On Opinions

 

How do people form opinions?

Few days back a thought struck my mind.

Opinions, these days, are nothing but perceptions based on the limited knowledge that we gain and obstinately flaunt around in the manner of absolute truths.

OK, that is just my thought. That is really not my opinion. In fact time and again I have realized that I am not much of an opinionated person. I am scared of opinions. I often feel that I don’t have enough information to form opinions.

It really shocks me at times when I hear or watch certain people fight for their opinions. They get into verbal brawls on social media and it shocks me to see that people consider their knowledge supreme enough to put a foot down and say that what they say or believe in is the ultimate truth.

Phew! How do people survive under the weight of all that arrogance?

Wisdom comes with knowledge. Opinions also stem from knowledge. Then what is the difference between the two? Often grown-ups confuse opinions with absolute truths. If they can’t differentiate between the two, are they really grown-up?

Correct me if I am wrong, but I feel that wisdom doesn’t reside where arrogance does; information doesn’t really mean knowledge; opinions are not absolute truths.

I am not an opinionated person. I was a judgmental one (may be still I am – a little bit) but off-late I try not to be one. Maybe that is why it is difficult for me to form opinions. I feel I have no right to opine about anything or anyone until I am aware of the truth.

I often find myself speechless when people talk about opinions. Trust me, not having opinions comes with their own share of troubles. By the time I have dug enough to form an opinion about something, the chapter is well-closed and left behind.

I don’t have opinion on most of the things and often is taken for granted in making any kind of important decisions. But I am really not able to wrap y mind around the fact of forming an opinion base on limited information.

Can anyone help me out here?

 

 

On Griefs & Mourning

You lose something or someone. You grieve?

Losses are temporary. At times permanent. And then there are those that are momentary.

Who decides which ones are to be mourned and which ones are to be not? Why do they?

It is my grief, my loss. Don’t judge my tears or lack of them. I may not show, but maybe my insides are cracking. You don’t hear them. Do you?

You mock me when I wail, but do you see those tears that silently trickle down my eyes when I am in the dark? I am mourning, please let me. Don’t stop me. Don’t mock me. I won’t stop you, I promise.

You curse me when I don’t cry, but can you feel how shaken my insides are? My tears don’t roll out doesn’t mean I don’t grieve. They are my sorrows. I don’t wish to set them on a silver platter and show them to the world. They embrace me from the insides.

You can’t see them. Don’t try. You can only if I wish to. And yet my sorrows don’t listen to me. I am not their master. They come upon me as they please. I don’t want the losses.

I don’t want the losses. But they are mine nevertheless.

So, I mourn or maybe not. What you see, may be true, may not be. But, whatever it be, just let me grieve.

Time Bound

I always thought her eyes were black. But now, as I looked, I realised they were shades of deep brown. She always got crows feet around her eyes when she smiled. But right now she wasn’t and yet I could see those unruly, thin folds of skin around her eyes.

There are spots on her skin. But I brought her that expensive anti-aging skin cream from my last US visit. Isn’t she using that?

What is that shining near her temples? Whoa! her hairs have also started greying.

When did she grow so old? Hell! she can’t grow old. She still needs to teach me so much.

Her eyes seem glazed. Tears have started pooling in them. She is going to cry… as usual. But why are my eyes pricking?

“Why are you crying?”, she asks in a quavering voice.

And that is when the first drop exits from her left eye. The drop moves slowly and settles on two of the lower eyelashes. The prick in my eyes intensifies. I can feel the weight of her tears in my eyes now.

“I am not”, I say.

Her face contorts in that usual sob face. She moves closer and hugs me. “I can’t see you crying”, she says and that is when I feel a warm drop plop on my neck. It trickles down and merges with the hem of my t-shirt.

My chin is hooked in her nape and my eyes are closed. My cheeks are wet.

I don’t want to lose you, Ma. I want to tell her this.

“You always make me cry”, I say.

And both of us just keep weeping onto each other’s shoulders.

Night by Elie Wiesel

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Disclaimer: I won’t call this a typical book review. I have only penned here what I felt after reading the book.

I was a Holocaust ignorant, until 2 years back when I saw a BBC documentary of the ariel view of Auschwitz which was shot using a drone. The sheer numbness that spread through me watching that video has stayed with me. After that whenever I heard the word Holocaust, those images and the barren coldness returned to me.

Living in India, our history subjects never really elaborated on Hitler or his dictatorship. In my country, Hitler and Nazi, these words are mostly used to describe strict people in a comic way. After I have come to know about Holocaust, I tread with caution before I use these words. And I feel others should too.

