Growing up Potter: Growing out of Hogwarts

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See? Brimming with possibility

The beautiful thing about Delhi is the fact that it has something for everyone. It has a bevy of historical landmarks for all those interested in jaunting through monuments; it’s got a hip and happening mall scene for the most brand-conscious; it has bylanes and bylanes stuffed with restaurants serving every conceivable cuisine at every conceivable level of pricing; and it has probably the greatest mélange of people you will find in any Indian city.

I’ve lived here for nearly seven years and honestly, I can say that I love it. Despite its dark and dangerous reputation, I have felt more at home in Delhi than I have in any other city. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that I did a lot of my ‘growing up’ here; 18 to 24 is, after all, a considerable portion of a young life and encapsulates some very important years. I went through my undergrad years here, made a lot of friends I think I will keep for life, navigated the perils of postgrad and then stepped into the ocean of working life. I’ve shifted from the confines of a campus-bound hostel to the freedom and aching responsibilities of an apartment in the big city and lost, met and re-met a strange and heady concoction of people.

In short, Delhi is my Hogwarts.

Entering Hogwarts is a privilege, one to which you have to be invited. That’s exactly how I came to Delhi—on the shoulders of privilege. My ticket to this city was a seat in one of the country’s most elite and sought-after institutions. With that admission in my hand, I felt, like most of my fellow Stephanians, powerful. Being granted access to the portals of this college was sort of magical, whatever me or my fellows might think now. Like good Hogwarts students, we mythologized our professors, creating deep-dark stories for them. This one had had a tragic, Snape-like love affair, that one sparkled with the whimsical wisdom of Dumbledore, a third had the no-nonsense fairness of McGonagall. It’s what good literature students do: build stories where there are none to be found.

Of course, my finding parallels between college life and Harry’s Hogwarts is not entirely surprising, given my need to view everything through a fantastical perspective. Nor is my need to call this city my version of the wizarding school based purely on the superficial similarities it shares with my college. No, I’m going for Hogwarts as a metaphor more than anything else, Hogwarts the protean space that shapes and moulds its residents.

The one thing the books made very clear to me is that everyone’s experience of Hogwarts is different. For Harry (and for Voldemort) Hogwarts is nearly sacred, it’s the home they never found elsewhere, the entry-point into a world that assured them they were important and had worth. For Hermione, Hogwarts is a zone in which to excel, to prove through hard work and dedication that she is indeed ‘the brightest witch of her age’. Ron, I think, saw school and its activities as just one more yardstick on which to be compared (and found wanting) to his older brothers. It was a stomping ground that nonetheless changed James and Sirius considerably, shoved some sort of moral compass into their callow teenage frames; it was a murky forest of complexes and misunderstanding for Severus; a safe-space made problematic for an insecure Lupin.

Like the Room of Requirement, Hogwarts is different for each person who walks through its doors. The protean nature of the school is perhaps best symbolized by its constantly shifting inner landscape—the moving denizens of portraits, the moving staircases with their trick steps, the hidden passages which open only to those privileged few in the know. For a single castle, the kinds of experience it offers are pretty wide-ranging, purely from an infrastructure perspective. And given how cut off it is from everything, physically (apart from Hogsmeade), it’s almost a mini-city unto itself.

Hogwarts is a crucible: it brings together a bunch of people, keeps them clamped up in one space for seven years and then sends them out, changed in various ways. Perhaps the biggest change it effects is in how children deal with their magic. The feats we see pre-Hogwarts children perform thoughtlessly (Lily flies through the air, Neville bounces along the ground, Harry vanishes an entire pane of glass) become difficult, if not downright impossible once they join school. They learn rules and laws and become constrained by wands and verbalization. The seemingly infinite horizon is bounded.

