I remember the exact moment I first came across Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone. It was 1998 and I was walking through cramped alleys at the international book fair, held annually in Pragati Maidan, Delhi. One stall seemed to be attracting a crowd. Going closer, I realised that children, from middle-schoolers to teenagers, were jostling for a copy of the Harry Potter book. There was something attractive about the cover, with its illustration of a big fat red steaming engine and a little boy with a scar standing next to it on platform nine and three quarters.
I might have moved on, dismissing it as a “kiddie book” —after all, I was 15 and had outgrown tales of witches and wizards—but my curiosity was piqued. Ever since the book came out on 26 June 1997, newspapers had been full of Harry Potter—the Boy Who Lived, as he is called in the book—and its author J.K. Rowling’s story from struggle to sudden success. There had been a stream of stories about how she wrote the books in cafés, only to have the manuscript rejected by 12 publishers until Bloomsbury agreed to publish it.
I joined the queue and came back home not just with Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone but also with the second book, The Chamber Of Secrets, which had been released that year. I started reading with absolutely no expectations, determined to stop if it seemed too childish. But I was hooked. Every character seemed interesting—whether it was the abhorrent Dursleys, the gentle giant Hagrid, the arrogant Draco Malfoy, the wise and powerful Albus Dumbledore or the oily, grim Professor Snape. Hogwarts, with its sorting ceremony, great hall, enchanted ceiling, secret alleyways and dungeons, presented such an immersive parallel universe that you couldn’t help getting sucked into it.
There were some characters one could relate to a little more—I, for one, was convinced I was like the nerdy Hermione, while my friend was like Neville Longbottom, forgetful and absent-minded.
In the ensuing years, serpentine queues would form outside book stores each time a Harry Potter book was published, with midnight events planned to coincide with the release. I too had become a Potterhead, waiting outside Fact and Fiction in Delhi’s Vasant Vihar in the early hours of the morning to get my copy of The Goblet Of Fire and starting to read immediately, on the pavement right outside.
There have been many iconic fantasy books in the past. Yet Harry Potter’s appeal remains undiminished. I have gone back to the books every single year, and they have become almost like a comforting space, one that has seen me through some bad days. Now it has almost become a reflex action—whenever I am feeling stressed, I just take out my set of Harry Potters and lose myself in Hogwarts.
For early readers like me, there were no Harry Potter films for reference. We had to imagine the moving staircases, the game of quidditch and the Mirror of Erised. But the writing was so vivid that imagining the scenes came easy. I don’t think any film has been able to capture the excitement and frenzy of the quidditch game as well as the books did. One of my favourite moments from The Philosopher’s Stone continues to be the game of enchanted chess Ron played with life-size chessmen in the face of intense pressure and looming peril. As Dumbledore says in the book, “...for the best-played game of chess Hogwarts has seen in many years, I award Gryffindor house fifty points.”
The books have sold over 500 million copies worldwide. More than anything else, it is the spirit of hope, courage and belonging that continues to appeal to readers young and old. The fact that Harry—always the underdog, not armed with any special power except for a strong moral compass and the support of his friends—wins over Voldemort and his ilk has been inspiring.
Earlier this year, I found myself having an intense discussion with a couple of 10-year-olds on quidditch strategies and why Snape is my favourite character. After we all agreed to disagree, each picked a book from the series and we read in quiet harmony, chortling away at the mention of chocolate frogs, headless hunts and the antics of Peeves the poltergeist.
I have to say, though, that my relationship with the Potter books has become a little complicated in the last couple of years. And that has less to do with the books and more to do with Rowling’s views on the transgender community. In 2020, in response to an op-ed headlined Creating A More Inclusive Post-Covid World For People Who Menstruate, she tweeted: “‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”
The tweet came in for flak not just from trans activists but also actor Daniel Radcliffe, who essayed the role of Harry Potter in the films. “Transgender women are women. Any statement to the contrary erases the identity and dignity of transgender people,” he responded.
As someone who created a magical world full of belonging, with place for everyone, Rowling’s comments were disheartening. Can you divorce the creator from the creation? Do you let go of memories that a book gave you because you so vehemently disagree with its author’s views? These are questions I have been grappling with.
In the context of such fraught relationships with books and authors, I keep going back to Sandip Roy’s column, written on the passing of Kiran Nagarkar, in Lounge. In the column, headlined How #MeToo Changed Mourning, he wrote: “I may never want to watch another Woody Allen film, but still be unable to let go of a Nagarkar novel. It could easily be the other way around for someone else…. Does that make one person ‘good’ and the other person ‘bad’? No. And that is hard to grasp in a culture where we all want to claim the moral high ground. We want the rules laid down in black and white because that is easier than living with ambivalence.”
As an adult, I am conflicted by these questions but the child in me keeps yearning to return to the magical world of Hogwarts, which has been a safe, comforting place for nearly 25 years now. Will the two selves find a way to coexist? Only time will tell.