The Rajpal Abeynayake Column                     By Rajpal Abeynayake  

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 Harry's book?''

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 literature is.

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.

Brick Lane 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.

People buy 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.

Arundathi Roy 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.

Comparing or 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.

But, sometimes, 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?

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