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Life, magic and Harry Potter

In Keshava Guha’s debut novel ‘Accidental Magic’ four very different people are united by their love for Harry Potter. The author shares more with NT BUZZ prior to the book launch at Goa Arts and Literature Festival 2019, which begins on December 5

CHRISTINE MACHADO | NT BUZZ

Q. When did you know that writing books was something you wanted to do?

I’ve wanted to write fiction for as long as I can remember. The first thing I remember writing was a Tolkien-inspired work of epic fantasy when I was 10 or 11 – it was terrible, of course.

My interest in writing came from two places – a love of reading novels, and an interest in other people. Reading and writing fiction is a way to step outside myself and inhabit other lives, other minds.

Q. How did the time you spent studying in the US influence the themes that your book dwells on?

While this book isn’t autobiographical per se, it was certainly shaped by my years in the US. While the US is famously diverse, its social life, as I observed in my years there, is defined by self-segregation. People tend to associate more or less exclusively with others like themselves – whether defined by class, age, ethnicity or educational background. Harry Potter fandom was a way to bridge these segregated groups, to bring people who would never otherwise meet.

In my years in the US, particularly in the first year, I spent more time on my own than I ever had in India. My interest in the line between loneliness and solitude (what Kannan, in the novel, calls “aloneness”) comes out of this experience. Indian life is notorious for its chronic lack of privacy. When Kannan arrives in the US, he experiences the absence of company not as loneliness but as something unexpectedly joyous.

Q. You used to read a lot of fan fiction growing up. Did you write your own too? And what were some absurd plots that you came across?

My experience of Harry Potter fandom was mostly as a “lurker” – someone who consumes rather than writes. Later, as a teenager, I did write a couple of pieces of fanfic – short stories or, in fandom parlance, “one-shots”. Both survive online under a pseudonym.

This is not absurd per se, but I vividly remember how, during the absolute peak of fan fiction – the years between ‘Goblet of Fire’ and ‘Order of the Phoenix’ – there were literally hundreds of stories that involved an American “exchange student” arriving at Hogwarts for fifth year, and striking up a romance with Harry or Hermione.

I always found the existence of these hilarious, but also rather sweet – they were a wish-fulfilment exercise.

Q. Although Harry Potter could be seen as a book spanning across ages, there is also a perception that it appeals more to the younger crowd. Wouldn’t this in a way limit the reach of your book?

I don’t think knowledge of Harry Potter is necessary in order to read or appreciate the book. Aravind Adiga, whose very generous endorsement is on the cover, has never read any Harry Potter. What readers take out of a book is always some function of what they bring to it – so, yes, lovers of Harry Potter may appreciate the book in a particular way. But that is equally true, say, of someone who has lived in Boston, whether or not they have read Harry Potter.

And the book is about grownup Harry Potter fans – one of the major characters, Curtis Grimmett, is in his mid-fifties.

Q. You’ve mentioned previously that a lot of the book is based on the difference between the lives we live and the life we want to be in. Could you elaborate?

Two characters in the book particularly illustrate this question. One is Rebecca who, in her early twenties, has become frustrated by the predictability of her life. She looks at the trajectory of her life so far and finds that all her choices reflect what a person like her should be doing – they’re safe, and boring.

On the other hand you have Kannan, who has never had any agency – he’s been dictated to by his parents and his elder brother. Harry Potter is the first thing in his life that he has chosen for himself, and also his first and only love. And one of the sources of that love is that Harry Potter has nothing to do with the life that has been expected of him.

Q. Why do you think that the Harry Potter series became such a universally loved book?

No one really knows the answer to this question, of course. I do have a couple of theories. One is that the Harry Potter books, while thought of us as fantasy novels, are in fact the realist stowaway on the fantasy ship. They are set in our world, just a more attractive version – thus the whole phenomenon of children waiting to receive their Hogwarts letter, thinking about which house they would be in, etc. You couldn’t feel that way about the ‘Lord of the Rings’.

Another is the way in which the books, in the manner of classic Hindi films, have a little bit of everything – comedy, romance, tragedy, adventure, friendship, enmity, heroism. They are crowd-pleasers, in the best sense.

Q. What are some questions about the Potter story that you wish Rowling had answered?

None. In fact I rather regret her tendency to explain the books after the fact. Once a book is written, it belongs to the reader as much as the writer. And I cherish ambiguity and the potential for books to invite as many interpretations as they have readers.

Q. Your father, historian Ramachandra Guha, writes a lot of non-fiction. Is that something you would consider trying somewhere down the line?

I’ve written plenty of journalism – political commentary, literary criticism, and a few pieces on sport. But I don’t have any plans at the moment to write non-fiction books. 

Q. What are you working on next?

Another novel, set in contemporary Delhi.

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