Inside a Harry Potter fandom3 min read . Updated: 30 Nov 2019, 10:40 AM IST
Keshava Guha’s thoughtful debut novel is set among a community obsessed with J.K. Rowling’s books
One of the testaments to the genius of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is that it has sparked wildly disparate forms of creativity. There have been copious amounts of fan fiction, and cultural artefacts as varied as the delightful podcast “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text", in which two academics from the Harvard Divinity School discuss morality and ethics using the Harry Potter books as “sacred text" (the way one would use, say, the Bible), and Keshava Guha’s first novel, Accidental Magic, which draws its four main characters from the world of Harry Potter obsessives.
Set largely in Boston between the late 1990s-2001, when four of the Harry Potter books were out and fans were waiting breathlessly for the fifth, with some moments in “Bangalore" and “Madras", the novel starts with Kannan, a young engineering graduate. Like many Indian engineering graduates, he is destined to go to the US for higher education, following in the footsteps of his paragon of a brother, Santhanam, who remains a mildly funny but shadowy figure through the course of the novel.
Kannan is quiet and contemplative, and comes from a cold, undemonstrative family that has always denied him the two things he values most: privacy and imagination. A couple of years after he arrives in the US, he gets drawn into the world of adult Harry Potter fans—largely through his unexpected and quick friendship with a much older nerd, Curtis Grimmett, a solitary man who hosts a radio talk show and moderates a Harry Potter fansite. Through the fandom, he meets Rebecca Nicholls, an attractive young woman who is also, like Kannan, trying to figure out who she is—though her family circumstances, as the only child of well-off, liberal academics, couldn’t be more different from Kannan’s. Then there’s Malathi, an intelligent, somewhat naive and sensitive girl, whose interest in reading, especially her love for Harry Potter books, sparks a relationship—an accidental magic—between her and Kannan during one of his visits to India.
This relationship becomes the defining moment of the novel and its point of crisis—almost till the end, the reader is aware that things could go any way with these four people. The fandom they belong to is shown to be obsessed with the question of whether Ron or Harry should end up with Hermione—“shipping" or speculating about relationships is a huge part of any pop-culture fandom—and it is fitting that the action of the novel should invoke similar questions in the reader’s mind.
Accidental Magic is sharp in its observation of human emotions, motivations and the power play between people. Being driven by character rather than plot, the reader spends a lot of time listening to the characters’ thoughts—this is generally enjoyable, though, like all 20-somethings, they take themselves (and their thoughts) very seriously indeed. The author seems to be aware of this tendency, and his third-person narration is often laced with irony at the folly of his own characters—at the emotional immaturity of a certain type of Indian man, and the reflexive rebellion of a certain type of white girl.
Guha has said he is a fan of the English writer Penelope Fitzgerald—he calls her “the novelist closest to my heart for her devastating wisdom about people, her intellectual range, her humour, and above all her subtlety"—and that his favourite novel in English is George Eliot’s Middlemarch. It is obvious that despite the playfulness and modernity of his settings—a fan convention, a meeting of Harry Potter fans in someone’s basement, pages of a website dedicated to circuitous fan speculation—Guha wanted to write a novel of morals and manners, which he has accomplished. There is much in this book to delight the Harry Potter nerd (look out for how Grimmett comes up with Kannan’s screen name, Chudcannon26) and there’s a lot for those who have never cracked a page of those books (their loss).
In an interview with Lounge, Guha said he sees this book as being essentially about people, and the fandom as a “little bridge of sympathy" between characters who belong to different cultures, geographies and generations. Perhaps this book can forge a little bridge of sympathy between those who have read Harry Potter and those who haven’t.