Saturday, 2 June 2012

Books: Harry Potter, hype and hoopla

(I wrote about the hoopla surrounding the fifth Harry Potter book in Bangalore in 2003)

"The hottest day of the summer so far was drawing to a close and a drowsy silence lay over the large, square houses of Privet Drive. ...The only person left outside was a teenage boy who was lying flat on his back in a flowerbed outside number four... ."

ANY CLUE what that passage portends? None at all? Then, you've probably missed out on a date with history, hype, and hoopla that attended the embargoed global release of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix on June 21. Its attendant wide-eyed screams, squeals, and chatter, was followed by book-bound silence — as evinced in as far apart as Ukraine and Lagos, London and New York, Mumbai, and Bangalore.

Gangarams Book Bureau opened at an unusual 8 a.m. Within minutes, Aditya, 11, of the National Public School (NPS), Rajajinagar, had picked up the third copy from the just-arrived stocks. "I'd like to be like Potter," he smiles. Sriniketh Vijayraghavan, 11, who attends the Indiranagar NPS, adds: "Last year, I didn't do well at our school's Harry Potter quiz. Since then, I've been reading Rowling every night."

In their wake comes K.K. Ranga, retired general manager of Hyderabad-based Bharat Dynamics. He's all set to courier the promised book to his Pune-based grandchildren Krittika, 9, and Rohan Ram, 7, following a 7 a.m. telephonic reminder. Rohit Sudarshan, 14, from Cincinnati, is visiting his grandparents here. "I love sci-fi, but Rowling is much more fascinating," he avers.

At Strand Book Store, the pace is as frenetic, with 9-11 a.m. sales touching 300 copies. Nikhil Ravichander, 12, of Bishop Cotton Boys' School, practically ushered proprieter Vidya Virkar in. "I'm not really into reading," he admits, glued to the first 17 pages by the time he reached the door, "but Rowling's books have captured my imagination. I'm willing to skip lunch for this." Anant Ramaswamy, 13, of the Aditi Mallya International School, adds: "I've read the earlier four titles at least three times each. I love Harry's world of wizardry. So does most of my class."

Even at Premier Bookshop, Chris, a I PUC student from Mt. Carmel's, was buying herself a copy at 9.30 a.m.. "I love Rowling's parallel magical world. It helps us to get away from our daily problems," she believes.

What's the spell that the 768-page, one-kilo hardbound has cast over the Muggle or non-magical world? Thousands of children here are entranced by the publishing phenomenon spelt Harry Potter. In their book, neither pizza nor tattoos, neither frayed jeans nor branded backpacks can compete with the boy wizard's adventures at Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

That explains why, at an estimated $450 million in earnings, Rowling, 37, is richer than Queen Elizabeth II today. Or why a record-breaking 13 million copies of the fifth Potter book were in print aeons before June 21. The embargoed title soared to the top of the bestseller list at the online bookstore, even at $.29.95 a copy, leaving Scholastic Children's Books in the U.S. and U.K.'s Bloomsbury Publishers laughing all the way to the bank.

Potter is 15 in the new book. He was 11 in the first volume, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, published in 1997. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban followed over the next two years, and the fourth, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, appeared in July 2000.

Rowling's first four titles of the projected seven-book saga sold an estimated 200 million copies across 200 countries, in over 55 languages, including Braille. The new volume is being released with two jackets, one for adults, the other for children.

The Potter books — sans illustrations, sans comic book vividness — have served as rebuttals to those who predicted the death of reading. The first two books have been adapted into hit movies, but kids swear they are not a patch on the plain text version. Global branding has been over the top — computer games, key chains, clothes, stationery, what-have-you!

News snippets hyped June 21 beyond any marketing blitz in history, including a tantalising bit of info that Rowling cried as she had to bump off a character. An entire truckload of over a thousand copies of the Potter novel, valued at a phenomenal $1.7 million, was stolen near Liverpool on June 17. A first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was recently auctioned for £1,400 in the U.K..

If the director Chris Columbus's second cinematic adaptation, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets didn't exactly set Bangalore's screens on fire in April-May, there's a reason for it. "When I read the books, I imagined how it all looked," recalls Meghna, 11, of Shishu Griha. "After I saw the first movie last year, all I could imagine was scenes from the movie. I don't really like that."

Local distributors and booksellers matched the market mood. Satish Sundaram of East-West Books, one of the four Potter distributors, estimates an all-India sales figure of between 75,000 to 1 lakh copies, with a June 21 release of about 10,000 copies in Bangalore. Strand offered the Rs. 795 book at a magical price of Rs. 555. Jayanagar's Nagashri Book House lopped Rs. 195 off the first 500 early orders. Such sales are unprecedented, remarks Prakash Gangaram, lauding the impeccable global release coordination. Gangaram's, incidentally, offers no discount.

That sets Potter in a class apart from other best-selling children's writers like Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, Jacqueline Wilson, Eva Ibbotson, Philip Pullman and, closer home, Ruskin Bond, Sigrun Srivastav, and Subhadra Sen Gupta.

Pramita Prasad of Wordplay in Indiranagar, who doubles as a reading consultant at Vidya Niketan school, notes: "Even Std. 1 kids, who can't cope with Ladybird Level I, chirp up about Harry Potter because it's `in.' That's impossible!" Ms. Virkar stresses: "If children develop reading stamina through complex plots like these, they're certain to come back for more."

Why does Rowling spell word magic? Shanta Chandran, vice-principal and English teacher at Indiranagar's NPS, answers: "Even at 40-plus, I could relate the Potter fantasy to, say, Hanuman lifting the mountain in our epics." 

Brinda Amritraj, a clinical psychologist, feels: "Rowling creates a mystical, magical fantasy world that holds our interest through five books, unlike Enid Blyton's real-life adventures." 

Kalpana Krishnamurti, an IT professional and Meghna's mother, remarks: "I sneaked the books out to read while she slept. Rowling may have taken elements from Blyton and C.S. Lewis, but she's still a superb storyteller."

Popular author Poile Sengupta half-jests: "Imagine books being in the news, apart from Beckham. I've always fantasised about books being stolen from a library! It's the first time since Alice in Wonderland that children and adults are equally excited... "

Some genuine customer feedback? Preeti, 11, declares: "I don't know why Rowling wasted three years. She didn't have to marry that Scottish doctor (anaesthetist Neil Murray, 31) and have a baby between books. She could have hurried up with the fifth one instead."

My sentiments, exactly. Spellbound like Preeti, I reach for a copy. Which of the key characters will die between its covers? How will the 15-year-old orphaned wizard cope with his first love? Can I reach the end before I've read the first word? At this moment, I believe in magic. Just like Harry Potter. 

(The Hindu Metroplus 2003)

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