Wednesday, April 26, 2006

How Kaavya Vishwanathan Stole Someone Else’s Lines, Got Caught And Got Sued

I picked up Kaavya Vishwanathan’s How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got A Life last Sat’day at Mumbai airport. It wasn’t on my “must read” books list, yet I bought it, because a) I remembered reading rave reviews about it sometime back, b) the author, an Indian-American teenager studying in Harvard secured half-a-million dollar two-book contract with the publisher, and b) the blurb on the back cover was quite interesting. Sure enough, the book was quite a page turner; I finished it in 4 hours. The story had hardly anything new, except for the fact that the protagonist, Opal Mehta is a desi girl from New Jersey, whose parents’ sole aim in life is to send their daughter to Harvard. To achieve that they develop a program called HOWGIH or How Opal Will Get Into Harvard. In spite of her impeccable academic resume, Opal fails the Harvard interview. The Dean asks her “What do you do for fun?” and that’s one question Opal didn’t have an answer for! She’s given one more chance to interview five months later and asked to get a life in the meantime. Thus develops HOWGAL or How Opal Will Get A Life, which she follows to the T with disastrous results. Along with it she also learns some lessons in life.

The book had quite a few things going for it. It was sharp, witty and often quite funny. I quite liked Kaavya’s style; the prose was simple and straight-forward. In fact I recommended it to quite a few people for an easy read. Then came the shocker. Tuesday morning’s paper carried the story of how Harvard Crimson, the student news-letter of Kaavya’s alma mater has accused her of plagiarizing passages from Megan McCafferty’s teen bibles, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings. Apparently there are as many as 29 passages in Kaavya’s book which are identical to McCafferty’s books!

Here comes the funniest part. First, Kaavya denies any knowledge of similarity between Opal and McCafferty’s books. The next day she comes up with an apology through her publisher Little Brown. Apparently, she is a huge fan of McCafferty, has read all her books and “wasn’t aware of how much” she may have “internalized Ms McCafferty’s words”!! Well, 29 passages is definitely a lot to internalize! As Opal’s bitchy friends would say, HOWLAME is that!!

Now, we all get “inspired” every now and then by other people’s works…I mean look at Bollywood, it practically runs on inspiration! Vasu Bhagnani made a career out of producing movies which are inspired from B-grade Hollywood romantic comedies. Sanjay Leela Bhansali took truck-loads of awards by making Black which was inspired by The Miracle Worker. Even great composers like RD Burman, Bappi Lahiri and Anu Malik has succumbed to “inspiration” from western or regional music from time to time! It’s okay to get inspired…but do it smartly. In Bengali there’s a saying “Churi bidya maha bidya, jodi na poro dhora!” Loosely translated, it means “Stealing is a great art, till you get caught”!

Talking of Bappi Lahiri and his inspired works, reminds me of another Lahiri. I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies sometime in late 1999. It was an amazing book; completely unputdownable! A collection of short stories depicting lives of immigrant Bengalis in and around New England. The stories were simple yet distinct, that the characters so real that one can’t help but empathize with them. I was so proud when she got the Pulitzer Prize…she certainly deserved it!

A few years later I stumbled upon an article in an in-flight magazine about contemporary Sri Lankan literature. It also provided a list of authors and their works. I managed to get hold of a few of the titles and one of them was Monkfish Moon by Romesh Gunesekera, a Sri Lankan writer based in London. He made his debut with this collection of nine short stories in 1992. Written with great simplicity, the stories create a compelling picture of Sri Lanka, a country of teeming natural beauty and a society in turmoil. Each story haunts you long after you’ve finished reading it.

But something bothered me while reading the book, specially the story "Captives"; a story about Mr Udaweera, the owner of a newly opened guest house near Sigiriya, and his first guests, an English couple. Udaweera assumes they are on their honeymoon, and goes out of his way to help them, eventually overstepping the thin line between hospitality and emotional involvement. There was a great similarity between Mr Udaweera and Mr Kapasi of "Interpreter of Maladies". Both are guides in exotic historical monuments and both are enchanted by a tourist woman with a secret of their own.

