On February 4, Potterheads will celebrate JK Rowling’s book series by hosting Harry Potter Book Night parties in different parts of the world. Once again, I will sit with my co-host to cut out paper dementors, draw owls on white balloons with a marker, and make fudge flies with chocolates. But more importantly, apart from being a celebration of these fabulous books and fudge, our February gatherings always remind me of a key Patronus message tucked inside the Harry Potter stories: of inclusion and empathy.
In 2014, a study titled The greatest magic of Harry Potter: Reducing prejudice showed the books go a long way in teaching young readers tolerance and compassion. Rowling’s seven-book series constantly shines a light on systems of social hierarchies, like class and caste: there are the privileged magical people, and then there are the others. Muggles are non-magical people and some refer to them as mud-bloods, a filthy word for Muggle-born wizards who have often been ridiculed, tortured, and even killed. Only Pureblood wizards are considered worthy of magic.
Discrimination and prejudice, privilege and merit, inequality and diversity, tolerance and inclusion are an inherent part of our social structure. Yet, we don’t always talk to our children about these issues, and if we do, it’s often framed as something that’s alien to our social fabric. Instances are not contexualised, instead they are viewed as external, far-away phenomena. Children have nascent opinions about what’s right and what’s wrong, and it’s something that has to be nurtured. Especially in our society, with all its complexities. As children grow older, these perceptions, values, beliefs, and attitudes are shaped and solidified by parents, educators, peer groups, and the media they consume (among other things). These become the frameworks within which they’ll go on to interpret people, events, and issues as adults.
Look around us — children’s literature, artefacts, and the visual media are dominated by Hindu mythology and narratives. In comparison, fewer books are published about other folk tales or oral histories of minority communities. Nor do we see that many games, apps or films on these traditions that are equally rich and intricate. In such a scenario, where representation is selective, how do you begin to understand diversity? Most school textbooks are ill-equipped to explain India’s caste system and how it continues to exist in latent and manifested forms. How do you then explain to a young adult what it means that Rohith Vemula, a Dalit scholar, felt forced to commit suicide because of the way society treated him in a city as big and supposedly modern as Hyderabad?
In his suicide letter, Rohith Vemula, wrote, “My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past.” Those words are haunting, as is the rest of the letter. A friend of mine read the note and said that’s how his own childhood feels in hindsight, centred around his identity of being a Dalit. It was like the child didn’t matter, he said, because he grew up in an environment that constantly reinforced discrimination.
As children, we are rarely made aware of our own positions of privilege and as a result, we soak in prejudices — after all, how will we think of examining them if we’re not told prejudice exists or that it’s a topic of discussion? A subtle sneering at the children who play in public parks, or the ones who are “not like us, no” is all it takes sometimes. That difference is always palpable, embossed like an invisible line, whispered in school and college corridors, and even in staff rooms.
To not talk about this inequality, to ignore it, makes us equally culpable. It can only lead to a generation of citizens who would rather not question these complexities, the status quo, or their own source of privilege: caste and class. This further snowballs when it comes to the idea of merit, whether in college, the workplace, or in any other part of our lives.
If by reading a book, children can become more empathetic, then as adults, we can do so much more to encourage them. Maybe start by opening a dialogue. Answer questions. Listen to them with an open mind. Surround them with stories, books, films on inclusion and human rights. And lead by example.
Children are quick on the uptake. In the first Potter book, Draco Malfoy holds out a hand in friendship to Harry, “You’ll soon find out some wizarding families are much better than others, Potter. You don’t want to go making friends with the wrong sort. I can help you there.” Harry didn’t shake his hand.
Bijal Vachharajani writes about education for sustainable development, conservation, and food security. She’s the former editor of Time Out Bengaluru.