Reading Night by Elie Weisel (a Holocaust survivor) made me realize how desensitized I have been. This book brings me back to my senses, makes me hate how cold hearted I have been. And it did it not by some overly dramatic rendition of the horrors of life in a concentration camp but more by the lack of it.

The book contains a most mundane and straightforward description of what happened during the year the author was imprisoned. And my reaction wasn’t something like a punch to the gut, but more confused. For me, it was inconceivable that those words didn’t hit me like bullet shots but were like a normal retelling of the day-to-day events. The sheer lack of extreme pain in those words was something that really made me shudder and be at a loss for words. Even a clear thought process.

“I would pause at every sentence, and start over and over again. I would conjure up other verbs, other images, other silent cries. It still was not right. But what exactly was “It”? “It” was something elusive, darkly shrouded for fear of being usurped, profaned. All the dictionary had to offer seemed meager, pale lifeless.”

His description of his last encounter with his mother and little sister:

An SS came towards us wielding a club. He commanded: “Men to the left! Women to the right!” Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight simple, short words. Yet that was the moment when I left my mother.”

Words. The power they can hold is devastating. Yes, not a new thought, not an original one, yet so true nonetheless. Buna. Buchenwald. Mengele. Auschwitz. Words, but ones that incite something within. Creeps. Nausea Fear.

I once saw the interview of a Holocaust survivor. I saw the fading tattoo on their wrinkling arm. And after reading Night I thought about him again. I realized what he was. I realized what his life was. He was witness to history’s most unfathomable event. Something which made me rethink about being pissed off at the tiniest of situations.

I don’t think I will ever meet a survivor. All I have, all we have are books like Night and Anne Frank which will have to serve as an education, a reminder that this, in fact, did happen and that it is cruel and moronic and downright irresponsible to believe otherwise.

I could say that I did have some sense of relief that at least I wasn’t alive during this. That I didn’t sit back and have some vague understanding of this going on. But, that’s not really the case, right? We still have other insane situations happening out there and what frustrates me most is the fact that we are outraged over the most silliest of things.

“For in the end, it is all about memory, its sources and its magnitude, and, of course, its consequences.”

So, Elie Wiesel’s account, at 112 pages, serves as a powerful, undeniable, testament. As simply stated as that.

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself. 
Never. 

And in the Preface to the New Translation, he says: “And yet still I wonder: Have I used the right words?’

For me, yes. For you, read the book and be the judge.

Eleanor & Park

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Eleanor & Park
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Genre: Young Adult/Romance

This story is for all those 80s and 90s teenagers who grew up listening to mix tapes on walkmans and being the ultimate obscure personalities at school. This is a not so typical love story where the misfits are protagonists.

Park is a boy with few friends and even fewer words. He finds comfort in his superhero comics and music. Eleanor is the new kid in the school who is a diminishing shadow of her beautiful mother. She is plump, has red, curly hair which has made her the subject of mockery of the mean girls from her day 1 in the school. These two characters are thrust into a situation together with no other option – they share the same seat on the school bus.

This is their love story. A love which slowly blossoms and goes from innocent to gentle to passionate all in the course of 1 year. This is also the story of their personal struggles; the story of a love which would make you wonder and question a lot of things.

At least, I had my thoughts and questions.

It is a teenage love story filled with turbulence;
what will the end be?
They are too young to get married.
They are not even mature enough to understand long-term commitments.
So what would the end be?
The author really cannot go on about their entire lives.

These thoughts kept gnawing me all throughout. But then the end did arrive. And even though it left me wanting more it was in a way a beautiful ending.

Eleanor & Park is a sure shot hit with people who love love-stories. For me it was a refreshing change or one can say a happy break from the serious or action-packed subjects that I have been reading.

The author has kept the characters real and vulnerable. And perhaps that is one thing why I didn’t dislike this love story. For once, it was not a nauseating sweet love story or something with some stark and grave tragedy. Although, many people have criticized the book on the basis of its timeliness. But I am not such a minute picker.

All in all, I enjoyed reading the book and loved Rainbow Rowell’s writing. I might even give her other books a try; Fangirl for sure.

Room – Emma Donoghue

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2 weeks back, a glance through the ticketing app had me booking tickets for this movie called Room. It had great reviews and through that, I even came to know that the movie is based on a Booker Prize-nominated book of the same name.

The movie was good. It has some brilliant performances although, like every book turned into a movie, many details have been trimmed. So, if you want to enjoy the movie, I suggest you do it before reading the book.

But, then it sure does acts as a big spoiler to the book.