I suppose this is Rowling’s elaborate metaphor for what happens to our imaginations as we go through school and generally, grow up. It deserves an academic paper all to itself; but would it be presumptuous of me to say that the same sort of thing happened to me in Delhi? I entered college thinking I was limitless, that all it would take to achieve everlasting fame and riches was to churn out the novel that had been at my fingertips for months. Seven years on, there is no novel and the possibilities of actually writing one seem slimmer and slimmer. What’s more, I know that achieving everlasting fame is not really that easy. It takes hard work and dedication and sadly, being at the right place at the right time (if not knowing the right people).

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Okay baby, time to leave.

Has Delhi curbed my ‘magic’, then? No, but growing up certainly has streamlined it, made me aware of the Golpalott’s laws that bedevil any endeavour. It’s streamlined my ambitions, for sure. Far from wanting to do a million things, I’ve narrowed the list down to a not so difficult thousand. Also, it’s made it possible for me to identify the million things I would rather not do, which, I suppose, is a very good thing.

So after nearly seven years here, it’s with a Harry-like air that I gaze upon this city. I feel it’s time to go somewhere new. Yes, it’s been wonderful and all that, and I’ve learned a lot, but surely the world has more to offer than one magical school? I’ll take the lessons this school’s given me, as dutifully as most Hogwarts alumni do (and we know Hogwarts alumni take their school very seriously. Witness the fact that people still seem to give a damn about Houses after they graduate). But for now, I hope, 2014 brings with it graduation and newer things. Who knows, maybe I’ll even venture into a Forbidden Forest or two.

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Patrick, Perks and Section 377

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L-R: Patrick (Ezra Miller), Sam (Emma Watson) and Charlie (Logan Lerman)

I’ve been reading Stephen Chbosky’s beautiful coming-of-age book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. In this case, I don’t think watching the movie beforehand was a bad decision. It was a great movie, and the characters were visualized so perfectly. I don’t think I could have done it any better on my own.

Hence, when I’m reading and seeing the movie play out in my head, I don’t resent it at all.

Usually, I wait until I finish the book before I begin writing the review (except when it came to the last book of The Wheel of Time series, but that was a special case). But today, two things came together, and that’s sort of spurred me to write.

Warning: there are spoilers for Perks ahead, so if you don’t want to know any more about the book besides the fact that it’s bloody brilliant, you should probably stop reading.

This morning, I got in late to work. There’s a reason for this, namely, that I had reached a very difficult point in Perks. Patrick, the effervescent, quirky boy played so wonderfully by Ezra Miller, has been wrenched from his secret boyfriend, the quarterback Brad. Brad’s father catches them together and proceeds to belt his son, who screams at Patrick to get out of the house. Patrick does.

And after that everything sort of goes to hell for Patrick. Brad ignores him in school, and when Patrick finally does get the gumption to go up and talk to him during lunch in the cafeteria, he gets called a ‘faggot’ by his erstwhile boyfriend, in a ‘nasty’ way.

So there I am, reading this section of the book, and then I come into work, switch on to my Twitter feed to find out what’s happening in the wider world, and find that the Supreme Court of India has overruled an earlier (2009) judgment of the Delhi High Court, which had decriminalized homosexual relationships. In other words, if you’re engaging in consensual sexual relations with a person from your own sex, you’re a criminal.

It’s a huge step back for a burgeoning movement, and of course, I can’t expect to convey the sort of outrage that’s gripped a segment of the population. For me, it seems like a strange, twisted joke. For something to be decriminalized and then reinstated to its former ‘hallowed by the Constitution’ position seems exceedingly stupid. It’s taking the ‘we make laws and hence we can unmake them’ to a whole new level. Of stupidity.

I guess I’m lucky in that I was brought up without being told that loving certain people was ‘wrong’. My parents have always been among the most accepting people in my world, so I never understood what the big deal was about loving someone of your own gender. I never got the feeling that they would be supremely hurt or angry if I, say, brought home a girl. Surprised, maybe, but they would deal with it.

As, I believe, the rest of the world should learn to do.

