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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Waiting for Harry Potter 7

I first read Harry Potter around 2000 – The Prisoner of Azkaban, I think, was the first of the series that I tackled. At the time, I remember, I was only rather mildly impressed. I believe I told many people that Rowling had read widely and assimilated a great deal very well, and wrote racily, and it was a good read, fine mix of the best of Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl – but I think the world was hyperreacting to a very large and very clever marketing blitz, because it had been starved of good fantasy for a long time, but it wouldn’t last, and much of the hyperbole would later sound very embarrassing to those who had indulged in it, and so forth… in short, the Harry Potter books were grossly overrated, and Rowling’s vast market success was just awesome good luck. From Vishnu Sharma and Homer to Hans Christian Andersen and Stevenson and Conan Doyle and Wells and Oscar Wilde to Walt Disney and Tolkien and Steven Spielberg and Isaac Asimov and Satyajit Ray, the world had seen highly gifted fantasy-weavers galore, so while another one in the pantheon was always welcome (the ‘real’ world being, alas, too sad and boring a place to endure non-stop), much that was being said about Rowling and Harry was wild exaggeration from loonies, dimwits, and vested interests. Now it’s mid-2005, and I am past The Order of the Phoenix and into The Half-Blood Prince, and I already know that Snape kills off Dumbledore and Harry is mentally bracing himself for the final showdown with Voldemort – and I have changed my mind rather drastically. I won’t say I haven’t read anything like this, but most certainly I’ve never read anything quite like this, and Rowling is certainly an almost indescribably gifted writer, and the memories will be permanently etched till my dying day, and never stop evoking very strong emotions…

In the beginning I, like I suppose millions of other readers, read the books as nothing more than fairly good, light entertainment for the passing leisure hour. It was only since the last part of the fourth book – The Goblet of Fire – that the saga began to really grip me, get me intensely, personally, emotionally involved. By the time I reached The Order of the Phoenix – interestingly, I believe from then onwards Harry’s adult fans had begun to seriously outnumber the juvenile ones (given the moronic mental level of 99% of people below twenty around the world these days, it comes as no surprise), and Rowling had taken careful note of the fact and had begun to change the tone, content, style and message subtly, gradually but profoundly – I was hooked, in a way that no book, no author had been able to hook me for a long, long time – and I have read a bit more than the average man, if I say so myself. By the end of the fifth book, I was saying to people I had never read anything so vast, so grand, so sweeping and so eternal since the Mahabharata, and I was absolutely dying to lay my hands on The Half Blood Prince, and I read all six hundred and seven pages of it in one breathless rush, broke my heart over Dumbledore’s death, and then began to read it in detail, to savour the horror, beauty, grandeur and agony page by page, to turn the knife deliberately in the wound, for it was sweet, this agony, beyond sorrow and despair. The passage of Dumbledore has left me devastated and benumbed, but I am grateful that there was still romance of this sublime quality left to be created in this world before I died. For no man – certainly no character of fiction – has ever affected me as deeply and completely as this man.

Oh, of course it’s the eternal story cleverly re-packaged to lure and trap the post-modern, Internet-era reader: reality reduced to simplistic essentials, the endless battle of good and evil, the cosmic struggle to possess the human soul, the big, bad grown-up world seen through the eyes of children, the Chosen boy who finds it hard to grow up and has lots of great and good people holding his hand for part of the way only to tell him he must, beyond a point, go it alone, and many other itsy-bitsy pieces of such ‘serious’ stuff gloriously mixed and shaken up with a lot of childhood razzmatazz, boring classwork and absurd teachers enlivened by clever school pranksters and quidditch and bugaboo monsters and adolescent love and nosey newspapers and hole-in-the-wall pubs and overbearing and incompetent officialdom and all… but when you think of someone mixing all that up with sentimental half-giants and touchy centaurs and semi-drunk seers and apparition and horcruxes and fantastic word-play (‘Tom Marvolo Riddle’ rearranged reads ‘I am Lord Voldemort’) and pulling off a credible coup, you’ve got to hand it to Rowling for doing what nobody had succeeded in doing for at least a whole generation. And she’s kept everybody guessing before every book – despite the fact that trying to second-guess her has become a fairly large-scale global industry. To top it all, the mood gets darker, and the crisis looming ever nearer gets ever more eerie and awful with every book. But all that wasn’t what made me a besotted devotee: no, not at all. It was because in Dumbledore I found the man I had been longing to love and admire – I nearly said worship – all my life.