The reason that triggered me to watch the movie was the same to pick up the book – the extraordinary plot.

5-year-old Jack was born in Room and has been living in it ever since with his Ma. Jack’s world comprises of and is limited to Ma and all things in Room. For him, it is just Room and then outer space. And then all the ‘unlying’ happens. After 5 years, Jack is introduced to ‘Outside’ where all the world exists.

Room is not a typical tale of escaping from confinement. It is more like a before-after story. It tells you about how a young mother nurtures her kid despite limited space and resources. It is the story of how a kid fights all his fears and helps his mother get out of 7 years of captivity. It is also the story of the struggles of these two when they finally achieve the one thing they wanted most.

First half of the book contains the frustrating mundanity of life in Room. So much so that readers might want to just leave it at that. But if one holds on, they will realize how it was necessary to communicate that frustration. Then there is the ‘Great Escape’ which will leave your heart thumping and your hands gripping the book. And then the freedom.

Room is narrated by Jack. The writer has done a good job at bringing forth the imperfect knowledge and rigid pragmatism of a 5-year-old who believes that he knows everything. “In Room we knowed what everything was called but in the world there’s so much, persons don’t even know the names.”

Emma Donoghue has treated her characters with honesty. She has made them imperfect, flawed, and selfish to the extent that each one of us would be in their situation. But said that, one cannot not marvel at their grit, their brevity, their determination, and their ingenuity. Both the protagonists are powerful and more than that honest. And I would recommend anyone to read this book just to experience that honesty in story.

To Those ‘Once Upon A Time’ People

Hi,

Once upon a time I knew you.

You knew me too.

We don’t know each other anymore.

I don’t know why I thought of you today. It is not that I have forgotten you. You stay in my memories, and they never leave me alone. But today I think of you as my ‘once upon a time’ friend and I smile.

There are so many of you. Your faces pass before my eyes like pictures imprinted on a roll of photographic negative film. I see us laughing together, crying even.

Once, one of you told me that I was an important shade on the canvas of his life and that I will forever be there. I want to tell this to all of you. You all have been very dear pages of the story of my life. You all played your roles so beautifully. Some exits were dramatic, some just phased out like they were tired out of the long-drawn drama; some got better roles and simply quit.

But all of you left me with fond memories and warm smiles. The embittered feelings are there no more. All that is there is the feeling of ‘what-if’. We didn’t work. Do I regret it? No. I have accepted it. But yes, I never wanted us to not work. And this is not my justification. It is my mere confession.

So, my dear ‘once upon a time’ people I truly wish that you are doing good. I really hope that you are happy and smiling. And I pray that life is kind to you and God, merciful.

And I also wish that you don’t think of me or miss me. Because if you are, then we are just like those two people who are sitting with their backs to each other and wondering why they are not able to see the other.

Though I do wonder. Yes, I do wonder.

Do you ever think of me?

Whom do I mention here? There are just so many of you.

Those school friends, those friends turned foes turned strangers, those crushes, those ‘best friends’, those guides, mentors, and inspirations. Those fellow colleagues, writers, bloggers, chatters, talkers, strangers.

And then there is that old, ‘once upon a time’ me. The one whom I left behind with you all to be.

recite

 

If tears could speak

I sat on the bench, with a slouch which any person capable of reading body languages will identify as the one of a failed person. I was filled with anger. I was frustrated. And tears were rolling down my cheeks. Why? Because I cannot scream and shout.

I wish these tears had a voice. Just like that ‘howler’ in Harry Potter movies. I wish these tears were howlers; screaming all my frustrations out as they splashed on any surface.

Thank God! thoughts are silent. Imagine the havoc if people around you could read your thoughts. But I wish tears screamed. Because, there are many like me who cannot mouth words when they are frustrated.

If tears could speak, people would not throw and break those expensive phones in frustration. Gee… how do people do that?! How can people spend a kidney’s worth on a phone and then be overcome by rage and throw it?!

What about men? Most scream and shout and go all ballistic missile at times in their rage. Would they continue to do it if tears could speak?

If tears could speak, we could so easily identify those crocodile ones. Those would actually be hilarious to listen to. Literary geniuses might need to come up with a new word to describe that kind of content. Because those would neither be tragic nor comic.

By the way, a small trivia question and answer here. Do you know why ‘crocodile tears’ phrase is called so? The phrase comes from the belief that crocodiles shed tears while consuming their victims. Scientists say that crocodiles shed tears while feeding.

Thank God again that  crocodiles can’t speak. Just imagine if crocodiles were on twitter and they get to know about this fact. INTOLERANCE OUTRAGE.

