Nilima Sinha

Speaking Time and Room No.: 2006-9-23 11:00-12:30 Room I

Speaker: Nilima Sinha(India)

Potter Mania In India

“We don’t want him to die,” wail Harry Potter’s fans in India.

“It will be terrible. Harry and I have grown up together …we have matured together … Harry belongs to us as much as he belongs to Rowling,” says Ria Behl, a teenager from Sanskriti School in Delhi.

Ever since JK Rowling announced that one of her characters might die in her next book, readers have been vehement in their protests. Suggestions have flooded newspaper offices. “Harry should kill Voldemort without himself getting hurt. If Rowling has to kill someone, she should perhaps kill Lupin or Hagrid. But definitely not Harry,” says Akriti Chaoudhary, of IP College (article in Delhi Times).

It was reported that girls had forced boy friends to get their hair styled like Harry Potter’s (Asian Age, 28 November, 2005). A fifteen year girl even fixed an appointment with the barber for her boyfriend Rohit. “At least two kids come in every day, asking for the style, many on their own,” says a hairstylist. Each time a new title is announced, long queues wait anxiously to grab copies. Reliance Infocomm, a leading telecom company, set up a special Potter zone on R world, which allows mobile users to download Harry Potter video clips and wallpapers. Indiagames, another company, plans to introduce Potter based activities in 4,000 cities in India. (Sanjeev Goswami, Economic Times, 13 Dec., 2005) Games based on Quidditch World Cup and Triwizard Tournament are popular at cyber cafes.

Harry Potter has certainly won the hearts of teenaged muggles in India.

Media hype may account for the craze, but only partly. Every newspaper and TV channel has played a role in building up publicity for the series. Accompaniments in the form of toys, badges, games, magic kits, and so on, are part of the marketing blitz. Exciting films, with all their technical sophistication, bring the story alive. Books and films thus add value to each other, since those who read the book want to see the film and vice versa. A popular TV channel showed Harry Potter films every Sunday, which resulted in books flying off the shelves of book shops.

In today’s global world, a book that acquires popularity in the West is immediately picked up, especially in a country like India, where the educated are familiar with the English language. Though the proportion of English speaking people is a mere five to ten percent of the population, the number is still high in a country of more than a billion people. This growing class, of international citizens working in multinationals, is very achievement oriented. Eager to compete with the best, parents push their children to do well. Reading a big, thick tome like Harry Potter, is encouraged. In fact it is a matter of pride for a parent to say that his eight or ten year old child has actually read the book.

Children’s books in the English language by authors like Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton were always popular in India. But Rowling has overtaken them all.

It is not to say that children read Harry Potter only because they are forced to by ambitious parents. They certainly find the pages engrossing, going by reactions to the book. No doubt it has become the latest craze amongst kids. Says Karthika, of Penguin Puffin, a publishing house for children, “Potter sells in huge volumes. Books one and two sell with the same enthusiasm as books four and five…..other children’s fantasy fiction comes into the country as imports. But HP arrives as a part of a simultaneous worldwide release.’’ (HT Sunday magazine, K. Gulab’s report)

Happy to note the children’s interest in reading, teachers in schools organise essays and quizzes on Harry Potter. In May this year, a function was organised at Jaipur to mark the 25th Silver Jubilee year of AWIC, the Indian section of IBBY. One of the activities organised was to write reviews on any Harry Potter novel the kids had liked. Out of 150 twelve year students from a middle class background, 57 had read and liked the book, 71 had seen a film but not read any books, and 22 had neither read the book nor seen the film.

I shall read out some reviews, written by the school kids at Jaipur. Some of them received awards.

EXTRACTS : [ Pages 1 to 7. Article from The Hindu, May 19, 2006. Also the negative reaction. ]

So far mention has been made about readers in the English language. However, it was surprising to learn that the translation into Hindi, the national language, was popular too. Even those not exposed to Western language and culture, have loved Potter. Outlook, a magazine, reported that there was great interest in internationally popular fiction amongst non-English readers in India. Vikas Raheja, a small town publisher, says, “Readers want to know, for instance, what Harry Potter is all about even if they can’t read it in English”. The publisher bought the translation rights at a cost that would have shocked another publisher. The risk paid off. The book’s sale was beyond his wildest dreams. A total of 1,00,000 copies in Hindi, Marathi, Malayalam and Gujerati, major Indian languages, were sold. The publisher now has a team of editors which looks at other bestsellers that can be translated. (Outlook magazine, Sheela Reddy, 20 February 2006). Hari Puttar is the new name given to Harry in one of the Indian languages. It certainly sounds similar to the original name.