In the best of men, I had always felt, great skill and knowledge and wisdom and power should be combined with profound compassion for the littlest of things, love overflowing, gentle and unfailing courtesy, and – to lighten the mood, for too much solemnity is too hard to bear, yet alas, men of extraordinary virtue tend to become insufferably solemn – a puckish sense of humour. A very very tall order indeed: few creations of fiction would measure up to these standards (Sherlock Holmes and Tintin fail on several counts!), leave alone historical ones. It is his wisdom – ‘the choices that you make, rather than your abilities, define who you are’ – combined with his instinctive and accurate knowledge of what the child in everybody loves and hates (‘Tuck in!’, he tells the assembly in the great hall with a twinkle in his eyes, instead of offering a longwinded and pompous speech that no one really wants to hear, but everybody believes to be unavoidably necessary), his dislike of bureaucracy (or rather, the bureaucratic mindset), his genuine and rare affection, his unfailing good manners, the kind of awe and reverence he is capable of commanding from people as disparate as Hagrid and Hermione, his unconquerable faith in the healing and rejuvenating and protective power of love (even Harry is tempted to say ‘just – love? Big deal!’), his complete lack of prejudice which makes him attractive and admirable not merely to muggles but to centaurs and mermen and giants who have learnt to avoid humankind from long and unpleasant experience, his enormous compassion (which provoked him to find and rehabilitate the orphaned Tom Riddle, rescue even Dolores Umbridge – I don’t think I would have bothered in his place – and forgive and trust even Snape), the incredible self-possession that allows him to justify why he should drink the poisoned potion rather than Harry – ‘I am much older, much cleverer, and much less valuable than you are’ – have together raised him to superhuman stature in my eyes. And yet he, like all of us, is all too fallible (and therefore lovable: we do not love completely self-reliant supermen), and he even knows it – ‘since I am cleverer than most men, my mistakes tend to be huger…’, yet his weak point remained undefended precisely because he mulishly chose to keep it that way, against the best contrary advice, and paid horribly for it in the end. He had told Voldemort that there are far more awful ways of destroying a man than merely killing him, and that is what Snape did to him in the end – betrayed him, failed him, which is why Dumbledore begged ‘Severus…please’: he was begging the wretch not to break his heart. Rowling has broken more than one heart there, I am sure, and it needs explanation and expiation in the book that is coming, and many a million of us will wait with bated breath to find out how: how Dumbledore’s passing is explained, and how Snape is made to pay. Harry mustn’t, can’t, be so merciful as merely to kill him: the Severus Snapes of this world do not deserve so much kindness. As Harry himself tells the minister for magic at the end of Book 6, ‘(Dumbledore) will only be gone from the school when none here are loyal to him’, and in the secret Hogwarts in so many of our hearts, folks like me will be loyal as long as we are alive. True to the spirit of the grandest, most eternal, most beautiful magic, Dumbledore gave us back both the will to live and the joy of living, while acknowledging without flinching that the world is not a very nice place to live in, because evil is always threatening to erupt with renewed and ever more ghastly vigour again and again, so ‘it was important to fight, and fight again, and keep fighting, for only then could evil be kept at bay.’ Only, I am reminded of how Bernard Shaw sadly remarked on hearing about the assassination of Gandhi, ‘it only shows that in this world it is too dangerous to be too good.’ I will teach all those whom I love, whom God has put briefly and partially in my care, that being good is not enough, rare and precious as it is; one must be clever and cautious in this world too: there’s no point in getting crucified when you know it can be avoided and know how to avoid it.