“We shed tears when we eat. Not to fake emotions.”

“I condemn comparing us to those wretched humans faking emotions.”

“This is a false allegation. Those are not crocodile tears. Those are glycerine tears.”

If tears could speak, Nirupa Roy would never have had any dialogues.

If tears could speak, Adele and Taylor Swift would be having a million songs by now.

If tears could speak, Aamir Khan would have been in serious trouble. Real feelings towards the movies he watches would be out; Bollywood outraging; nephew outraging; so much outrage all around.

If tears could speak, it would have been so easy for babies to communicate. Oh! but then the already under-rated mothers would get even more under-rated. *sigh*

But If tears could speak, many of us would have been spared of that all time frustrating question of “Why are you crying?” (Let us cry man, dont do this QnA session.)

Alas! tears can’t speak.

Well, I guess I am better off at crying silent tears. Atleast they aren’t hurting anyone.

Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami

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Name: Norwegian Wood
Author: Haruki Murakami
Genre: Fiction, Romance

This is only my second Murakami, but what caused me to pick this one and read was the many reviews which told that this one is totally different from the standard Murakami books. Not a proper authority to judge yet, I shall give you a POV of a rookie Murakami reader.

Norwegian Wood, the title is derived from the song of the same name by the famous band, The Beatles. This book caused me to obtain the majority collection of the band and now I am totally in love with their music.

Set in the 1969 Japan, this is the story of 19 year old Toru Watanabe, who is in love with Naoko. Both, Toru and Naoko, are connected through the life and death of Kizuki, Toru’s best friend and Naoko’s boy friend. While Toru leads an oblivious life of a normal Japanese student, he is devoutly in love with Naoko, who herself is troubled by her own demons. A patient Toru bears with all of Naoko’s whims, while waiting for her to accept his love. Meanwhile, Toru is also drawn to Midori, a self-reliant, independent, and highly out-going girl, who has fallen in love with him. But his wait for Naoko is holding him back.

This is not an everyday love triangle. This is a train ride which will take you to the depths of all kinds of emotions. Murakami has rendered a story so beautiful that one cannot help experiencing what the characters are going through. You will get high when they get drunk, rejoice with them, relax with them, get all worked-up, and even feel spaced-out when the character does so.

Norwegian Wood is a poignant, deep and a beautiful love story. The romance is pure and is marked by its own imperfections which only goes to make the story so real.

The characters are powerfully sketched but each has been molded with edges so soft that it really hurts to see them hurt.

The story flows just like a calm crystalline stream, meandering gently through the plains, which is in no hurry to reach its destination. For me, it almost worked like a travelling-capsule, which transcended me into a zen space everytime I have picked it to read it.

The story contains its own gentle highs and lows. And the prose is as beautiful as a love letter written during the classical era. All I feel after reading this work is a weightlessness that one feels when one gets totally separated from the chaos going inside and outside of them. A detached bliss that only a love story like Toru’s is capable of giving.

The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination

This speech by J.K. Rowling was shared with me by my favourite teacher Prof. Tareque Laskar. I am forever indebted to him for sharing with me this piece of gem. Today I share it with you with a hope that it brings to the same enlightenment that it brought to me.

Harvard University 375th Commencement Address

J.K. Rowling

As prepared for delivery

President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers, members of the faculty, proud parents, and, above all, graduates,

The first thing I would like to say is ‘thank you.’ Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honour, but the weeks of fear and nausea I’ve experienced at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation! Now all I have to do is take deep breaths, squint at the red banners and fool myself into believing I am at the world’s best-educated Harry Potter convention.

Delivering a commencement address is a great responsibility; or so I thought until I cast my mind back to my own graduation. The commencement speaker that day was the distinguished British philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock. Reflecting on her speech has helped me enormously in writing this one, because it turns out that I can’t remember a single word she said. This liberating discovery enables me to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in business, law or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard.

You see? If all you remember in years to come is the ‘gay wizard’ joke, I’ve still come out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock. Achievable goals: the first step towards personal improvement.

Actually, I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say to you today. I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation, and what important lessons I have learned in the 21 years that has expired between that day and this.

I have come up with two answers. On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called ‘real life’, I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination.

These might seem quixotic or paradoxical choices, but please bear with me.

Looking back at the 21-year-old that I was at graduation, is a slightly uncomfortable experience for the 42-year-old that she has become. Half my lifetime ago, I was striking an uneasy balance between the ambition I had for myself, and what those closest to me expected of me.