I think, today, Patrick gave a face to all those people who have really, really been hurt by this decree. Of being open to great hurt and humiliation for loving who they choose to love, of being emotionally scarred in more traumatic ways than those traditionally associated with the scary high school experience. Of standing alone outside in the yard and crying, ‘really crying hard’, and knowing that you can’t even talk about what’s hurting you.

I don’t think I will ever understand the fear that this decree speaks of, what it says about the mindsets of the people issuing it. I don’t think I want to.

But I do want them to know that they have not had the last word.

After all, Oscar Wilde is remembered. The man who testified against him? Not so much.

Growing up Potter: Those Slippery Slytherins

Image A few months ago, I sent out a survey to a bunch of friends. It concerned (wait for it) the Harry Potter books and movies, and included the question ‘Who is your favourite character’. The results, when they came back, surprised me. Sirius Black had a large number of takers, as did Hermione Granger. Contrary to the Guardian’s expectations, not a single person chose Severus Snape. And only two people mentioned harbouring a ‘soft spot’ for Harry himself.

For a boy who has won the hearts of children and adults alike, Harry James Potter has few groupies of his own, few people who would declare that he was/is their ‘favourite’ character in the series named after him. A few years ago, I would have, right until (and chiefly because of) The Order of the Phoenix. Thanks to ‘growing up’ alongside of him, I felt especially connected to Harry (as millions of my fellow readers no doubt did), and when he angsted and argued his way through OoTP, I saw my own teenage angst given heroic proportions in this over-burdened fifteen-year-old. Harry was me, only better, because he had a Dark Lord to defeat and he could do magic. All I had, on the other hand, were exams to get past and maybe highschool romances to negotiate, and even those were low on the ground and barely sparking.

So if I was Harry, if most of those who read the books at that age felt they were Harry, that this boy spoke for them and it was his immediacy and utter normality in the face of all that world-shifting magic that made him so appealing, what caused him to lose his lustre? Why does a twenty-three-year-old me find Sirius Black a more compelling character than Harry? Is it simply because Sirius is an ‘adult’, older and therefore more relatable on a purely superficial level? I think the idea of his being an ‘adult’ is important, but not simply in terms of age. Why then did so many choose Hermione Granger, who is a mere ten months older than Harry?

No, I think my waning interest in Harry himself is due largely to the fact that Harry, as a character, ceases to develop after the sixth book. The Harry we meet in Book 5 never grows up. Instead, he becomes encased in a wooden, popular boy facade, one to whom the death of Sirius barely seems to matter, for whom a Slytherin automatically becomes a bad person*, who does nothing to protest the wholesale evacuation of a Hogwarts house based on the frightened actions of one person. This is a Harry who, no longer hidden in the shadows, struts about the halls of Hogwarts, cursing his fellow students with impunity (cough Sectumsempra cough) and when faced with the greatest quest of his life, relies on Hermione to get him out of trouble.

In The Goblet of Fire, Sirius gives Harry a valid piece of advice: ‘The world isn’t divided between good people and Death Eaters’. The Harry of Book 7 seems to have forgotten that. Why else would he not open his Chosen mouth to halt the death march of the Slytherins? And why else does every ‘bad guy’ in the book get judged for his use of Unforgivables, but when Harry casts one it’s considered ‘gallant’?

There is no question that the morals of the Potterverse are, at times, simplistic and skewed, and as you grow older, this becomes more apparent. A friend of mine recently posted this on my Facebook wall, and followed it up with this comment: I remain extremely disturbed that the entirety of House Slytherin was sent to the dungeons (!) at the start of HP7b, and are then never heard from again (!!).Also, when we see Snape being awful to the Hogwarts students in HP6? He could well have been more chilled out about discipline if he’d wanted to; I think that’s just Snape being Snape. He really is that nasty, petty, small and mean, and being irrevocably in (unreciprocated) love with Lily doesn’t excuse that.

