Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Tryst with Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

The long awaited sixth movie in the series has finally hit the big screens after a Hogwarts special holiday, for filming, of two years. I picked up my first Harry Potter book years ago out of casual interest because all my friends were furiously under the spell of the Potter business. The Prisoner of Azkaban was an exhilarating read, a kind of thrill one gets on a roller coaster ride (sorry folks, those who don’t like it so much). After that, albeit in haphazard order (3, 2, 5, 1, 6, 7, 4), I went through all the Harry Potter books, liked them immensely and re-read them in their proper order all over again. Later, I also enjoyed reading The Tales of Beedle the Bard to my hearts content. They are written as captivating fairy tales with a moral at the end. Thank you, Ms. Rowling, for entertaining us thoroughly with your stories. I admire your work.

Then came the movies. I haven’t seen all of them. Since I liked the movie version of The Prisoner of Azkaban, I decided to see the fifth movie, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, that happens to be my favorite book in the entire series. It was a disappointment compared to my fascination for the book that I ended up reading several times.

I also liked the first book (Philosophers Stone). There is less magic and the story has a charm of its own. The child Harry sticking his wand into Voldemort’s nose, not knowing any better at that point.

Recently, I read about all the hype concerning the just released HP and the Half Blood Prince, and on a whim, decided to go and watch it. Well, it was worth it though not without a few hilarious consequences personally. Definitely, it is the most well made of all the movies. I hope the moviemakers will keep up the good work in the final edition as well.

In all my excitement and hurry to see it, we got hold of a ticket and entered the theatre right before the show, only to realize a bit too late that it was the Hindi dubbed version playing. More than a decade ago I had made the same mistake when I had gone to see Jurassic Park. Well, for a change, here was a Harry Potter speaking fluent Hindi and uttering spells in Sanskrit! Nir prakatam! I was in stitches, absolutely petrificus totalus in my seat!

The sixth story is different from the rest of the volumes. Harry and friends have grown up. They are almost adults. Voldemort does not appear directly. Harry and his friends do not face any exceedingly life threatening situations as such. Dumbledore meets a sad and abrupt end. This signals the end of fatherly protection for Harry who must face the world on his own henceforth. Potter and his friends are also young adolescents by now and are involved in a comical series of infatuations epitomized by the love struck and foolish looking Ronald Weasley. Ron fails to recognize long time friend Hermione as a potential candidate for his love. The stunning Hermione, a perfect combination of beauty and brains, who liked Ron, is naturally hurt at being unintentionally snubbed. She ends up going to the party with a guy she does not like. It had even slipped her mind to go with Harry just as friends. Their friendship grows a notch higher all the same as they find solace in each other. But when Ron is delirious in hospital after being poisoned, he keeps uttering Hermione’s name and not that of his girlfriend at that time. His girlfriend is angry and the infatuation ends there, but Ron surely is the lucky guy with a caring Hermione by his hospital bed.

The theme of the entire series is love. Love in various forms wins in the end as Dumbledore always believed. Even Snape was living the labor of his love. Dumbledore lives on with his message through the final triumph of Harry his favorite pupil. Harry does not use the killing curse to end Voldemort. He only defends himself with the incantation expeliarmus that is only meant to take away an opponents wand. Voldemort in his atrocious arrogance fails to remember that Harry had actually saved himself from the deadly curse in book four.

Harry Potter always finds his way into trouble and out of it too. He is the hero. He even wins Ron’s attractive sister Ginny’s heart after she broke off with her boyfriend. Ginny already had a secret liking for Harry since she first saw him at her own house.

Harry and Hermione are clearly the two main characters in the story, as in the rest of the series. The remarkable thing is that they don’t end up as lovers but continue as the best of friends. Hermione is critical of Harry who suddenly starts doing well in his Potions class by just following the notes in an old textbook by the Half Blood Prince. The upright and hardworking Hermione clearly does not approve of such tactics and shows her evident displeasure. Then comes the Quidditch match as the new goalkeeper Ron has an attack of nerves. Harry gives him a drink with a magic potion for good luck that he has earned from Professor Slughorn before. Hermione is furious at such dubious tactics, but Harry wins her over, showing that he had not used even a single drop of the potion but only pretended to have done so to give Ron confidence. The trick had worked as Ron did some heroic goalkeeping thinking that he had actually drunk the magic potion. Hermione is impressed.

In the end, Harry impresses Dumbledore in the same way, when he does not keep the elder wand and gives it up in exchange for his own phoenix wand. Symbolically, this shows Harry’s disinterest in power, a trait that sets him apart. He has also overcome his hatred for Professor Snape (Harry in his anger often omitted the word Professor, only to be rebuked and reminded of the same by Dumbledore) and his new understanding leads him to name his son Albus Severus Potter. A part each from Albus Dumbledore and Severus Snape.

