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.