Roald Dahl’s “Taste” is a short story of a family dinner that takes a dark turn. In the story, the host family holds a dinner, inviting another family, as well as a ‘famous gourmet’ to join them. The father in the host’s family is named Mike, and he holds his famous friend, a middle-aged man named Richard Pratt, in great esteem, and always tries to impress him with his food and wine.
At this dinner, Mike asks Richard to guess what wine was served that night. It is a very rare wine, and Mike is confident that Richard will not guess it. Richard finally proposes a bet: if he guesses the wine correctly, he gets to marry Mike’s eighteen-year-old daughter (who he was eyeing all night, much to her discomfort). Mike is outraged, but Richard continues to say that if Mike wins, he can have two of Richard’s grand houses.
This is enough to pacify Mike, and the game begins. Mike’s daughter watches in horror as Richard comes closer and closer to the correct answer. Mike ignores her protests, completely engrossed in the game. Finally, Richard arrives at an answer – and he gets it right.
A stunned silence prevails for a short while, after which the maid shares an observation that reveals the fact that Richard had cheated. Mike then becomes furious, and the story ends with his wife trying to calm down the situation.
There are multiple problematic areas that stand out in this story. Firstly, a middle-aged man was able to demand an eighteen-year-old girl’s hand in marriage without even asking for her consent. Secondly, the girl’s father was perfectly willing to give up his daughter to be raped and abused (it’s clear that the daughter did not consent here – the atrocity of the older man’s demands is neatly sugar-coated with the term ‘marriage’) for the price of two houses; his fury at the older man's demands only surfaced when it was discovered that he was cheating (as long as he won honestly, his demands were acceptable). Lastly, even when the human being whose life was hanging in the balance of a bet tried to voice her dissent, she was shut down, left to silently deal with her fate, whatever it may be.
As horrendous as this is, I will still give some leeway to Dahl, the reason being that the collection in which I came across this story featured multiple tales of disturbing human behaviour (in one story a seemingly sweet old lady kills all the guests who come to her boarding house and then preserves them through taxidermy). This story opens up a discourse on moral integrity: who was the bigger monster – the lecherous old man who cheated through a bet to force a woman to marry him, or the father of the woman in question, who, knowing what was at stake, let the bet take place anyway?
What truly infuriates me are the stories that emerged later using similar formats, without any of the nuance possessed by Roald Dahl. In Dahl’s case, the central moral issue in the story revolves around the glaringly obvious mistreatment of the girl, as well as the weakness and inadequacy of her father. However, the following story I was forwarded on WhatsApp displays a far more disturbing mentality.
This story was very similar to Dahl’s in its framework. A merchant ran into an enormous debt, and when the moneylender (once again, a middle-aged, lecherous ogre) came to collect, the merchant, having failed to provide the required funds, begged him to find another way for him to settle his debt. The moneylender immediately set his eyes on the man’s daughter, and told the merchant that he would present said daughter with a puzzle – if she could solve it, he would clear the man’s debt, but if she couldn’t, he would take her hand in marriage along with all of the merchant’s possessions.
After a half-hearted protest, the merchant agreed. His daughter was summoned and presented with the puzzle. She shrewdly spotted that the moneylender was cheating, so she tricked the trickster and won freedom for both herself and her father.
The moral of the story: being able to think quickly and creatively in tricky situations is very important.
I was speechless after reading this.
In this case, a man who fails to pay his debts, willingly sacrifices his daughter, leaving her to clean up his mess. The daughter quietly accepts this bizarre and rather disgusting situation as completely normal, and ‘steps up’ to help her dear father without a word. In a flash, all responsibility is transferred from the man who made the mess, to an innocent human being, and once again, her life hangs in the balance.
This is where the key problem lies. Depicting situations such as these as the monstrosities they are is one thing, but normalising them is extremely disturbing. By accepting the context of the second story as an understood reality, we are clearly telling women what their lives are worth – in most cases, it’s a terrible crime to allow your daughter to be abducted and raped, but when it is to clear your debt, or to win two houses, then it’s perfectly fine.
And any woman who tries to stand up against this oppressive behaviour is immediately shut down and shoved aside.
The only clear message that shines through both stories is how the patriarchy perceives women, and how it allows for completely disregarding their worth as human beings. Women have no power, no voice, no agency. Their wellbeing depends entirely on men, who can ultimately do as they please. And in the case of these two stories, the men who could change the fate of these women, did absolutely nothing, proving themselves to be complete failures as fathers, unworthy of any respect from a discerning reader.
Normalisation of such terrifying circumstances needs to stop. Human lives are worth more than those of the unfortunate women in these stories, and every human deserves to have a voice, regardless of their gender. Packaging oppressive systems in the form of jokes or supposedly light-hearted stories does nothing to help us break out of them. We need to actively work to create a world that is more egalitarian, and to do so, that means aggressively stomping on pests like these WhatsApp stories that keep trying to worm their way into our lives, sent by people who expect us ignore the oppression and focus on the ‘main message’.
Dahl, Roald. The Best of Roald Dahl: Perfect bedtime stories for those who relish sleepless nights. New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 1994. Print.