The novel, in fact, has been popular nationwide, including in other languages. It is time to examine the reasons for the phenomenon. Why this mania for a stranger from a different world, a character few may identify with, especially in a region so removed from the world of wizards and broomsticks?

One explanation may be that Indians are quite familiar with, and like, tales of magic and fantasy. Our mythology is peopled with fascinating characters; many of them still part of our cultural ethos. The elephant god, Ganesha, is one of them. His birthday is celebrated in Mumbai every year with great enthusiasm. The popular festival of Dussehra marks the return to his kingdom of the mythological hero, Rama. Diwali is a popular festival, a celebration of Rama’s coronation as the King, while Janmasthmi, another festival, marks the birth of Krishna.

In our epics, the good as well as the evil possessed extraordinary powers. Skilled in battle, they knew spells or mantras that set off weapons capable of great destruction. The noble Rama protected the sages in hermitages or ashrams, where lessons were given to students on good conduct and the art of war. He protected them against the powerful giants, the rakshasas, who disturbed their peace.

Harry Potter has a similar aim, that of protecting the good against the evil.

Flying apsaras, beautiful goddesses, monsters, giants, magicians, aerial chariots, vanishing or invisible objects and blazing weapons, part of the Indian storytelling tradition, featured in epic and folk tales. Later, with the advent of the printed word, they appeared in novels penned by author Devaki Nandan Khatri. His Chandrakanta Santati, published during the last two decades of the 19th.century, sent people rushing to buy the latest volumes as soon as they left the press. The series was followed by the equally popular Bhootnath. Today, magazines like Chandamama, and comics based on mythology like the Amar Chitra Katha, sell like hot cakes in all languages.

In a land where the credulous still believe in witches and black magic, where the rope trick was performed till not so long ago, and where yogis claim they can levitate or rise into the air while in the lotus position, Harry and his broom need present no problems at all.

Stories about the struggle of the initially weak against the powerful have always touched Indian hearts. In countless Bollywood movies, the noble but weak hero fights the powerful and corrupt villain and emerges victorious in the end. In movie after popular movie the poor guy triumphs against the rich, winning the heart of the beautiful heroine and the audience at the same time. Harry too is a poor orphan treated cruelly by his guardians. Spells give him the power to wreak vengeance on his tormentors and battle the mighty, in the shape of Voldemort.

It is an ever popular theme with Indian audiences. As the once weak hero battles against powerful adversaries, every heart beats for him. Every reader wishes to share in that ultimate victory.

The school situation, the touches of humour, the tense encounters with formidable enemies and the often very dark atmosphere add to the book’s attraction. The fast paced action around the several characters provides the thrill that a video game does, making the child realise that a book can be as exciting.

Today, a child’s life is often one of struggle and stress as she copes with studies and goals set by ambitious parents. Often left alone for long periods, the child is as much an orphan as Harry Potter. The stories take her to a higher, more secure plane where, under the guidance of teachers with their magic spells, she feels empowered enough to deal with her own problems.

Today, there is a felt need for the world of spells and flying broomsticks. The eternal, common theme of the good against the evil, written in a style essentially Rowling’s, with its unique blend of the ancient and the modern, has made Harry Potter very special. No other fantasy novel, whether the Lord of the Rings, Hobbit, or Artemis Fowl, has reached the heights that Potter has.

The success of Harry Potter has encouraged Indians to look at their own heritage with new eyes. Modern ways of presenting ancient elements from our mythology are being explored, both in the print and the electronic media. Animation films on Rama, Krishna and Hanumana the monkey god as modern super heroes, and comics based on Devi, the goddess turned into a power woman, are some examples of the trend set by the boy wizard.

And this says a lot about Potter magic in India.