Tag Archives: roald dahl

Oompa-Loompas and that Role-Switching

Mr. Willy Wonka from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory claims of having visited a land called Loompaland, from where he has conveniently ‘imported’ these interesting natives called Oompa-Loompas. The Oompa-loompas used to live in thick, dark jungles faraway, they fed on caterpillars, poor things, and were being systematically eaten by wicked creatures with a weirder name than theirs when Willy Wonka, of course, saved them, bringing them back to England and his chocolate factory, promising them an unlimited supply of cacao beans and the security of the factory walls. The Oompas complied, for no one can resist that benign face of civilization, beaming like a sun that never sets over the wilder races of the world (the Oompas, by the way, have unkempt hair and are scantily dressed in animal skins and leaves- by way of consideration, Mr. Dahl adds the information that they are never dirty…they change into a fresh coat of leaves everyday).

The Oompas laugh at the foreigners who visit the factory, and have a keen interest in singing and dancing. Drums are mentioned casually as part of the preludes of their many songs. And one image at once innocently drawn and disconcertingly historical is of the humungous pink toffee boat of Mr. Wonka pulling up the chocolate river, a hundred Oompas driving the oars. And though the Oompas are giggling at the visitors and in no way seem burdened, it is a funny way of arranging transportation…using a populace of living beings, however short and pixie-like, to weave in and out of the waters by exerting their small strengths on the cruelly long, wooden oars. Children who read the story are obviously always too enthralled by the wonder of it all to even pause at the image, and their imaginations, of course, do not include stray references ever made to slave-trade, or glimpses from a darker literature, a sadder literature, or paragraphs from history books, elucidating how grim and not funny this business of people ‘importing’ people actually was. Yet something that pleased me particularly is an alteration usually made in the modern editions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory concerning the Oompa-Loompas: they now have skins that are a rosy-white, and hair that is a golden-brown.

The original description of the Oompas seemed problematic to Mr. Dahl’s publishers. It smacked too much of the Heart of Darkness, perhaps. But now, giving them fair skins and fair hair has led to an interesting amalgamation. The Oompas are, for the first time in history, uncivilized whites. They may seem to take on, now, the position of the white other, the funny little (literally) man that exists even inside the whites, for Mr. Wonka tells of how he could not communicate with the Oompas in English and had to speak in Oompa-Loompish to make himself understood. But that he trains this rosy-white other inside him is clear when he adds that now, however, the Oompas can speak and understand English perfectly.

It is, on the whole, a lovely story, complete with morals, cleverly hidden beneath hilarious incidents: how stoicism during poverty pays off, how good, little kids never starve for long, how bad, little kids are paid off for greed and obstinacy and disobedience. But, coming back to the argument, I must admit that I was expecting the Oompas to be black. Sad, isn’t it, how years of Imperialism alter your thinking and create stereotypes in your mind, so that when you read of a mass of people pulling ship-oars, your mind unhesitatingly throws up this image of black skins for you to catch? And you do catch it and hold it tight, not because it’s dear to you but because you can conceive no other. So it is that when the text distinctly tosses rosy-white skins at you, you’re taken aback. I was taken aback. But since then, this question has been both haunting and slightly gratifying me (haunting, because it threatens to rattle all history that has been grounded into my mind and gratifying, because I, too, am colonized and coloured): what if the universal role of white-over-black supremacy had been the other way round, and slaves through history, like the Oompas, been ‘rosy-white’?