For an Indian immigrant in America, J.K. Rowling’s literary and box-office smash Harry Potter brings back a childhood spent poring over the similar stories of an earlier British author—and haunting memories of yearning for a whitewashed vision of England that could never be his.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is still blazing at the box offices in America. But when I watch it, I realize it’s not just Headless Nick and Moaning Myrtle that haunt the movie. I see the ghosts of my childhood, the ghosts of little white kids who save the day, and little brown ones who only get to watch.
Most readers in the U.S. have never heard of Enid Blyton, but the British author of children’s books was a constant companion of our growing up in India. From “The Adventures of Noddy in Toyland” to “The Five Findouters” and “The Famous Five,” she wrote hundreds of books for every age. Hogwarts is a darker copy of her Mallory Towers and St. Clare’s schoolgirl series, complete with plucky kids, idiosyncratic teachers and the stern yet kind headmistress.
If you added to it the adventures of the Famous Five as they tackled smugglers and pirates and thieves, and the magical escapades of brownies and elves, you get something close to Harry Potter. But the key, of course, is the kids. The kids who can do it all; the kids who can outwit the adults and solve the baffling mystery.
But though her books were wildly successful, Blyton lost favor in her native country because the image she presented of England was a little too whitewashed, even for her own time. That in itself is not such a big deal, until you realize the volume of her work. Some 600 books, and over and over again the little white kids save the day. The only dark people are the golliwogs in Toyland—and they attack little Noddy in the woods.
Decades after Enid Blyton, J.K. Rowlings still lives in the same world of make-believe. In 1990s England, where chicken tikka masala has outstripped roast beef and Yorkshire pudding in its popularity, Hogwarts exists in its own time warp.
I don’t know if her writing ever makes it clear that Professor Dumbledore and Hermione are white. But they are. In these more politically correct times, Christopher Columbus, director of the Harry Potter films, peppers each movie with characters of color. They’re prominently placed in the foreground. They occasionally even have a line or two. But they are window dressing, a United Nations backdrop for the little white kids to save the day.
Does it matter? I’d like to believe it doesn’t. It’s still a damn good adventure, whatever the color of the characters. And when I raced through all those Enid Blyton books, I just devoured them without noticing color.
But it seeped in.
On hot, sticky summer afternoons in Calcutta, I lay in my bed reading the adventures of the Famous Five in the caves of Cornish coasts. Outside, the leaves of the neem tree barely moved in the sluggish heat. I was dreaming of gardens of primrose and moors covered with heather and cottages with honeysuckle over the door. I was hankering for strawberries and clotted cream and scones. I wanted to be a Findouter with a dog named Buster and solve a mystery. And then sit down for some Yorkshire pudding.
Then, eventually, I went to England one day and had my first strawberries and cream and my first scones. The disappointment was pungent. The strawberries were tart and the scones dry as cardboard. More importantly, it was the end of an illusion. Primrose wasn’t that fancy a flower and the robin redbreast was a rather plain bird. And Blyton’s cuddly, apple-cheeked old ladies looked at their new Indian neighbors and clucked and sighed about how things were just not the same anymore.
As a small, impressionable child, I remember when my aunt came visiting for the first time from London. Toys I had only read about came tumbling out of her suitcase—chocolates, tapes, books. But what I loved the most was to open the suitcase and just bury my nose in that smell. At that time I thought it a mix of lavender and strawberries and cream and English summers. Now, of course, I realize it was just laundry detergent and fabric softener.
But just like Harry Potter’s zigzag scar, the shadow of that childhood fascination remains. It throbs in the Chamber of Secrets, as I wonder if my niece in Calcutta is also growing up imagining the taste of potted meat and clotted cream and fantasizing about Georgina and Larry and Pip, and their honeysuckle lives that could never be hers.
|Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a news-magazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New America Media.|