They queue outside bookstores at 6 am, wearing black robes. While others are busy studying or out partying, they revel in spinning theories and writing fan fiction. And “in their not so humble opinion, words are the most inexhaustible source of magic”; JK Rowling’s to be specific. Well, they are the Potterheads and they solemnly swear that they are up to no good, except when they are reading or discussing Harry Potter.
June 26th marks the 20th anniversary of the inception of the magical journey that is Harry Potter (HP) or the publication of the first book of the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. To commemorate the two decades of JK Rowling’s wizarding world, Bloomsbury has republished the first book with special Hogwarts House themed covers. Harry Potter fans across the globe are paying tribute to their favourite series by taking part in literary events and theme parties. But no celebration of Harry Potter is complete without a celebration of its most beloved fans, the Potterheads.
Gayathri Potter Gopalakrishnan, as her Facebook profile reads is a self-confessed HP addict with a never waning 16-year-old crush on Harry. Like most Potterheads, Gayathri’s fondest memory is of waiting outside a bookstore for the release of a new title and shouting with ecstasy when the van carrying the books swerves into vicinity and sharing/reading the book with her sibling in four-hour shifts. Later when the movies released, Gayathri and Varsha Bharath, her friend from college, wore hand-sewed robes, made witches’ hats and wands out of black chart and watched them, first day, first show.
Last year during Navratri, Gayathri set up a small Harry Potter golu next to their traditional one. “Since I'd be at office during the day when guests came, I trained my 86-year-old grandma to learn (and pronounce) words like Quidditch (after a lot of ‘Ennas’ (What in Tamil)? and forcing her to repeat it after me), Monster Book of Monsters, Hogwarts, Spectrespecs, Time Turner etc. I wrote the words down on a piece of paper and she took it so seriously that she made every guest play a guessing game of what was what in my HP corner,” Gayathri giggles. An employee of Flintobox, Gayathri manged to convince her office to not only celebrate HP week but also come up with seven Harry Potter-themed DIYs to teach children the importance of the books.
Harry Potter, as a literary fantasy, seems to bewitch every coming generation. The books are fast-paced with a gripping plot and easily comprehensible English and are devoured by both children and adults alike. Thanks to its quality of being both simple and complex at the same time and replete with multiple layers, they make ideal books for re-readings. “Every time you go back you can take away something new from it. Rowling has put in so much thought and details into the side characters as well as the main. I think no matter what age or phase you are going through you'll find a character that resonates with you,” says Aurelia Frederick, HP fan and owner of Fred’s Studio, Chennai.
Can you imagine Nymphadora Tonks, Professor Trelawney, Dolores Umridge, Luna Lovegood and Bellatrix Lestrange riding the same cab in Chennai? Yes, that happened. When Harry Potter and the Cursed Child released last year, Gayathri, Sneha Sivakumar, her best friend from college and bunch of their friends attended a HP Witches and Wizards costume party at Phoenix Mall, Chennai. “It was definitely the craziest thing we had done as 25-year-olds. We were so excited about the chocolate frogs, flavoured beans and a magical drinks that they gave us for for breakfast,” gushes Sneha. The six-member team won the prize for best costumes that day.
Over the years, mutual HP fandom has united several friends. Yogita Dakshina, a political communication graduate who works with an NGO, shares a HP tattoo with her best friend of nine years, Sneha Ramkumar.The friends tattooed a half of the snitch on the back of their hands, which when put together, forms the snitch as a whole. "I open at the close" is very symbolic of our relationship as friends as well,” says Yogita. This year, Yogita’s mother threw her a Harry Potter themed party that started with a Hogwarts Acceptance letter and ended with personal wands and butterbeer for all.
Hogwarts is not just a fantasy school and Harry Potter is not merely a fairytale. Life lessons are aplenty in the book and often Potterheads use the book to guide them in life. Afterall, Dumbledore did say that “Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if only one remembers to turn on the lights!"
One of the recurrent themes of the book is the concept of good and evil. Rowling’s nuanced portrayals of the shades between good and bad and that they cannot be distinctly compartmentalised as right and wrong rings true for most fans.Themes such as love is the greatest magic of all, dementors as a personification of depression that need to be warded off with happy memories, equality and human rights are peppered throughout the books.Hermione stands up for house-elf rights (and magical creatures in general) and finally it’s the equality between all the creatures, the muggle-borns, half-bloods and pure-bloods that saves the world from Voldemort during the Battle at Hogwarts. Recent research studies have also corrobrated this idea, that HP inculcates values of empathy and love among its readers
"Every character in HP was flawed in someway and the series showed me that flaws are ok as long as you are willing to work on it. It showed me that being evil is a choice it’s not something people are destined for,” adds Aurelia. The character Severus Snape is an example of this philopsohy and is a favourite of Sneha’s.Snape taught Sneha that everyone has their own story and it’s wrong to judge a person before knowing theirs. “It is our choices, Harry, far more than our abilities, which define who we truly are" - all my beliefs, everything, is wrapped into this one sentence,” adds Yogita.
Besides these nuggets of personal philosophy, the books also serve as a substitute religion in a secular era. The great symbol of malevolence is Harry’s nemesis, Lord Voldemort who wants to rid the wizarding world of Muggles (people from non-wizarding heritage) and is obsessed with the idea of blood purity. These books thus teach that bigotry must be fought at all costs, and that tolerance and difference must be celebrated.
Varsha, Gayathri’s friend and Assistant Director to popular Tamil film Director Vetrimaaran, opines that HP was her first lesson on inclusion, that it’s ok to be weird. She identifies most with Luna, a character, who doesn’t fit into the traditional definition of ‘normal’.
Gaythri’s love for the series made her write a dissertation on The Prisoner of Azkaban during her third year of graduation and Yogita for her part hasn’t stopped decoding the texts. She loves reading into the interplay of the motifs of life and death, and the “normalisation of death” that Rowling often experiments with. Dumbledore’s quote, “And of course - its happening in my head, but why would it mean that it is not real?” speaks most to her. “Never kill your imagination; never belittle another person's mental health issues. Two teachings, from one amazing quote,” she says.
The Potterheads chorus that the Harry Potter series is timeless and that the current generation needs it more than ever.“We live in times when we have all the facts staring at our faces and we still choose to ignore what is true, what is right. I find myself increasingly being surrounded by a Rita Skeeter-reading, Dumbledore bashing, Muggle-born hating crowd of Voldemort deniers. Rowling's world- the kindness, empathy, humour, love and magic is more relevant now than ever before,” Varsha concludes.
It’s been 20 long years. The Harry Potter craze, even after all this time you ask? “Always,” they say.