If we are going to talk about skewed morals and quick generalizing of characters and their motivations, we should start with the Sorting system. While in the beginning it seems a fairly cool thing to drop a hat on someone and thus decide who their friends are going to be for the next seven years, on closer consideration it seems very, well, fast. Does an eleven-year-old child really have a ‘fixed’ set of traits? The Sorting system, whereby children are judged based on the proportion of ‘bravery’, ‘learning’, ‘loyalty’ and ‘cunning’ they have, cements them into one dormitory and high school clique for the rest of their seven years. The moment the Hat touches their heads, their future is decided. At least in Rowling’s brain, and since she is the god of this universe, that’s a daunting.

The best way to highlight the sheer randomness of the Sorting system is to think of what Harry feels just before he sits down. ‘The hat seemed to be asking rather a lot; Harry didn’t feel brave or quick-witted or any of it at the moment. If only the hat had mentioned a house for people who felt a bit queasy, that would have been the one for him.’

The Sorting, based on Harry’s feelings immediately prior to it and his confession to his son, Albus, in the Epilogue, seems to operate on two distinct principles: 1) the Hat knows its wearer better than the wearer him/herself; 2) the Hat takes into consideration the choice of the child under it. I’m no logician, but I’m not entirely sure these principles are compatible. If the Hat knows better than the wearer what the perfect House for said person would be, why would it take the child’s personal choice into consideration at all, unless the choice happens to be what the Hat itself would have chosen? For instance, if a muggleborn child sat under its brim and asked to be put in Slytherin, despite the hat’s best instincts (if it has any, which, based on its ability to ‘choose’ for each child, is probably the case), would it place her there?

To take another example of what seems, to me, a complicated Sorting: Severus Snape’s. On his first train ride to Hogwarts, Snape talks of how Lily had ‘better be in Slytherin’, implying, of course, that that’s where he’s going. He is visibly and aurally disappointed when Lily gets sent to Gryffindor, but it doesn’t change his own house-result: the hat sends him off to Slytherin, and his future is, Rowling would have us believe, sealed. He falls in with a bad crowd, his latent nastiness swims to the fore, and he loses the regard of the woman he ‘loved’. Later, when he displays the bravery and decency asked of him in his mission to bring down the Dark Lord, his bravery is applauded as something outside of his expected nature, outside of the nature of any ‘slimy’ Slytherin.

The House system would not appal me as much as it does were it not for the fact that it operates disturbingly like the most rigid and unshakeable of cliques in the toughest high school. Once you’re labelled, you’re stuck. Thanks to its ‘dark’ reputation, most of the kids going into Slytherin are members of pureblooded families who hold to certain beliefs, well aware of the expectations the rest of the school has of them. No one who enters the Slytherin common room did not expect to be there—those from different, less bigoted families would have chosen to be elsewhere, and surely the muggleborns, if they stood a chance of getting in at all (if allowed by the Hat) would have heard enough about the House on their journey north.

Where, then, the chance for change? Slytherins are branded from day one, and it’s no wonder they develop an ‘us versus them’ mentality that results in the trademark Quidditch cheating, the bullying of achievers from other houses and the protectionism that comes in the form of cozening from their head of house, Snape. I read a fanfic which glanced briefly at the effect of the sudden turning of tables at the Farewell Feast in Harry’s first year, where the reigning champion, Slytherin, was summarily dethroned by a sudden rush of, what would be to most of the school, unexplained point-awards to Harry, Ron, Hermione and Neville. Dumbledore, when doling out these last minute points, does not offer full explanation for them, and Snape, whose POV the fic followed, noted the incomprehension and betrayal on the faces of his students. It was brief, but emotionally hard-hitting enough.

Then again, that’s the power of fanfic, to make you see and feel what you never thought of before.

