Why I Never Read Harry Potter (or Other Gems of Magic Realism)

As a reader, I have a grudge against myself. Although the stories I consumed avidly as a child were all from the realm of fantasy and mythology – most of them narrated to me by people I grew up around – as an adult I can't bring myself to read any work of fantasy.

I am forced to admit that this stubborn resistance to the works of fantasy deprives me of the pleasure of reading some of the most celebrated works of contemporary and classic fiction.

It's not as if I haven't tried enough. I genuinely have.

In fact, I am one of those masochist readers who go on reading the book until they finish it, even if they don't like it at all. Last year I picked up Neil Gaiman's The Ocean At The End Of The Lane. Driven by his huge popularity and personal charm, I somehow convinced myself to read his work, despite knowing that he serves his fiction with a generous dose of fantasy.

I was excited. It was my first Gaiman. I told myself, “you will be a good boy; you will not fuss; he is one of the most important contemporary voices of the literary world; you will read him patiently.”

Alas! Even my literary masochism could not force me to finish the slender book. I must have read about three-quarters of it before I gave up. This is not a commentary on the quality of his writing – it's wonderful and amusing.

In fact, it's about my inability to fully relish fantasy now.

There was a time in the latter half of the century when the genre of magic realism had opened floodgates of imagination for writers. Many of the post-colonial writers seized on this new territory and produced works that are now counted among contemporary classics – such as, One Hundred Years Of Solitude and Midnight's Children, etc.

Magic realism was an attempt to marry two major tributaries of literature, namely, realism and fantasy.

As I read some of these brilliant books, I realised that even they did not move me the way I had expected them to. They amazed me; they wowed me, but they did not move me. And when I read (for pleasure), I want to be moved emotionally.

So, even this subset of fantasy with its strong semblance of realism, I realised, did not appeal to me. There are also writers like Manu Joseph who somehow think of magic realism as some sort of a cop-out. The idea is that real life in all its glory and gloom is so fantastical that you don't have to invent the fantastical. Instead, there are times when a writer may have to tone down the accuracy of reality lest they are accused of writing things that are too incredible.

I was one of those kids who were oblivious to the extraordinary sway of the Harry Potter series. Later on, when I got to know about it and realised how crazy most people my age are about it, I toyed with the idea of reading it. But, of course, I couldn’t. I found myself too old to be reading it; when I read the synopsis, I realise that if as a child I had the opportunity to read the series I may have devoured it; but now at this stage, I can not bring myself to invest in the struggles of the little, bespectacled wizard with the dark forces.

From the books that I read now, I have come to demand a world populated by real people struggling with real problems – and God knows that there are plenty. While I understand that most fantasy is strongly underpinned by real-life incidents, I have grown too impatient for veiled metaphors and indirection.

I like books that call a spade a spade and not a witch’s spatula.

Perhaps it's far more difficult to capture life with all its squalor and shapelessness. Squalor: that we live through daily but that makes us uncomfortable when we encounter it in art. In life, there are no neat resolutions, there is no triumph of the good over evil. However, one must also concede that in many instances fantasy has been the ultimate resort of writers who write in an environment or for an audience that is hostile to a free and unvarnished expression of thoughts.

Also, without the world of fantasy and magic realism, the literary landscape would not have been as colourful and expansive.

Perhaps, my aversion to fantasy stems from the fact that mythology had such a strong influence on my psyche while I was growing up, that it was difficult to undo it until much later; and maybe I still haven't been able to undo it fully.

As a writer, I had once resolved to never write stories that are purely imaginary, because I thought that it would make me complicit with the myth-makers who instil false hope in people and don’t let them see the world the way it is. Thus, in my first book that I am working on, I decided to tell only the stories which have a robust kernel of lived experience at their centre.

As a reader, however, I still feel deprived, and at times, even tempted.  I wonder which of the two resolves I am going to break first: that of reading fantasy, or that of writing it.

(Yash Raj Goswami is a teacher and a freelance writer.)

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