Saturday, May 13, 2006

Of a Muse under siege and amused-lamenting Desis - The Kaavya Viswanathan Ordeal

Bought few magazines at the railway station news stand, and it all had one common entry - the ongoing literary prosecution of "Kaavya Viswanathan". Lifting several passages from some one's work and adding it to one's very first novel at the risk of getting caught seems more like a suicidal act than a conscious act of utter shamelessness. By the time I finished reading all the 'Kaavya' related articles in the magazines, my curiosity mounted to see the plagiarized entries in her novel "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life" . All the magazines said that several passages were reproduced verbatim.

Goodness...such thoughtless courage by a 19 year old budding writer studying at Harvard?

I could hardly believe it, thought I will have a good look at the postings on the web as well. As usual searching anything on the web invariably means balancing your discretion with swinging information overload. With scores of blogs, articles and judgments right now on the web ,of which a great majority entertaining scornful attitude I couldn't help asking myself "is blunder a sin?".

More than reading on the issue, i was just eager to see the accused passages from Kaavya's book and I found the very article that broke the news :” Examples of Similar Passages Between Viswanathan's Book and McCafferty's Two Novels”.

I have not read her novel yet, but I felt that none of the manipulated passages ( the word 'verbatim' seems to be a highly exaggerated expression) had such great literary merit and I still wonder why Kaavya went about this way of including it in her novel.

Just have a look at this: ( Accused passages )


From page 237 of McCafferty’s first novel: “Finally, four major department stores and 170 specialty shops later, we were done.”

From page 51 of Viswanathan’s novel: “Five department stores, and 170 specialty shops later, I was sick of listening to her hum along to Alicia Keys....”

Now...I find it highly unlikely that this is a very conscious reproduction. If one had copied it intentionally then I am sure the number 170 would have been something different unless "170" had some occult significance or it was a major link in the story line.

Now, is this another typical case of "CryptoAmnesia"? . For those who are interested this link might prove useful.

Here's Prof. Michael Hoyt who works as a senior staff psychologist at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in San Rafael, California, and is also a member of the clinical faculty of the University of California School of Medicine in San Francisco.

"I´m wondering if I borrowed my three concepts of aesthetics, ethics and effects from Ken Wilber. I don´t know exactly when I read that book of his, but I did read it, at the suggestion of Cloe Madanes. I´m wondering if I´m having what is called cryptoamnesia, which means you picked something and don´t remember where it came from. I surely want to give him credit, if I borrowed it from him. Thank you, Ken! ( Ken Wilber) " More>>

I have come across many passages by accomplished and amateur writers that I secretly wished to have written myself. Some passages left a lasting imprint in my mind and I believe it did influence my thinking and expression. I have noted down interesting passages and statements for the sheer beauty of it and to contemplate on it later and over the time I could remember the exact passages as well. I do not know if this is what Kaavya calls "internalization". So be it or let it be otherwise! But one thing is sure, If I internalize something with such deep sense of appreciation I surely will internalize a part of the psyche of the writer as well who wrote it. In such a case, it is unlikely that one would not think of acknowledging such reproduced expressions ( even with variations) , more so when one goes on to publish the very first work.

Was Kaavya that shameless?, was she so thoughtless or was she so forgetful?

Kaavya "admitted to borrowing a couple of passages from Megan McCafferty's novels 'Sloppy Firsts' and 'Second Helpings' which she had read in high school" and the passages were compared in the Harvard Crimson website. It did not end there, another website goes on to dig out passages from another book that found similar expressions in Kaavya's novel.

Am sure in due course many more accusations might turn up and she can be only at the receiving end. As some one told long back "If all the works of literature were fed into a pattern recognizing super computer, then it will correlate everything written so far". I do not understand why people are so hell bent upon digging out Kaavya's Novel. She admitted her folly and lets leave the girl alone, without forgetting that her next work could really delight us all. Why poke the inflicted wound again and again?

Some Indians in the US lamented that Kaavya brought shame to the whole Indian community. That statement looks as diabolic as stating something like " I am not sincere even when i say I am not!". I have seen quite a few Desi-Americans in my own home town and I found it really hard to believe that they were the ones walking around the country roads here that they stretched all the way their virtual homes there, the only irony being they find it hard to walk the same country roads without their Nike or Reebok even in summer, right on their first visit.