To my mind, the Sorting perpetrates a vicious cycle, feeding those students from a certain stratum of wizarding society to a house that will, through its need to constantly defend and ‘look out for’ itself, only cement them further in their beliefs that the world at large, constituted by those ‘not like’ them, needs to warred upon. The blacklisting of these students reaches a peak before the Battle of Hogwarts; the film version of the exile of Slytherin House is even more disturbing than its book counterpart. McGonagall sends the students to the ‘dungeons’, and in a deleted scene we see them begging Filch to let them out, when the wall behind them blasts open, debris flying everywhere, the children screaming and running about wildly. The Death Eaters swoop in from the hole and, contrary to Gryffindor expectations, storm through the Slytherins rather than gathering them up in their evil fold.^

I remember how the audience hooted and clapped when Slytherin was denounced and banished, as though they couldn’t see what was happening on screen, as though they couldn’t see what was wrong with it. To have a respected character like McGonagall deliver the smackdown made it even worse, it seemed to validate and give a ‘positive’ sheen to the act. This one scene sort of dampened the whole movie for me, and I couldn’t believe that no one, not Hermione, the woman who fights for the repressed, or Harry, shining saviour, lifted a voice to protest it.

In an interview, Rowling stated that after the war, Hogwarts was rebuilt, but Slytherin house retains its ‘dark reputation’. This is quite obvious, given that nineteen years after the war, Albus Severus (who seems to have lived under a rock his whole life, given that he has to ask why people are ‘staring’ at his family) is terrified of being sorted into the house of snakes. What has Albus Severus heard his whole life, that makes him so terrified? Surely Harry, who hasn’t seemed to have told his children his own story, hasn’t filled his head with anti-Slytherin propaganda?

Unfortunately that would seem to be the case. Unless it was his brother, of course, or his aunt, uncles, grandparents, friends… Considering Albus’ general ignorance (really, how could he NOT be used to people staring at his father?), I would assume it was someone near and dear to him who poisoned him against Slytherin.

And this happening to a child born after those troubled times is just sad. It shows the troubled times, with all their division and strife, are not entirely past.

So all is not well, after all.

I started this post with an entirely different agenda, and wandered on to another track. It would seem I need more than one posting to deal with the  issues and thoughts thrown up by my survey, and this is just the beginning. Next time, I’ll examine the portrayal of ambition and ‘cunning’ in Rowling’s universe, and the implications of this for various characters and groups in the series.

Till then!

*In Harry’s defence, even Dumbledore operates on a similar simplistic basis. The moment Snape, a Slytherin, shows  himself to braver than most men, Dumbledore responds with a ‘Perhaps we sort too soon.’ Because of course ‘Slytherins’ can’t possibly be brave.

^ Except for Draco, who gathers up Crabbe and Zabini. Who knows where the film-world’s Goyle disappeared.

MUNning, and other dress-up games

A friend of mine was in town over the weekend, and among the topics that came up in our profound discussions was that of Model United Nations conventions. This isn’t/wasn’t strange, given that much of our early interaction came about as a result of various (make that two) MUNs. He has a lot more experience in this field than I do, and hence was able to contribute what I take to be more worthy points to the discussion. All I did was to start the ball rolling with a casual ‘So how helpful do you think MUNning has been/will be for your career?’

(In the course of this post I will refer to the act of participating in a Model UN convention, at a college or school level, as MUNning. Also, I should probably mention that the friend in question is currently doing a degree in Global Affairs, and recently did a three-month internship at the UN in New York.)

He thought for a bit, and said that no, there was no ‘direct’ and easily ascertainable benefit to his professional life. However, the practice of research he’d developed, the ability to read and retain information from newspapers and online archives- that was beyond priceless for a budding wannabe diplomat. What MUNning had cultivated in him, he said, was the ability to care about people in other countries, to feel responsible for one’s own decisions and the impact his interaction with his fellow ‘delegates’ had on countless lives. ‘I loved the feeling of representing someone’ he said, ‘and feeling responsible for so many people’. That experience, as staged as it might have been, has definitely had some kind of weight on his decision to work not just ‘in’ his country, but ‘for’ it.