I was convinced that the only thing I wanted to do, ever, was to write novels. However, my parents, both of whom came from impoverished backgrounds and neither of whom had been to college, took the view that my overactive imagination was an amusing personal quirk that could never pay a mortgage, or secure a pension.

They had hoped that I would take a vocational degree; I wanted to study English Literature. A compromise was reached that in retrospect satisfied nobody, and I went up to study Modern Languages. Hardly had my parents’ car rounded the corner at the end of the road than I ditched German and scuttled off down the Classics corridor.

I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics; they might well have found out for the first time on graduation day. Of all subjects on this planet, I think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom.

I would like to make it clear, in parenthesis, that I do not blame my parents for their point of view. There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you. What is more, I cannot criticise my parents for hoping that I would never experience poverty. They had been poor themselves, and I have since been poor, and I quite agree with them that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression; it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is indeed something on which to pride yourself, but poverty itself is romanticised only by fools.

What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure.

At your age, in spite of a distinct lack of motivation at university, where I had spent far too long in the coffee bar writing stories, and far too little time at lectures, I had a knack for passing examinations, and that, for years, had been the measure of success in my life and that of my peers.

I am not dull enough to suppose that because you are young, gifted and well-educated, you have never known hardship or heartbreak. Talent and intelligence never yet inoculated anyone against the caprice of the Fates, and I do not for a moment suppose that everyone here has enjoyed an existence of unruffled privilege and contentment.

However, the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very well-acquainted with failure. You might be driven by a fear of failure quite as much as a desire for success. Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the average person’s idea of success, so high have you already flown academically.

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realised, 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 rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above rubies.

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 it is painfully won, and it has been worth more to me than any qualification I ever earned.

Given a time machine or a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.

You might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of imagination, because of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but that is not wholly so. Though I will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

One of the greatest formative experiences of my life preceded Harry Potter, though it informed much of what I subsequently wrote in those books. This revelation came in the form of one of my earliest day jobs. Though I was sloping off to write stories during my lunch hours, I paid the rent in my early 20s by working in the research department at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London.

There in my little office I read hastily scribbled letters smuggled out of totalitarian regimes by men and women who were risking imprisonment to inform the outside world of what was happening to them. I saw photographs of those who had disappeared without trace, sent to Amnesty by their desperate families and friends. I read the testimony of torture victims and saw pictures of their injuries. I opened handwritten, eye-witness accounts of summary trials and executions, of kidnappings and rapes.

Many of my co-workers were ex-political prisoners, people who had been displaced from their homes, or fled into exile, because they had the temerity to think independently of their government. Visitors to our office included those who had come to give information, or to try and find out what had happened to those they had been forced to leave behind.

I shall never forget the African torture victim, a young man no older than I was at the time, who had become mentally ill after all he had endured in his homeland. He trembled uncontrollably as he spoke into a video camera about the brutality inflicted upon him. He was a foot taller than I was, and seemed as fragile as a child. I was given the job of escorting him to the Underground Station afterwards, and this man whose life had been shattered by cruelty took my hand with exquisite courtesy, and wished me future happiness.

And as long as I live I shall remember walking along an empty corridor and suddenly hearing, from behind a closed door, a scream of pain and horror such as I have never heard since. The door opened, and the researcher poked out her head and told me to run and make a hot drink for the young man sitting with her. She had just given him the news that in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country’s regime, his mother had been seized and executed.

Every day of my working week in my early 20s I was reminded how incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a democratically elected government, where legal representation and a public trial were the rights of everyone.

Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard and read.

And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before.

Amnesty mobilises thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.

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.

Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.

And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.

I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. 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 empathise may enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.

One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.

That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people’s lives simply by existing.

But how much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to touch other people’s lives? Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work, the education you have earned and received, give you unique status, and unique responsibilities. Even your nationality sets you apart. The great majority of you belong to the world’s only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden.

If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped transform for the better. 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.

I am nearly finished. I have one last hope for you, which is something that I already had at 21. The friends with whom I sat on graduation day have been my friends for life. They are my children’s godparents, the people to whom I’ve been able to turn in times of trouble, friends who have been kind enough not to sue me when I’ve used their names for Death Eaters. At our graduation we were bound by enormous affection, by our shared experience of a time that could never come again, and, of course, by the knowledge that we held certain photographic evidence that would be exceptionally valuable if any of us ran for Prime Minister.

So today, I can wish you nothing better than similar friendships. And tomorrow, I hope that even if you remember not a single word of mine, you remember those of Seneca, another of those old Romans I met when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in search of ancient wisdom:

As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.

I wish you all very good lives.

Thank you very much.