JK Rowling is a master story teller who has a bit of everything for everyone. No wonder her enormous popularity and following. Ron, the mediocre good boy, who occasionally gets carried away, but is usually short on confidence, ultimately would go on to marry the beautiful and intelligent Hermione, who gets the top grades in school every time while Ron is struggling with his. I am sure this has won the hearts of many goody goody men who are not so fortunate in the real world. There aren’t many Hermione’s. That is why I called him the real lucky guy enjoying the faith and friendship of both Harry Potter and Hermione Granger. Rowling has taken care to reward handsomely the good natured Ron who is very ordinary but has a good heart. I envy Ron for sure. He gets the ultimate in both the friendship and love of Hermione. Not to forget Hermione’s forgiveness even after he deserts Harry and Hermione during a dangerously trying time. One can not simply ask for more than what Ron gets. Ron is not the only character with a good heart though. There are Luna Lovegood and Neville Longbottom as well who were always on Harry’s side.

In my opinion, though Hermione stands out as the writer’s favorite female character in the story, it is hard to guess who her favorite male character is.

Like there are few Hermione’s around, similarly, there are few headmasters and father figures like Dumbledore around in real life. It is a matter of luck to be associated with such people. Neither Harry nor the dreaded Voldemort would have learnt any skills had Dumbledore not discovered them. That is where one needs a huge slice of good fortune in life. To meet the right people at the right time. Raw talent is like an unpolished stone that has little value. It is the cutter who gives value to the diamond. Even the Ron’s and Neville’s become champions when they rub shoulders with the great.

This epic like work is likely to leave a permanent stamp on popular world literature meant for both children and adults. The play on words is a fabulous lesson in the English language. What wouldn’t I give to be re-born in an age when people would do literary research on Harry Potter as wonderful literature of the past! When kids would start reciting passages from the series of books for their elocution classes!

Rowling understands the psychology of men, women and children, their aspirations, dreams, failures, jealousies, trifles, fear, hatred, bullying, cruelty et ’al exceedingly well. Though a work of fantasy, the emotions of the characters are incredibly realistic. Also, as reported in several news articles, it is a personal triumph for Ms. Rowling, who fought her own mental dementors when earlier in life she suffered from acute depression and had to take medical help. It is as much her own story as it is of hundreds of others who have triumphed after a lot of suffering. The final message: Expecto patronum! You can only drive out sorrow with overflowing happiness. Cheers with a huge mug of butterbeer!

Part-I, Make the Twain Meet

Indo-Japan relations is not a new topic. Relationship between these two countries started long long ago and the Japanese knew about the existence of India as “Tenjiku” ever since Buddhism was imported into Japan through China and Korea. I would not like to go into such stale details that can be found in almost all history books relating to India and Japan. Though a die-hard optimist, in my opinion, Indo-Japan relationship still has to go a long way in order to really establish permanent ties between the people of these two nations. It is the people of the country who make a nation and ties between two nations means ties between the people of those two nations, culturally and otherwise, so much so that there is great, if not complete, understanding and affability coupled with a sense of attachment towards each other. The plain truth is that knowledge about each other’s country exists only in very limited circles in both India and Japan.

In India, the average educated population knows about Japan as the country of electronic goods in recent times. Fifty years back, this image was a bit different. Stories from my grandfather and people of his age reveal that the Japan they knew in those times was a country that made extremely cheap and highly unreliable products. My granddad had been presented with a Japanese bicycle by his father. The two wheeled contraption cost his father twenty rupees and within a week the front wheel of the bicycle came off beyond repair! Needless to say, he had to be covered in bandages for the rest of the week after the incident. At present, the image is just the opposite and Japanese electronic goods are the most reliable products in the market. Almost every middle class family in India is familiar with SONY. SONY, Sumo, Sayonara, along with Honda, Toyota etc. are part of the limited vocabulary about Japan. And, of course, many people have heard about Mt. Fuji ‘Yama’. There does not seem much interest either in finding out about Japan because information is difficult to obtain and not much is shown on television. People still have ideas that the Japanese are some ‘strange’ race and may actually be eating insects and cockroaches for lunch and dinner! Now there is nothing wrong in eating insects. In fact, I heard that fried grasshoppers are a delicacy in some country. But here in India we do tend to look upon insect eating humans as some sort of ‘loony alien’. On the lighter side, like many people around the world, we eat prawns though, which are biologically classified as insects.

How does an average Japanese lead his life? This is a basic question that most Indians will fail to answer. They can hardly differentiate between a Korean, a Chinese and a Japanese, especially as looks or language is concerned. I remember a person in our neighborhood who brought in something written in Korean and asked me to read it after knowing that I was learning Japanese! He insisted that there must be some similarity when I told him I could not read it.

