"What The Hell Is A Panju?" And Other Questions I, A Brown Potterhead, Have For J.K. Rowling
Ask everyone around you to name their favourite Harry Potter character. You’ll hear more names of imaginary creatures than you will of people of colour.
There are only seven mornings in my life when I’ve woken up earlier than 6am and not been grouchy about it. I remember them all.
Crossword didn’t open its doors until 11am but a queue poured around it hours earlier. Peddar Road’s crack-of-dawn patrons – joggers, dabbawalas, cycle-mounted idli vendors – craned their necks to gawk at the ocean of parents and pre-teens assembling in the dark.
We lined up wherever we had to – outside stores, at the cinema, in costumes, at midnight.
I was never bored in that line. I would spend the hours mentally mapping the bookstore, trying to guess which shelf the new Harry Potter book would be placed on, and pathing my sprint to it.
At bookstores around the country – in Delhi, in Chennai, in Bangalore, in Hyderabad – kids and adults were doing the same.
India loved, and continues to love, Harry Potter. Each book was translated into Malayalam, Telugu, Tamil, Marathi, Hindi, Gujarati, and Bengali, and devoured in each. The films were dubbed into regional languages (often to hilarious effect) and generated staggering revenues around the nation. We lined up wherever we had to – outside stores, at the cinema, in costumes, at midnight.
India loved and loves J.K. Rowling. That’s what makes it so devastating to find out as an adult that, despite profiting from our adoration, she couldn’t actually care less about us.
India loves J.K. Rowling. But despite profiting from our adoration, she couldn’t care less about us.
Let me just come out and say it: What the hell is a Panju?
If you haven’t yet read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and don’t want spoilers, stop here.
Panju is an island in Vasai. That’s all you need to know.
If you’ve read the play, you know Panju is the name Rowling gave to the son Ron and Padma Patil have together in an alternate reality.
A two-minute Google search would’ve told her that Panju isn’t a boy’s name. Or an Indian name. It’s not even a realistic name (unless the latest Weasley kid indeed is an island in Vasai, which I somehow doubt).
“Panju” is further evidence that Rowling would rather pander to non-white audiences than put in the work it takes to represent us fairly in her writing.
Rowling would rather pander to non-white audiences than put in the work it takes to represent us fairly in her writing.
If you don’t believe me, ask everyone around you to name their favourite Harry Potter character. You’ll hear more names of imaginary creatures than you will of people of colour.
I did it right now: Snape. Fred. Tonks. Dobby.
Not Kingsley Shacklebolt. Not Cho Chang. And, understandably, not the Patil sisters. There’s not enough material. There’s not enough attention.
Cho Chang is supposed to be of Chinese descent, but a Google search tells me that “Cho” and “Chang” are Korean last names.
Rowling was also recently accused of appropriating Native American culture to suit her story on Pottermore.
And, of course, I will never get over Padma and Parvati's horrifying Yule Ball get-ups.
In Rowling’s defence, her universe was created at a time when our real world was far less conscious of diversity represented in pop culture. And also in her defence, she’s made some efforts to have her universe keep up with ours.
She won hearts around the world, especially of LGBTQ readers, when she declared that Dumbledore is gay. There’s no mention of his homosexuality in the books (the undercurrents between him and Grindelwald feel like a stretch) but, as the real world became more inclusive of orientations, she claimed that hers always had been.
As the real world became more inclusive, she claimed that hers always had been.
Similarly, in 2016, when black actor Noma Dumezweni was cast as Hermione in the stage adaptation of Cursed Child, a number of Twitter users confronted Rowling about the decision.
She responded: "Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione.”
Scanning through the series could tell you that Rowling did write Hermione as a lighter-skinned character. Hermione is said to have tanned after a vacation to France in Prisoner of Azkaban, there’s a scene in which her “white face was sticking out from behind a tree” in the same book, and there are other instances in which her skin is, in fact, described as pale.
But, overall, it was a progressive, productive decision on Rowling’s part to proclaim her love for black Hermione. I get it. I applaud it. I love black Hermione, too.
Like this, in moments of fanatic adoration, it’s possible to forgive Rowling for the lack of diversity in the original books. They were written in the '90s, after all. Before Twitter, before social justice Tumblr, before even Rowling knew the impact she would go on to have and the standards she’d be held to.
In moments of fanatic adoration, it’s possible to forgive Rowling for the lack of diversity in the original books.
By some bends of the imagination, it’s even possible to consider Rowling progressive for the era she wrote in: She didn’t shy away from commenting on social issues via wizarding metaphors, most prominently the racially reminiscent tension between “pure bloods” and “mudbloods”.
But, even if we forgive the past, let’s come back to 2016, release year of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
Cursed Child was written, performed, and released long after Rowling understood her reach. Long after she began to claim progressive cred on Twitter for being pro–racial diversity, pro–gay people, pro-peace, and pro–all things liberal.
So one can’t help but balk at the glaring lack of non-white people actually on stage. The two brown characters that do exist are off-stage vessels of misrepresentation mentioned only in passing.
Padma wears Ron down to the point that he’s not his former endearing self. Rowling conveniently chose the only brown character to ruin Ron Weasley, probably because Hermione Granger-Weasley, the single strong woman of colour in the entire ensemble, is a good enough token to earn it.
(Actually, Hermione is the only strong woman in the entire ensemble; Ginny Potter, the wife and mother, seems to exist as a cushion.)
In short: Even if we forgive the straight, white, wizarding world of the '90s, I have a lot of questions for J.K. Rowling about Cursed Child of 2016.
Even if we forgive the straight, white wizarding world of the '90s, I have a lot of questions for J.K. Rowling about Cursed Child of 2016.
You've been vocally feminist online, so why is Hermione Granger-Weasley the only woman with any agency in your story?
Was it really that difficult to write an Asian character that wasn’t reeking of stereotypes?
Why did 300 pages of buildup between the seemingly gay and made-for-each-other Scorpius and Albus end with the very, very hetero return to Rose?
And, again, what the hell is a Panju?
I don’t know, Google won’t tell me.
But I do know that Harry Potter is afraid of pigeons.
And that only white people save the world.