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Harry Potter, for all of you who've been asleep or vacationing on some far planet, is the biggest thing to have hit the publishing scene since, well, since I don't know when. He's huge-I mean, huge for a rather thin 11-year-old English kid with unruly hair and specs. The three books so far published have earned his creator, J.K. Rowling, an unassuming young woman, an almost mythical amount of money and have sold in well-nigh legendary quantities. They've shot her young hero into the limelight-the cover of Time, for example, and you can't get a limier light than that.
But, perhaps it's not so surprising that you don't know who he is-even he doesn't at the beginning of the Potter saga. He thinks he's an extremely ordinary boy, whose parents died in a car crash when he was a baby and has been brought up by his aunt and uncle-the Dursleys of No. 4, Privet Drive-who were perfectly normal, thank you. They were, we're told, "the last people you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn't hold with such nonsense." But when their perfectly ordinary life is shattered by the appearance of a hairy, giant biker called Rubeus Hagrid, gatekeeper of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and their young charge, Harry, is revealed to be one of the greatest wizards of all time-well, nothing is quite the same ever again.
Harry is whisked off to boarding school to learn the magic arts, and each of the first three books in this series covers one year of his life at Hogwarts. The wonderful thing is that he's there for a total of seven years. So there's another four books yet to come!
The world according to Rowling is divided into two halves: the Muggles (that's the ordinary, non-magical folk like you and me) and the rest of them (the witches and wizards, the warlocks and gremlins, pesky poltergeists, trolls, dragons, griffins, and werewolves). Rowling's inventiveness is somewhat magical in itself. She manages to conjure up such an enchanted world that the most cynical and demanding reader is-alakazoom!-transformed into an eight-year-old kid sitting on the edge of the bed with wide, wide eyes going "What next? What next?" If you're thinking of getting these books as bedtime stories to put your kids asleep-think again. They'll have you and the children page-turning well into the wee hours.
Normally, it takes years for a book to be recognised as a classic, but Harry Potter's attained those dizzy heights almost instantly. If I gaze into my crystal ball-yes, the mists are clearing. I can see these being read, and re-read not just for years, but for generations to come. Like Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Tolkein's Lord of the Rings, enchanting both children and adults.
Rowling never makes the mistake of talking down to children, and though the baddies are really, really bad-and truly scary-the goodies are never sugary sweet and the complications are so deftly and sensitively handled that you're left marvelling at her lightness of touch. Hogwarts has already earned its place on the imaginary map alongside C.S. Lewis' Narnia, Lewis Carroll's Wonderland, and Frank L. Baum's magical land of Oz. And the effect is much the same as in the film where the drab grey of Kansas is left behind for a glorious technicolour Oz. The 'real world' of Aunty Em-or as in this case the dreaded Dursleys-is pallid and monochromatic in comparison.
But there are those in the real, real world whose reactions to young Harry and his gang are as outlandish as any dreamt up in fiction. Harry Potter's caused quite a furore amongst Christian parents in the US who fear that these magical tales may lure little Chuck or Jimmy into the Dark Arts of the Occult. The controversy was sparked off this October when one enraged parent declared to the Southern Carolina Board of Education that these stories had overtones of "death, hate, lack of respect and sheer evil". If this is the kind of judgement exercised by their parents, I suspect Chuck and Jimmy would be better off drawing pentangles and reciting psalms backwards or whatever it is young Satanists do these days. For, far from promoting such wickedness, Harry and his friends, Ron and Hermione, stand for all that's honest and noble in this wicked world.
In a world where the constant lament is that children no longer read, it's truly heartening to know that the whole Potter phenomenon's been entirely book-based. No merchandising. No film. No advertising. No gimmicks. No video games-at least, not yet. From being a single mother, struggling to make ends meet and scribbling away at her story in the cafes of Edinburgh, Rowling is now rumoured to be the third-highest paid woman in Britain. For the first time in publishing history, one author's books have occupied the top three slots on the New York Times bestsellers list. That too, children's books on an adult fiction list! Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was officially released on 8 July, '99. That week's issue of The Bookseller, the UK trade pubsliher's magazine, tentatively suggested that it was "quite possible" the book would outsell even Thomas Harris' long-awaited sequel to Silence of the Lambs. It was the understatement of the century. In its first week of sales, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban clocked up a staggering 43,520 copies. Over four times as many as Hannibal which was on the number 2 slot.
This is the magical pull of a really ripping yarn. If I haven't convinced you to go out and buy up the fast-disappearing stocks in the Indian market, then there's no hope for "yeh, yeh great prune", as Hagrid would say. You can carry on in your grey little muggle world and pretend that magic doesn't really exist. But if you, like me and thousands upon thousands of others, are spellbound by Rowling's delightful tales: welcome. Enjoy the technicolour.