New York: Author J.K.Rowling could not have asked for a better day to arrive at Harvard’s buzzing, vibrant, campus, set in quaint Cambridge. Thursday afternoon, when the 42 -year old author,one of the world’s best known figures after the huge success of her Harry Potter series, arrived at Harvard to deliver its 357th commencement lecture, it was damp, drizzly, gloomy and right out of a frame from Hogwarts, the mystical college of wizardry that she created.
15000-strong crowd at the Cambridge lecture
Not that the weather deterred any of her fans from arriving at the gates of the University to catch a glimpse of the author, who has sold more than 375 million copies of the Harry Potter series, riding on the back of the bespectacled good looks of its chief protagonist. Thousands of the author’s fans, including George Barner, Harvard senior from the class of 1929 (a centenarian) , who arrived at Harvard’s Tercentenary Hall here waving Potter’s famed Quidditch, to have a look at the woman who created the magical world of Hogwarts which brought back to the young and old alike, the joys of reading.
That the dimunitive, fragile Rowling has been an influence across ages and generations was evident from the fact that Harvard’s president, Drew Faust began her address to the gathering by welcoming friends, students, proud parents and ”witches, wizards and muggles of Hogwarts’, referring to the scores of people including children smuggled in by parents in full Hogwarts regalia.
Faust, revered in academic circles globally as one of the brightest minds in academia, introduced herself as ”muggles in chief” to a beaming Rowling (muggles are those ordinary folk who are not gifted with the powers of wizardry in Rowlings’s world). The audience and Rowling burst into spontaneous laughter when Faust confessed to being a die-hard fan of Potter and further charmed the author when she said , “as painful as it is to admit, Harvard cannot measure up to the magic of Hogwarts”.
12-year old Jackie Synder travelled from Pennsylvania with Harry Potter in tow
A somber Rowling told students who hung on her every word as she held forth on poverty and failure along with travails of being a single mother with no resources. She talked of how she often headed for the warmth of the heater in the nearest café on the street near her house, to write her fledgling Potter series.
A mere seven years after her graduation day, Rowling said she had failed on an epic scale with an exceptionally short-lived marriage, joblessness , single parenthood and an impoverished state. ”By every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew”, she said. But it was that failure ,she said, that eventually led her to focus her energy into finishing the only work that mattered to her... her writing. ”I was set free , because my greatest fear had already been realized and I was still alive and I still had a daughter whom I adored and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so, the rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life”.
Potter has since gone on to become a billionaire author, now rumored to be richer than the queen of England and is the patron of innumerable charities . “The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself or the strength of your relationships , until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that is painfully won and it has been worth more to me than any qualification I ever earned…..”.
Potter spoke at length on the other subject of her address-imagination, which, in its more transformative and revelatory capacity is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared. The writer referred repeatedly to her experiences at the research department of Amnesty International’s London headquarters where her job brought her in touch, repeatedly with the horrors of the torture , trials and executions , kidnapping and rapes in totalitarian regimes.
“Everyday , I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans to gain or maintain power and yet, I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before”, Rowling said, referring to the thousands of volunteers who work collectively, ceaselessly, through Amnesty to save people they neither know nor will ever meet. ”Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand , without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s minds, imagine themselves into other people’s places”.
Rowling made a strong, case for participation for the good of humanity. “Choosing to live in narrow spaces can lead to a form of mental agoraphobia and that brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid. What is more, those who choose not to empathize also end up enabling real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it , through our own apathy”.
The author ended her address to the gathering with an impassioned call to Harvard’s grads of 2008 to use their influence and status to raise their voice on behalf of those who do not have a voice, identify with not just the powerful but the powerless . She urged them to imagine themselves into the lives of the disadvantaged . “We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better,” she said.
Rowling’s 21-minute address was met, as expected , with a standing ovation. Yet, there were those who went back disappointed from the event. Dozens of children who arrived in their Sunday best, clutching copies of their favourite Harry Potter books tucked safely under their arms, did not even make it to the steps of the podium where she made her address. Security personnel threw an impenetrable cordon and did not allow for any autographs to be signed or photographs to be taken.