If Kaavya had brought shame to the Indian Community there and they are so hurt by the Kaavya Issue, I guess they should give a little thought about the fact that none of the American reviewers could bring out the plagiarized parts in Kaavya's novel and now I wonder how many the Reviewers and Critics really read the book they reviewed and sure enough most of the people who bought the book must have been guided by their reviews.

Kaavya is stoned enough, now I guess it is time to stone the ones who wrote great reviews on "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life " . One of the publishers said, when asked why they betted so much on Kaavya , "she is young, brilliant and beautiful and so easily marketable..!" .Many have even told that her career as a writer is in peril. Now the point is if Kaavya cannot be trusted, given the fact that she can learn from experience and can re-discover writing as a more soulful activity, then can any of these publishers and reviewers could ever be trusted?

It will be worth while, for those who have time, to dig deep into many other books and conjure up more ‘internalized passages’ and I wonder how many original writers will be discovered in the process. The English speaking world will dig the English works, while I am sure there are many writers who have comfortably lifted stuff from their mother tongues ( In India alone we have over 20 languages in which books are published) and translated/ transcribed into English, most of which perhaps will for ever remain undiscovered.

Is there a branch of Psychology that studies this "internalizing" phenomenon , if there is not one, it is high time modern psychology looked into it.

As for the Kaaya issue, leave her alone. Let her learn from her mistakes and we from our experience.

To all the literary critics and reviewers here is a question:
Sirs, have you really read the book you reviewed? Were were you all till “Harvard Crimson” broke the news?

A question To the new age publishers too :
What do you sell, the author's literary talent or the author's branding looks ?

A question to the Indians in the US who felt Kaavya let them down :
Have you all really cared to think a little about the celebrated Indian Theoretical physicist, Dr. George Sudarshan, University of Texas-Austin who missed out his well deserved Nobel prize to none other than Richard Feynman and Roy J Glauber?...Did they ever bother to find out how this happened?

Seeing the newly released movies ( doesn't matter from which part of India it is) in the cozy confines of multiplex theatres in LA, NY or the likes did this lamenting Indian community ever get thwarted when their American counterparts point out that the song they all swayed to is lifted straight from the works of Kitaro , Nusret Fateh Ali Khan or Billy Vaughn ,what kind of shame does this account for?

I realy wonder how many well published authors around the world will be at ease with themselves. It is time for many to do thorough soul searching.

Sure enough , by now another publisher must have secretly approached Kaavya to sign a deal for her next book...and they must have already figured out the ad campaigns with a bold headline. “The accused young writer stages a great come back with her undisputable original work"... and many out there , here and all around must be waiting for the critics' and reviewer’s weighed comments on this book too.

Just as many suggested that it should be mandatory for all authors to certify that ' it is their original work', it will be more credible if all critics and reviewers added a footnote to their reviews that 'they have reviewed it after reading the book!'.

We live in an era when any idea or information could be “Googled” out. It is such a big boon to have a search engine like google that has literally brought information to our finger tips, while on the other side churning out a research paper or even a Ph.D id not a big deal these days as long as you know how to use the internet effectively and camouflage cunningly. I remember reading some where “ when you want to take a thought you copy, when you want to take an entire idea or work, you plagiarize!” . If one is to really put to scrutiny some of the major proposals and papers written that will clearly show how “googled” out our lives are, how singled out our conscience remains.

Recent issue of “OUTLOOK” magazine lists a few prominent Indian writers charged with plagiarism with a note to the readers “write us about some of the obvious ones we left out”. ( Does that add to the shame the Indian in the US currently lament on? )

People still buy their books, luckily they have written more than one book and on the other side is Kaavya with her very first book under siege. Shouldn’t we be fair enough to this 19 year girl giving her a chance to prove her mettle.

Having faced this much, of one's own doing, at this tender age Kaavya sure must have mustered great deal of grit and grace to get going, provided she gets up fast enough.

Let muse in her be inspired and begin to sing ever new songs with no undertones of the past....and let us stop conspiring - Literally !