But little efforts can can really make the common man interested in an apparently queer land and its people. Oshin was a serial shown on the Indian national television some years ago over quite a long period of time. It was a popular serial and I have actually seen people glued to the television, crying and laughing when Oshin did in the serial. People had been held spellbound by the story of a Japanese girl. “Love in Tokyo” was a Hindi film which made the common masses in India realize about the existence of Japan. Is it too expensive for the governments of both countries to air more such programs? This is the best way in today’s age by which people of one country can learn about another.

Now about the Japanese and their knowledge about India. The Japanese will tell you that all Indians look alike! The situation is no better than that here. Ask any Japanese about his/ her image about India and the only words that seem to pop out instantly are ‘kare-‘ and ‘ushi’, the former meaning spicy curry of the Indian subcontinent and the latter cows that can be found everywhere in India, even on highways causing massive traffic jams. I have seen a few Japanese magazines that have portrayed India, and most of the photographs in them were of cows on streets, spiced food, pictures of a few dilapidated houses and tribal people living in utter penury. That is definitely a part of real India, but surely that is not what the whole of India is! Cows and curry can hardly account as major areas of a country’s image. I can understand the surprise and shock the Japanese experience in India. Cows on roads for one thing is unthinkable in Japan. I would like to remind about the deer in Nara prefecture that roam freely. The case is similar.

Having had the good fortune of actually being in Japan for a very short time, we had been taken to an elementary school to experience first hand how and what the children of Japan study in school. It was quite interesting to note that the students had music as well as swimming lessons as part of their curriculum. The Indian education experts should take a cue from this. There was an hour’s session reserved for students there to ask questions about our country. The following are some of the questions the Japanese children asked us:
1. Indo ni ha spoon ga arimasu ka? i.e. Do you have spoons in your country? (They thought that we eat with our hands so have never seen or used spoons).
2. Spoon de taberaremasu ka? – Can you use a spoon?
3. Ie ni sunde imasu ka? Sono ie ni ha yane ga arimasu ka? – Do you stay in a house? And when I said yes I do, they asked me whether that house had a roof or not.
4. Indo de ha michi de tora to hebi ga dete kurun desu ka? – Do snakes and tigers suddenly come out on Indian roads?

There are many such strange questions which I took to be mere childish imagination or ignorance at first, but later realized it to be actually lack of proper sources of knowledge about India. Celebrating fifty years of Indo-Japan relations after the world war, seems to be only a diplomatic exercise at the ministerial level. Nothing concrete is being done to introduce the common people of the two countries to each others culture and ways of living. Staging of a Hindi masala movie (Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, titled Mimora in Japanese) in the Japanese Diet is definitely not the only way to celebrate such an important landmark. In India too, people are not much aware of Japanese books and films. Only people who are studying Japanese or are related to Japan in some way or the other, have some knowledge about the country.

My own host family in Japan has a few books in Japanese about India. It is books such as these that give superficial, wrong and insufficient knowledge about India to the average Japanese reader who take even a little bit of interest in India. Misinformation is even worse than knowing nothing at all. I think celebrating of fifty years of our relationship should be in the form of India week being arranged in Japan and Japan week being arranged in India, with a troupe of cultural performers going across different parts of the country and educating the audience through competent interpreters.

The Hindi department of a university in Osaka, Japan, has published a book of Japanese songs translated into Hindi. But sadly, the only audiences for these translated songs are a few Japanese students of Hindi, and a few students like us who are studying the Japanese language. The governments of the two countries should make it a point to broadcast the recent best of Japanese and Indian films/ television serials, with subtitles if required, on the national network of television programs at least over a year long period. These are little efforts which may actually be a great deal.

The youth of almost ever country in the world are being affected by funky hip-hop MTV culture that is ceaselessly being broadcast over television networks. Part of the blame lies with the media that is trying to project this as the on culture that is hip. Apart from the fact that this is not just what America is about, an over abundance of a certain type of program or propaganda means that the youth are being deprived of knowing about other cultures. That is because there is so little to choose from. This is as true for Japan as it is for India. Give the youth a variety of cultures to choose from and see what happens. There will be plenty of choice about what to ape.

The issue is simple. Forget the gimmicks of flowery language, terming something as fifty years of etc. etc. We must decide whether we really want to spread awareness and influence of Japanese and Indian culture in each other’s country or just limit it to only a handful of people who are doing some sort of work related to these two countries.

1. This essay was published in Sangam on the occasion of fifty years of Indo-Japan relationship (2002).
2. This was written before I had the opportunity to stay in Japan for a long time. Much remains the same but things are changing. With the internet, there is more information available, though much of it may not be so reliable.
3. Like many foreigners still imagine, on his first visit to Japan, one of my seniors thought that the Japanese people still move about in Kimonos daily. He was in for a shock when he landed in Tokyo and found people in Bermudas and mini-skirts!
4. Historically and culturally speaking, the relationship between India and Japan has been superficial at best. There are many reasons for this. This will be dealt with later. A sequel to this article follows soon. Look out for part-II.