Monday, May 08, 2006
Double Jeopardy - Devasish Ray/Washington
Two youth of Indian origin face infamy in the US for vastly different reasons
It’s a scandal that keeps spreading. Kaavya Viswanathan, a 19-year-old sophomore at Harvard University who wrote a book—How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life—has already confessed that she "unconsciously plagiarised" from two books of the best selling author Megan McCafferty—Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings. About 40 passages were found similar or identical in theme or content.
On the heels of this, The New York Times reported similarities between Opal Mehta and Sophie Kinsella’s Can You Keep a Secret? It said the passages in question were short but contained similiar rhymes and descriptions. It is also said that Kaavya had borrowed passages from Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries.
Kaavya shot to fame when she was offered half a million dollars by the publisher Little, Brown and Co. and a movie deal by DreamWorks. To top it all, Angelina Jolie showed interest in playing the lead. Kaavya was on cloud nine and was being positioned as the next literary genius from the Indian subcontinent. But after her exposure, DreamWorks has dropped the film plan and the publishers have decided to withdraw the book permanently and cancel the deal for her second work.
Initially, Kaavya had dismissed the charges of plagiarism saying that she had unconsciously internalised McCafferty’s writings and denied any wrongdoing. However, as evidence against her mounted, she acknowledged her pilferage.
Soon after campus reporter David Zhou of the Harvard Crimson broke the story of Kaavya’s literary theft, message boards at Harvard were replete with sardonic comments. "The literary gods have finally come to their senses," wrote one student. Another wrote: "There’s a part of me that likes seeing Harvard sophomores falling on their face when they’re handed half a million dollar book deals."
If Kaavya is guilty of plagiarism, the publishers must be blamed for being reckless in investing half a million dollars on a teenager. But why did they take the risk?
The answer is that the book industry is enamoured of young, beautiful ethnic writers. The increasing domination of a handful of giant publishers and retailers has led to a concentration on titles that will sell in big quantities. Many of those titles, particularly in fiction, are the works of young and glamorous authors.
Having no track record is an author’s advantage, because the sales figures that influence publishing decisions cannot work against you. Another aspect is that publishing at this level is getting very similar to lucrative contracts from film studios. It is no secret that huge sums of money are being gambled to pay for past flops. However, the possibility of future flops from present-day books is inevitable providing cynics with a reliable supply of sour satisfaction.
Steve Ross, vice president of Crown Publishing House which published McCafferty’s novel, lashed out at Kaavya saying, this is nothing less than an act of literary theft. In her defence, Bill Poser argued in Language Log that she could have unconsciously remembered little snatches from another novel. Many people remember comparable portions of songs that they once heard without remembering the rest of the song or who sang it or wrote it.
But as Dr Sangeeta Ray, author and professor, said: "It sounds like a clear case of plagiarism. One is always influenced by writers and books one reads and likes but everyone who has gone through school knows the difference between influence and plagiarism." Students at universities are warned about the dire consequences of plagiarism and so Kaavya must have known the difference.
The problem is compounded here by the "help" she received by the company that helped her package her book, making it, perhaps, a bit difficult to know where she stopped and where they began. In either case, she, as the author, for better or worse, is responsible for the contents.
Shauna Singh Baldwin, Commo-nwealth Award winning author of the book, What the Body Remembers, has no sympathy for Kaavya. Describing Kaavya as a clever young girl with little character, Shauna stated: "She is symptomatic of a larger problem in desi society—the very problem she described in Opal Mehta. She was so anxious to please, so needy of approbation that she would cheat to achieve."
Kaavya’s career as a budding novelist has ended before it even started. As many literary scholars point out, the pressure to succeed and succeed quickly, and the dream of making millions, can make people plagiarise. Probably, Kaavya was unlucky to have been caught. She will have to do some soul-searching and come up with something genuine to silence her critics. She is, after all, only 19 years old.
Another person who would like to silence his critics is Vikram Buddhi, a 34-year-old student who is languishing in jail on charges of posting threatening messages against President George Bush on a Yahoo finance board dedicated to the satellite radio company Sirrus.
Son of Dr Buddhi Kota Subbarao, a naval scientist who was jailed for 20 months on charges of smuggling nuclear secrets but was acquitted in 1993, Vikram is a mathematics prodigy and has been studying applied mathematics at the University of Purdue in Indiana.
Vikram was arrested on April 14 and charged on 11 counts including charges under US Code 871 that deals with threats to the US president and his successor. If proved guilty, he could be sentenced to imprisonment up to 60 years.
On April 26, Vikram pleaded not guilty but has been suspended from the university and sent to an unknown prison in northern Indiana. Meanwhile, John Martin, the court appointed attorney for Vikram, has requested the court to try him under the first amendment of the US constitution as he could never have actually carried out his threat he allegedly made. His family believes that Vikram is innocent and that someone has hacked into his Internet account to post "kill Bush" messages.
Subbarao, currently a senior advocate of the Supreme Court, said Vikram had been studying at the university for the last 10 years. He described Vikram as a quiet person and said he had received the best teaching award from the university.
Thangam Moorthy, a retired high school teacher who had taught Vikram at St Joseph’s High School in Colaba, Mumbai, has written a letter to John Martin.
She said in the letter: "Vikram is a very calm, soft-spoken, intelligent and hardworking boy, who was focused in his studies. I am absolutely certain that he is a victim of misunderstanding and human weakness like jealousy."
Meanwhile, Subbarao has applied for an emergency visa to the US to discuss the case with Martin, who is the only person allowed access to Vikram . The hearing is scheduled for June 26 and it is going to be agonising days for the family.