For generations, Roald Dahl has provoked imagination and thought. On his birth anniversary, Catherine Rhea Toy remembers the man who taught us to relish nonsense and develop a keen moral sense

Mr. Dahl was tall, six-feet-five and three quarter inches tall and very clever. He was also wonderful company — at tea-time or bedtime or even sick with the common cold time. In moments of self-doubt he would bunkum and tummytrot every ‘what if’, because would Columbus have discovered America if he’d said, ‘What if I sink on the way over?’ And he assured us that there was no need to despair because authors send their books out into the world like ships on the sea. And these books are meant to give you a hopeful and comforting message: ‘You are not alone.’

Dahl loved chocolates, fell ill very often, never went to college and went on to become one of the greatest writers of his time. Today is his birth anniversary and “Roald Dahl Day”. Dahl was born to Norwegian parents on September 13, 1916 in Cardiff, and worked with an oil company in Tanzania and as a fighter pilot for the Royal Air Force before he settled down in Gipsy House in Great Missenden.

“I found Dahl very late in life,” says Rani, who read her first Dahl when she read The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) to her grandchild in 1997. “His imagination was fascinating, he was able to create a fantastic world of grisly creatures, human beings and infinite learning.”

The garden shed where Dahl used to write has been kept intact and is not too far from the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre that he set up. “I was 18 when I read Danny The Champion Of The World. Roald Dahl defined my childhood in a way and ended up doing the same when I crashed into adulthood,” says Blaine Rodrigues, who insists on being quoted as “the champion of the world”.

Bibliophile, Aneesha Bangera, is emphatic when she talks about Dahl’s short stories. “His short stories are my favourite. Some are so fantastically delicious like The Great Automatic Grammatizator and Royal Jelly that sometimes I wake up thinking all those things could actually happen and then I’m disappointed. And the others are so creepy that they still give me goosebumps, years after reading them, because of the pure genius of his stories – like Skin or even the story about the lamb chop!” But apologetically she confesses that she prefers the children’s books to his short stories.

Dahl spoke with confidence, irrespective of whether he was talking about blood-sucking, bone-crunching giants or amazing children with extraordinary powers. There was no doubt and he was always so sure that when we read his books we are sure that Mr. Twit has a whole eco-system in his bristly beard and Miss Trunchbull was a disgusterous hippodumpling, who should have been fed to the crockodowndillies.

“Roald Dahl’s teachers said he was a terrible student, and always complained about his bad spelling in his report card. But then he made up his own words and became a great writer,” says Soorya, a 10 year old, who adds that his favourite gobblefunk word is “telly-telly bunkum box”, which in English means television box. This year also marks the 30th anniversary of The BFG, the book that used gobblefunk extensively.

His books were a jolly ride, punctuated with illustrations by Quentin Blake, “I could never get through a storybook without images till I was much older. And Quentin Blake’s illustration not only complimented Dahl’s writing but also added another dimension. His loose lines and watercolours had a way of emphasising characters; he inspired me to seem effortless and want to tell stories,” says Alicia Souza, an illustrator.

But it was probably his absurdity that made him a star among children, says Vanishree Mahesh of EasyLib, “Dahl is not for all children. When I was reading Magic Finger to my second child she nearly started crying. He has a lot of gore and revolting descriptions and his humour is very dark, but he also has a way of talking to children instead of at them, he is not preachy and becomes one of them through his writing.”

Dahl wrote for a living. Besides short stories and children’s books he had also written film scripts and this is what he had to say: “A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it.”