Rowling has said that Harry Potter walked full-blown into her head, and I find no reason not to believe her absolutely. That has always been the way the greatest works of art and science have always been ‘given’ to us, through the agency of people to whom we ascribe the loftiest creative genius: I am reminded of the ancient poets of India and Greece invoking the muse, and of Michelangelo’s candid inability to say where his ideas came from, and of Einstein dreaming of the space-time warp, and Moses, Muhammad and Neale Donald Walsche insisting with equal sincerity that they were merely taking dictation. So we might take it that the seventh and final book is already waiting ready-made in Rowling’s mind, waiting for the right time to come, or perhaps it will be given to her just when that time comes. Be that as it may, I have a suspicion that it’s going to shake up the world again: for right upto the sixth book Harry remains much more of a bemused spectator who only reluctantly – and hamhandedly – gets involved in nasty scrapes; but there are enough hints in Book 6 that he has learnt his own mind at last, chosen his destiny irrevocably, and he will now truly go to battle as a conscious and deliberate warrior, calmly ready to do his damnedest to emerge victorious or die gladly in the attempt. ‘He must abandon for ever the illusion he ought to have lost at the age of one: that the shelter of a parent’s arms meant that nothing could hurt him. There was no waking from this nightmare (shades of Dushshomoy!), no comforting whisper in the dark that he was safe really, that it was all in his imagination; the last and greatest of his protectors had died and he was more alone than he had ever been before’…wasn’t that how Bedivere was left lamenting beside the lake by Arthur, and how the Buddha advised Ananda with his last breath – ‘light your own lamp and be your own guide: work out your own salvation with diligence’? Isn’t that the sole realization that lets a man grow up in this world, whichever land and era he belongs to? And hasn’t it been said that it is only after knowing how desperately, unavoidably, unbearably alone he is in this universe that a man begins to look for the power and joy and peace that passeth understanding, and goes on looking until he has found oneness with the universe, that power to love which alone can defy all evil, and destroy even death? – I am waiting to see how Rowling, through Harry’s final showdown, gives the eternal wisdom back to this miserably self-deluded world again. Never in my life had I thought that I would wait so passionately for any particular book. And if any author can do such a thing to someone like me, that is proof enough that she is herself a great magician indeed! She is one more of the magi who keep reminding us that the world is not about money and jobs and status and socializing and the endless treadmill of mind-numbing routine, or about technology and capital and politics and stuff like that – the world is, and always has been, full of magic, if only we had eyes to see it with.

So now I am waiting for the last (and grandest, I’m sure) of the books in the Harry Potter saga with bated breath and desperate anticipation – alongwith millions of other diehard aficionados all over the world, I know, but I daresay not too many people can honestly claim to have feelings such as mine, and at my age too! I know far too many ‘fans’, alas, who couldn’t tell me any one of the last six stories coherently and in full at one sitting, and whose ‘fascination’ for the books doesn’t go beyond the childish chills, thrills and spills, unless it is to giggle over Hermione Granger’s sex appeal. We live in a demented age, and J.K. Rowling understands that at least as well as I do.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

End of my tether!

One of my abiding sorrows is that those who like me tend to keep quiet about it, while those who hate me insanely are very vociferous and energetic about expressing themselves, often in very uncouth language. That is what has started happening on my blog already, so I have been forced, as of today, to enable comment moderation: meaning that pure garbage stemming from ignorance, stupidity, blind envy and prejudice, and sheer inability to read (let alone reflect!) will hereafter be kept out. While I am thankful to Abhirup, Raunak and Navin for rallying so promptly to my aid, I thought I had a hundred-plus other 'friends' on orkut, but not ten have bothered yet to tell the likes of Sudipto why they don't think that people would be 'wasting time' reading the blog of a 'hypocrite' like me. I did say that criticism and suggestions are welcome - far be it from me to seek the blind adulation of morons - but when the only kind of 'criticism' that starts coming in is malicious and repetitive rubbish (some of which I have just deleted), and few of my appreciative readers can bother to take the trouble to refute such rubbish strongly, I guess the time has come for me to do something about it. Anyone who posts a comment from now onwards merely to tell me what a bad man I am will no longer be accommodated. They can all go ahead and make their own hate sites, and I wish them great success. I might even give them a few ideas!

Friday, April 06, 2007

Living selfishly!

