November 26, 2020
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'A Victim Of Her Ambition'

It now seems that Kaavya Viswanathan may have "internalised" also from Meg Cabot's The Princess Diaries, Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories, as well as Sophie Kinsella's Can You Keep a Secret?

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'A Victim Of Her Ambition'
'A Victim Of Her Ambition'

If you thought that with the withdrawal of the book by Little Brown, the whole brouhaha over Kaavya Viswanathan's How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life (HOMGKGWAGAL) would be over, you were mistaken. The controversy just refuses to die down.

The book continues to be under the scanner and it now seems that the young Indian may have "internalised" also from Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries, and Sophie Kinsella's Can You Keep a Secret? as well in addition to Megan F. McCafferty's two books, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings, which, as she had earlier pleaded, was "unintentional and unconscious".

What is significant is that almost all the new "revelations" seem to have been the results of close readers posting their comments on various blogs and sharing their findings with each others or mainstream media.

The similarities in passages with Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories (HATSOS) were brought out on the weblog where it was pointed out how the passage in Rushdie's book where his hero, Haroun, enters a bus depot and passes by several admonitions written on the walls surrounding the depot’s courtyard found its echoes in Viswanathan’s book where her protagonist, Opal Mehta, helps another student place posters on a wall that discourage drug and alcohol use.

On page 35 of Rushdie's HATSOS, one of the warnings reads: "If from speed you get your thrill / take precaution—make your will."

On page 118 of Viswanathan’s HOMGKGWAGAL, one of the posters reads: "If from drink you get your thrill, take precaution—write your will."

On page 31 of Rushdie's HATSOS, another warning reads: "All the dangerous overtakers / end up safe as undertaker’s".

On page 119 of Viswanathan’s HOMGKGWAGAL, another poster reads: "All the dangerous drug abusers end up safe as total losers."

The similarities with Meg Cabot’s 2000 novel The Princess Diaries were reported on the comments section of the online journal DesiJournal which pointed out that page 12 of Meg Cabot’s novel reads:

"There isn’t a single inch of me that hasn’t been pinched, cut, filed, painted, sloughed, blown dry, or moisturized. [...] Because I don’t look a thing like Mia Thermopolis. Mia Thermopolis never had fingernails. Mia Thermopolis never had blond highlights. Mia Thermopolis never wore makeup or Gucci shoes or Chanel skirts or Christian Dior bras, which by the way don’t even come in 32A, which is my size. I don’t even know who I am anymore. It certainly isn’t Mia Thermopolis. She’s turning me into someone else." [Italics in the original]

And then followed the passage on page 59 of Viswanathan’s HOMGKGWAGAL which reads:

"Every inch of me had been cut, filed, steamed, exfoliated, polished, painted, or moisturized. I didn’t look a thing like Opal Mehta. Opal Mehta didn’t own five pairs of shoes so expensive they could have been traded in for a small sailboat. She didn’t wear makeup or Manolo Blahniks or Chanel sunglasses or Habitual jeans or Le Perla bras. She never owned enough cashmere to make her concerned for the future of the Kazakhstani mountain goat population. I was turning into someone else."

Just as one tried to digest these bits of additional information, New York Times was alerted to the similarities of at least three passages of HOMGKGWAGAL with Can You Keep a Secret? by Sophie Kinsella, which had spent six weeks on the New York Times hardcover fiction best-seller list. The NYT went on to say that while the plots of the two books are distinct, "the phrasing and structure of some passages is nearly identical".

In Kinsella's book, the main character, Emma, comes upon two of her friends "in a full-scale argument about animal rights" and one of them says, "The mink like being made into coats". In Viswanathan's book, the heroine Opal comes upon two girls having "a full-fledged debate over animal rights" and one of them says, "The foxes want to be made into scarves".

In yet another scene, one of Kinsella's characters threatens another. "And we'll tell everyone you got your Donna Karan coat from a discount warehouse shop". In Viswanathan's version, the passage reads: "I'll tell everyone that in eighth grade you used to wear a 'My Little Pony' sweatshirt to school every day."

Perhaps by now one is trying too hard to see similarities, but given the context, it is inevitable (Please see the pop-up on Page 1 which shows the passages side by side, courtesy, the NYT). The NYT does take care to point out that the copying here "does not seem" to be as extensive but adds, significantly: "Details and descriptions are also similar. Jack, the love interest in Ms. Kinsella's novel has a scar on his hand; so does Sean, the romantic hero in HOMGKGWAGAL. Jack has "eyes so dark they're almost black," so does Sean.

On CNN-IBN, Salman Rushdie meanwhile described Kaavya Viswanathan as "a victim of her own ambition". "I haven't seen the book, I have seen the passages that were compared between the two books," he said. " I must say I don't accept the idea that this could have been accidentally or innocently done. The passages are too many and the similarities are too expensive."

He said he was sorry that "this young girl, pushed by the needs of a publishing machine and, no doubt, by her ambition, should have fallen into this trap so early in her career. I hope she can recover from it."

Blaming both author and publisher for the mess, Rushdie said, "Both are responsible. But I know when I write a book it's my name on the book so I stand or fall by what I sign. And so must she."

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