archives: Roald Dahl

More of Swapna Dutta’s Juneli, plus my Sonnet No 1

Swapna Dutta, Juneli at Avila’s (©1992, CinnamonTeal Publishing 2014)
——, An Exciting Term (©1992, CinnamonTeal Publishing 2014)

1ja 1et Swapna Dutta’s serial about a girl named Juneli who goes to boarding school was first published in the English-language Indian children’s magazineChildren’s World between 1978 and 1985. The serial proved very popular with young readers, and in the early 1990s HarperCollins published three Juneli books. This year the stories have found another lease of life as CinnamonTeal brings them out in three ebooks. All three books include the illustrations that Swapna’s daughter Sawan, then still a teenager, drew for the HarperCollins books, and the cover images are also Sawan’s (which were not used as covers of the print edition).

When I wrote a blog post about the first book, Juneli’s First Term, I hope I communicated how charmed I was by Juneli’s benign experience of boarding school. That benign quality continues in these books. There are scrapes and japes, mysteries and adventures in a setting that owes equal amounts to the pre–Harry Potter boarding school genre and Swapna’s own childhood experience at an English-speaking boarding school run for Indian girls by Carmelite nuns. Juneli now knows the ropes and has earned the respect and affection of most of her classmates, and the not-quite-enmity of a couple of snobbish malcontents. A kitchen mishap from the first book is a continuing source of embarrassment and comedy, and now we hold our breath each time there is a cooking exercise.

If you have a taste for boarding-schools stories or if you’re looking for a gift for a young person with such a taste, and want to add a little Indian flavour to your/their reading, I recommend these three little books.You can buy them from http://www.dogearsetc.com/. They are very reasonably priced by Australian standards. (I received complimentary copies, and Swapna is a friend.)

Moving right along: for the last few years I have set myself the task of writing 14 sonnets for the blog in November. Here goes with Sonnet No 1 for 2014, inspired by the Juneli books, along with Sugata Mistra’s wonderful TED talks maintaining that schools are an obsolete tool of empire, and Matilda the Musical which I’ve just seen on Broadway with its monstrous Miss Trunchbull, who couldn’t be more different from Juneli’s kind Mother Benedicta.

Sonnet No 1
Knead memories to make art. Punch, pull
fold, punch again, let stand, then bake.
So Dahl’s tormentor became Trunchbull,
real nuns did Swapna’s teachers make.
Both real schools served empire’s agenda.
Both fictions, one harsh, one most tender,
resist. Matilda, Juneli,
are naughty as they need to be.
In school, by monster or sweet mother
we’re taught to play our ordained parts,
ignore the whispers of our hearts,
but if we reach for one another,
each one giving what she has,
that may be good enough for jazz.

Fantastic and not so fantastic Mr Fox

Roald Dahl, illustrated by Jill Bennett, Fantastic Mr Fox (1970, Puffin 1974)

I came out of  Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox wondering if I oughtn’t reconsider my devotion to the cinema. The film is brilliant, witty, beautifully performed all round, and – for me – a totally pointless experience. Was this like the moment when a 12 month old child decides that the breast is history? (That moment in the life of one of our sons, incidentally, happened in the cinema: he wouldn’t accept his mother’s breast and insisted on crying loudly. The movie was The Turning Point. True.) Then I remembered my last five outings to the pictures, and I’m looking forward to the next sip of mother’s milk. I did, however, feel the need to read Roald Dahl’s book on which the film was based.

Though in my days as a young parent I was a Dahl fan, I hadn’t read Fantastic Mr Fox, but we have a copy stashed away. I dug it out. Sure enough, it seems to me that Wes Anderson kept the story outline, elaborated it with myriad Hollywood tropes, and missed the point. Specifically, the movie completely missed that Dahl’s story is deeply and deliciously ironic. It takes place in rural England, and depends on the reader knowing that farmers are generally decent people who work hard to provide food for our tables: farms are benign places, and foxes are pests who savagely murder poultry that’s meant for us to eat. With that basic assumption in mind, underlined in this Puffin edition by Jill Bennett’s drawings of a classic idyllic countryside, Dahl opens his narrative with pen portraits of three physically grotesque, gluttonous and generally vile farmers, and a fox whose nightly depredations are portrayed as the behaviour of a responsible, loving husband and father. He draws on the folk tradition of the fox as clever, and uses the sneaking sympathy for foxes that is all through children’s literature as a lever to turn the moral order on its head. The book is subversive, shocking in a delicious way and, as the farmers become more murderous and the fox cleverer in outwitting them, it’s also jolly good fun. It’s like a vulpine Peter Rabbit.

Maybe in these days of vast chicken factories it just doesn’t make sense to demonise small farmers, even as ironically. or maybe that irritating commonplace that Americans don’t do irony (that link is to a particularly irritating example) has some truth to it after all, given that I would have thought Wes Anderson was one of the best counter-examples. Whatever the explanation, the farmers in the movie are not only grotesque, gluttonous and generally vile, they are immediately recognisable as representing rapacious industrial capitalism: their ‘farms’ look like combination gasworks and concentration camps. These are awfully familiar villains. Dahl’s fox talks and wears clothes, but his behaviour is fox-like – he lives in a hole, has four barely differentiated cubs – so that there’s an appeal to the (young and other) reader’s knowledge about actual foxes and their actual status as pests. Anderson’s fox lives in a tree with all mod cons, writes a newspaper column, has to deal with a ‘different’ adolescent son. He’s as much as fox as Mickey is a mouse.

All this doesn’t necessarily matter in itself. If Fox and his underground friends are trapped in a sewer with archways and electric light rather than a deep hole they’ve dug themselves, and find their salvation in a vast supermarket filled with frozen and canned food rather than among the living or freshly killed poultry on the farms themselves, it’s just a different story, isn’t it? Well, yes. Different, and duller. Much of the original text survives, but in my opinion it loses everything, its ironic lifeblood drained out and replaced by clever-dick formaldehyde.

If you’re planning to go to this movie, and especially if you’re planning to take a young person to see it, I urge you to read the book, or read the book to the young person, first.