In the story 'Batik', Gunesekera depicts the disintegration of the interracial marriage between Tiru (Tamil) and Nalini (Sinhala) in their self-imposed exile in a nondescript London terraced house. They are able to physically escape the ethnic carnage of the 1983 riots, but not their emotional or psychological effects. In essence it was very close to the slow and unspoken death of a marriage in "A Temporary Matter".

In fact, the similarities were so glaring that I read both books back to back once again. Both had nine stories each, about an ethnic group (Bengalis and Sri Lankans) in different parts of the world. And several stories had the same essence. Yet nobody can accuse Jhumpa Lahiri of plagiarism, because she didn’t “lift” any passage, nor did she blatantly copy a story idea. Hers was an “inspired” bit of writing, which made her a lot more famous than Romesh Gunesekera, (and definitely a lot richer!) And she’s way smarter than Kaavya Vishwanathan, who should learn from Ms Lahiri how to "internalize" without getting caught!

Any way, coming back to Kaavya Vishwanathan…Little Brown, her publishers will have to do some serious thinking. They have shelled out half a million dollars for a two book deal and are saddled with a writer who apparently is a plagiarist. Apparently, Vishwanathan didn’t merely write the book. She collaborated with a “book development” company to ensure “proper positioning and marketing”. Perhaps that was where things went wrong. Maybe they “over-developed” the book just a tad.

Also heard that there are plans for a film on Opal Mehta. I wonder if the studio who bought the rights will back out because of this controversy. Probably not—after all, this fiasco gives the book the kind of publicity that money cannot buy.


ichatteralot said...

I am shocked! Never though Jhumpa Lahiri could be inspired to such an extent. You never know, these days the authors might scavenge our blogs for passages to fit into their books. Maybe we can make pots of money by duing them! The other option is to write a book.

BTW - you things to do before you die is 80% similar to mine :)

Nautilus said...

@ichatterlot: I was shocked fact, it broke my heart :-( But who am I to point a finger at the great Ms Lahiri!

Yes, don't be surprised if you see a passage from your blog showing up in a best best-seller in the future :-)

indianpeppone said...

Jumpa Lahiri is a shock.... but her prose is excellent...
But the present controversy seems more like a well orcastrated publicity stunt... mayb

Jenn said...

Hmmm I don't think Jhumpa Lahiri stole anything. After all, her stories were distinct and her own. Writers absorb everything they read and make it their own after all.

Never read Romesh Gunasekara but after what you said, will pick up the book the next time I see it.

Btw, thanks for visiting...

Nautilus said...

@Jenn: I strongly recommend you read Monkfish Moon...not just to compare it Interpreter of Maladies...its an awesome book on its own!
Also, I mentioned that Lahiri cannot be accused of stealing, but the two books are very similar in essence! She got a Pulitzer, her book has been widely read...I'm sure even Romesh Gunesekera has read it :-) I haven't heard of any my opinion shouldn't matter that much :-)

Patient Portnoy said...

Thanks for dropping by :-)

Great post, and even better title. Read "Opal" a month ago. Just took it up for a lark, and thought it was hilarious in a crappy kinda way. But as I commented somewhere, if we all "internalised" what we read as kids, we'd have budding-Blytons all over the place.

Your well-written post reminds of this...

...if you're interested in journalism, this blogger shows how ToI and HT get it wrong most of the time. You've done a much better job of it.

And oh, Jhumpa? Shocked. Will have to check out Monkfish immediately. TSE had talked so much about "Tradition and Individual Talent", but I guess he would turn in his grave if he knew

Sorry for such a long comment, but you have your post to blame :-)

Nautilus said...

@Patient: Welcome to my blog.

Yeah, I agree with you about the "internalizing" bit...if that was the case,I'd have been spewing out Rabindric novels many moons ago :-) Unfortunately, my "internalizing" powers aren't that great!

And looks like this word will soon achieve the cult status given to words like "wardrobe malfunction" ! Who coins them any way?