It is not dirty Harry -- and not the real thing either
It was an enjoyable conversation that, with
one of Sri Lanka's top echelon book sellers and publishers. He launched
into an interesting tale. Around two weeks back, one of his rival
publishers sent his chauffer to his bookshop. The man cast about
for a suitable way of introducing the purpose of his visit. Finally
he allowed "ara Haree ge potha thiyanavada?'' (Do you have
Haree ge Potha
of course referred to Harry Potter. Harry Potter and the Order of
the Phoenix, to be precise. It was also good fun to see some of
the earnest customers who queued up at this bookshop about the same
time this incident occurred. One middle aged lady asked the girl
at the counter ''do you have Harry Potter's book?'' Then she announced
"I don't know much about this Harry Potter, but everybody is
buying it, no?''
This is what
J. K. Rowlings is doing to us. Nothing can be said about that phenomenon
in particular -- except that it is all about a general children's
fascination for a book about Wizards. Books about Wizards and various
creatures such as goblins (Lord of the Rings J. R. R. Tolkien) and
extra terrestrials (E. T. the Extra Terrestrial, Star Wars) seem
to have a monopoly -- almost-- on the Western mind. This is true
of the Western adult mind, and the Western juvenile mind.
Harree ge Potha
or Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix also follows in that
'fantastic' tradition of the West. It is an impersonal society ---
this community in London is. Maybe that's why it was easier for
Rowlings, a single mom who is said to have found it hard to make
ends meet, to write about Wizards in an impersonal London tube train.
(….at least she began to write in the train, we are told.)
The more remote the story gets from real life, the easier it seems,
that the Western mind finds it to relate to it. If it is not a malady
it is at least how that society in the West is. Its literature is
slowly becoming 'disembodied'' from the real. At least its popular
It is easy
to see how London for instance is impersonal - - - what with its
organised tube trains that run with such cold efficiency that it
is difficult to imagine that human emotions can be associated with
such matters. But yet, there is another side of London. On a visit
early this year, a sojourn in Brick Lane was one of the high points
of a lazy day there. Brick Lane is where the Bangladeshi community
lives, a Bangla town, as Bangladeshi as Chinatowns are Chinese.
is thoroughly Bengali --- and it is the 'real thing'' as one reviewer
said recently, when he panned a book mercilessly about how London's
Bangladeshi community lives there. If the British cannot get a slice
of real life that is not impersonal, the next best thing they do
is to get it out of books. Unkind thing to say, but this is what
it seems to be in these impersonal Harry Potter days! So there are
books that offer a sampling of the 'real thing' such as this new
book called Brick Lane, or Arundathi Roy's book about life in Kerala
in India, or Rohington Mistry's books about Bombay.
No doubt these
are very fine books, especially Mistrys and Roys . (Having said
that, it needs to be mentioned that I haven't read Brick Lane yet.)
While Englanders get their dose of the real from the pages of a
Penguin, in Sri Lanka sometimes the pages of a Penguin can offer
a ride to the imagined world. For example, when the woman who buys
books for her kids says "I don't know what this Harry Potter
is, but everybody is buying, no?'' she is buying into the imagined
idea that there must be something good in associating with the idea
of Harry Potter, because Harry Potter is from great Britain, where
things are imagined, sometimes, by people in this part of the world,
to be perfect.
into this imagined life in various ways. At a recent party thrown
by a friend the conversation stumbled onto the subject of novels
and books. One of the guests said, with a straight face that "Arundathi
Roy has shown Shoba De that she is leagues ahead, and yes, Shoba
De is nobody in India now - - because Arnudathi Roy is the best!''
These are moments
in life when you don't k now whether to laugh or to cry or to bury
your head. Shoba De as we all should know by now -- even though
some of us still don't -- is a writer of cheap pornography or soft
porn at least, that's churned out money by the bushel. It is the
art of the hustle at its worst. Shoba De doesn't write books, in
that sense of the word. She just makes money - - and now they say
that too is not happening for her, but that's irrelevant.
on the other hand is a brilliant writer, who almost invented a new
language in creative storytelling. There had not been a single review
that has not been a rave - and she has won the Booker prize of course,
which prize should be honoured for having her among the list of
recipients. Well, in a manner of speaking at least.
contrasting Arundathi Roy to Shoba De, therefore, is worse than
comparing chalk and cheese -- it is an abomination. But this is
what seems to be the result of people buying-into the world of imagined
things, through books that come this way via the West. Most people
don't really want to read these books. Most of the time they simply
don't read these books, in fact.
They just want
to be associated with them, so that some of the unexplained intangible
magic - a little of England -- will rub off somewhere, someplace
in their beings. In Brick Lane - - the real Brick Lane that is ---
one can live the 'real' Bangladeshi lives, through the cuisine,
and through the general ambience, even if it is for a fleeting moment.
It is a real experience, even if it is in a far away place that
mimics another (original) faraway place.
one can hardly get the real experience of life, even if one is here
-- in Colombo, in the here and now -- and not in a faraway place.
It is not authentic, my friend. All one keeps hearing about is Harry
ge Potha, and how Shoba De was beaten hollow by Arundathi Roy, that
small goddess of the Goddess of Small Things. And one wonders, is
this experience real or what?