The reason I still haven’t lost hope in youth is that, firstly, if I did that, I would lose hope in living itself, and also because I have been blessed to know that even amidst the general atmosphere of sloth and apathy and dissolution and crass opportunism and bad taste, there are so many nice and bright and thoughtful young people all around – though they may be confused, and distracted, unsure about which way to go, discouraged from all sides and nobody to pour out their woes to, nobody to ask for help, terribly embarrassed to open up even before their peers for fear of being misunderstood, ridiculed and left out. It is to connect with them, and help them connect meaningfully with one another, that I am making this effort through orkut, gmail and my blog.
Raunak’s post (on the thread titled ‘You are doing it for yourself!” started by Sayak at my orkut community ‘The Good life!’) gives me the occasion to write this essay. The subject under discussion is selfishness – rightly and wrongly understood. On the one hand, we have always been told by grown-ups not to be selfish (though many of us have uneasily sensed since childhood that the grownups were not being very sincere about it!), because selfishness hurts the world and stamps you as a ‘bad’ person. And indeed, we must all admit, at least to ourselves, that there is a certain kind of selfishness (perhaps, even, the most common kind) which cannot be too strongly condemned.

Spreading nasty rumours about friends behind their backs, haggling rudely with poor hawkers over a rupee or two, depriving siblings of their share of chocolate or of parents’ money, indulging in good food and wine while your children’s school fees are not being paid, being ‘too busy’ to pay attention to your wife’s ailments when you actually fool and laze around at your workplace much of the time, adulterating medicines for some extra profit, rigging elections so that you may enjoy the loaves and fishes of government office for a few years more – such things are certainly bad and indefensible: the less of such selfishness we have, the better the world will be. Such selfishness, though, is born of folly rather than downright evil, if you ask me. And the reason that such things have been with us since the days of Troy and the Mahabharat is that either people refuse to listen to good counsel, or they are too lazy to change, or that they deeply believe that they are being clever by behaving thus. They will even solemnly assure you from ‘long personal experience’ that there is no other way to prosper and progress in life! You cannot argue with them, because they disagree with you over the definition of prosperity and progress itself. All you can ask them is whether Duryodhan and Ebenezer Scrooge and Harshad Mehta were the happiest men they know, despite all the gold and fine houses and dancing girls, and whether such people are really very good role models, and whether it is really not possible at all to be rich and famous and much admired without being petty and crooked. What about all the great philanthropes of the world from Anathpindada to Andrew Carnegie to Bill Gates, what about the public assertion of the founders of Google Inc. that you can make money without doing evil, and what about so many people who have chosen to live simple and humble lives throughout history, like Socrates and the Buddha, Michelangelo and St. Francis and Einstein, and are remembered and revered by countless millions still? If those who are born good cannot take heart from all these instances to stay good simply because they find the pressure exerted by the bad herd overwhelming, they have only themselves to blame for their lives souring up and the world being a rather unpleasant place. When you have learnt to be honest with yourself, you cannot but admit that such selfishness simply does not ‘pay’, especially in the long run! Some people simply find that out when it is too late – look at Duryodhan again, or Macbeth, or Al Capone! Or simply check out with the boys who cheated through all their examinations and cannot find decent jobs now. Didn’t I say that such ‘selfish’ people are actually only very silly, and their own worst enemies?

But given this context, it does sound bizarre to a lot of young folks to hear anybody (whether it’s Raunak or Sayak’s dad or me or Sri Sri Ravi Shankar) saying that apparently all religions tell us to be selfish! What rubbish, they will exclaim – we know very well that religion tells us to be kind and considerate and charitable and not greedy and grasping! We know that, even though we may have no desire to become that way, or feel incapable of becoming that way: we know that religion is all about being un -selfish!) We ‘know’ this so well that when some great man says he did all that he did for mankind, at great ‘cost’ to himself (in worldly terms, of course, right upto sacrificing his life) he did only because it made him feel good, many people have retorted, ‘Ah, in that case he acted out of a selfish motive, so he cannot be called truly great after all!’ (A very silly journalist made exactly that sort of remark when Mother Teresa assured him she did all her charity work not so much for the poor and destitute as for the sake of the Jesus inside her).