After that, the conversation veered off this earnest course, chiefly because I couldn’t keep a straight face at what I thought was a pompous declaration. He was already, I thought, beginning to sound the part of  a high-profile UN employee, a la Shashi Tharoor.

Wording quibbles aside, I do not doubt the sincerity of my friend’s statement. I haven’t been a part of many MUNs myself (as a delegate), but I have seen plenty of MUNners. For most, the four day convention seems a fun excuse to dress up in their corporate, campus-placement best, spend a few hours speaking about themselves in third person and then, of course, have the fun backslapping and catching-up session after committees and councils disperse for the day. Many of those who do best in the council room are students who double as debaters for the remaining 3/4ths of the academic year, who are familiar with how best to turn a phrase, how to distract the watching judge (in this case, the Chair) from his/her weakenesses by strategically attacking an opposing delegate’s language. I have seen three-hour-long sessions where two or three principal delegates wrangled over the ‘definition’ of a particular word in the stated agenda. Yes, it is very important that everyone be absolutely clear on what exactly a term like ‘terrorism’ means, but when you have only two days, comprised of two six-hour sessions each, can you really afford to spend one fourth of that time defining something?

Then again, this might just be how exactly the ‘real’ UN works. Which, my less-UN-more-subaltern-supportive friends would argue, explains so much.

But coming back to my larger point, that of whether this makes any constructive ‘difference’ to the participant. There are always going to be some people who have entered the MUN (or similar, ‘model’ game, such as Moot Courts or Model Cabinet sessions) for nothing but the superficial glamour such activities hold in some imaginations. There is a thrill to dressing up, to feeling important and play-acting as someone else. That’s why the students in theatre clubs in college are usually considered ‘cool’ and ‘edgy’. There is absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying this aspect of a MUN, and I confess I have felt a thrill of excitement myself at the prospect of wearing high heels and strutting around the college corridors in a black, ‘corporate looking’  skirt.

I do, however, believe that one can take something more permanent than a photo-op from the experience. My friend is right- MUNs do cultivate in their more sincere participants a feeling of responsibility, an idea of the connectedness of the world and how one’s actions in a council room can affect millions of lives. These conventions ‘dress up’ the everyday, ordinary practice of reading the newspaper or tuning into international events, and make them desirable, things that lead to a better chance of victory in what is, at the end of the day, a competition for ‘best delegate’.  For kids who enter that contest at least three times a year (and in DU, certainly more often, with every college putting up its own MUN), the pursuit of this knowledge becomes a regular activity- regular enough that they may, at the end of those few months of frenzied MUNning- have a fairly good grasp of at least one or two countries’ stances on various issues of ‘international importance’.

And there’s nothing quite like the feeling of throwing your weight behind a ‘foreign’ opinion, and finding, surprisingly maybe, that you can empathize with it. For instance, my friend A was assigned to represent Somalia at a MUN convention. Her reading on the country exposed her to their policies on prostitution, which, she discovered, were much more ‘advanced’ and enlightened than India, a country more economically ‘developed’. As a representative of the Philippines in another convention, she was given the opportunity to read up on the history of a country that Indian students rarely, if ever, encounter in their textbooks. The concept of ‘comfort women’ in particular touched and troubled her, and she took up issues of women’s rights with a conviction and passion that was quite amazing.

I think MUNs give the opportunity of learning, first hand, that the world truly is an interconnected place, that decisions made by one delegate can alter lives in another country all together. It’s about lobbying, having people on your side when you want to make a change, and that means reaching out and trying to understand where they are coming from. What history has taught them, and in return, what that history can teach you.

So yes, some of my friends might sneer and call MUNning a ‘dress up’ game; it is a dress up game, but it is also much more. All good dress up games are more, eventually. They teach us about the importance of thinking like another person, of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, and thus, slowly, quietly, subtly, they teach you the importance of being willing to care about someone who is, at the end of the day, not all that different from yourself.