But the truth is that all the great books and wise men and true religions have started teaching the mass of mankind not by saying ‘be kind and good and loving and charitable and active and not-greedy’, but by insisting atmaanam viddhi, gnothi seauton, ‘know thyself’, ‘look inside yourself’, connect with the Real You, Be Who You Are. Whether we are comfortable with words like God, holy, sacred, divine or not, the deepest conviction of all truly wise men has always been that there is a Higher Self buried far beneath one’s superficial, smaller, lesser self. To rise above the smaller self – which is fearful and greedy and lazy and eternally seeking to avoid challenges and looking for ease and shortcuts, always chattering like an ape inside us and distracting and fooling and ultimately hurting us – is not just the key to the Good Life, it is the only real purpose of life: not merely making a living, not even winning Nobel Prizes and Oscars and Olympic golds. To make that connection, one needs first of all to avoid distraction of all sorts, or at least cut it down to the barest minimum. By distraction is meant everything from crowds to loud noises, drink and drugs and gambling and dancing girls and shopping malls and gossip and bothering about what people are saying about me and whether I am looking good and examination scores and pay packets… everything that doesn’t really matter, everything that keeps me away from the Real Me all the time. Meditation is one good way of doing it; good work (which includes everything from genuine scientific research to art to charity) is another. It is not an accident that the happiest and most successful men in the world – business tycoons, generals, scientists, poets and statesmen alike, not just bearded sages! – have been highly focused in this sense; they were always connected with their Real (or Higher) selves; they always knew with perfect clarity and conviction just what they (as distinct from their parents, neighbours, friends and relatives) wanted out of life. And most people of that type have always found out for themselves, without sages lecturing them, that being ‘unselfish’ in the conventional sense – that is to say, kind, loving, not-greedy, not ‘status’-conscious and charitable – helps to stay connected with the Higher Self and thus really to enjoy life the only way it can be enjoyed. See what a paradox that is: we discover the real worth of unselfishness only by being consistently and determinedly selfish, in the sense of being totally focused on the Self (the Real Me, that which does not die; the atmaan and not the aham)! – I shall make bold to say that the story called ‘Manager’s Lesson’ in this blog, properly read, might help quite a bit to resolve the paradox. Even if one gives up one’s life for another – one’s own blood relatives or one’s country or someone at the other end of the earth one has never even seen, it must be because it makes one’s Real Self supremely happy: there is never any other justification for good works, not even conventional ideas of ‘duty’. Beware: don’t even expect recognition or gratitude or reward from those you do good to: most of them will either forget or pay you back by reviling you – because they are still driven by their little selves, and all they can feel is burning, helpless envy at the fact that you are a better person than they! It is better by far to make a fortune through an honest business than to give away a fortune in the hope of fame and reverence: you will be cruelly cheated nine times out of ten, and you will have only yourself to blame for it. That is what Mother Teresa and all others like her have always known; one does even good works for selfish reasons alone (though some choose to call that Higher Self Krishna or Jesus or Allah or Wahe-guru; the eternal, the absolute, the universal, the totally-loving, all-good ever-friend – ‘though I walk in the shadow of the valley of death/ the Lord is my shepherd/ (so) I shall not want’!) Otherwise they would have changed their minds early on: read their biographies to find out how much abuse and ridicule and opposition they faced for trying to do good.

I would like to continue in this vein a little longer. But some readers are scared away by long posts on the blog, so I’ll pause for now. If my readers encourage me with their comments and questions, I’ll carry on from this point. Happy reading! - and get as many of your friends to read this as you can.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

To all visitors...

My rapidly-growing community of friends at orkut has certainly paid off by way of greatly increasing the number of visitors here. However, I have a few things to say about this. Don't just read the first post and click off. Do please scroll down the page. Also, notice there are links to previous posts along the right side of this page: click on them to see if you can find something interesting. Older posts are enclosed in the month-wise 'archives' - do look into some of them, too. And most importantly, please do leave your comments here. Whether they are one-liners or pages long, I shall be thankful because you have let me know that you were here. Criticism and suggestions are most welcome, so long as you have something reasonable and relevant to say, and say it in decent language.