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Indian writer apologises for plagiarism

By Arthur J Pais in New York
Last updated on: April 29, 2006 06:16 IST
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The bad news came just as the champagne was to flow.

Kaavya Viswanathan's debut novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life was headed for The New York Times' national bestseller list when The Harvard Crimson, an independently-run newspaper published by students at Harvard University, reported that Opal Mehta, written when Viswanathan was 17 and which secured her a two-book contract for $500,000, was plagiarised in parts.

The news quickly forced the writer to acknowledge that she had borrowed language and passages from two popular books by Megan McCafferty.

But she also asserted through a note issued by her publisher Little Brown that 'any phrasing similarities between her works and mine were completely unintentional and unconscious.'

In a statement she apologised to McCafferty and said future printings of her novel would be revised 'to eliminate any inappropriate similarities' to McCafferty's Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings, which she said 'spoke to me in a way few other books did.'

'Recently, I was very surprised and upset to learn that there are similarities between some passages in my novel, and passages in these books,' The New York Times quoted from her e-mail.

Viswanathan, who is about to start the second Opal Mehta novel, called herself in the e-mail to be a 'huge fan' of McCafferty, confessing that she wasn't aware of how much she 'may have internalized Ms McCafferty's words.'

The Crimson quoted more than a dozen passages from Viswanathan's book to prove its claims:

From page 213 of McCafferty's first novel, Sloppy Firsts: 'Marcus then leaned across me to open the passenger-side door. He was invading my personal space, as I had learned in Psych class, and I instinctively sank back into the seat. That just made him move in closer. I was practically one with the leather at this point, and unless I hopped into the backseat, there was nowhere else for me to go.'

From page 175 of Viswanathan's novel: 'Sean stood up and stepped toward me, ostensibly to show me the book. He was definitely invading my personal space, as I had learned in a Human Evolution class last summer, and I instinctively backed up till my legs hit the chair I had been sitting in. That just made him move in closer, until the grommets in the leather embossed the backs of my knees, and he finally tilted the book toward me.'

Viswanathan, 19, said even as her book underwent numerous revisions, she was not aware of her faults.

"It was a very hard process and there were endless revisions," she had said in an interview last week with from her parents' home in a New Jersey town, confirming reports that her first draft was much darker and it became progressively lighter.

The Harvard student did not remember how she wrote and revised the book and did well in her studies as well. She felt she may have blocked out many details. But she said in the last two months at school, she wrote 50 pages every two weeks, "which basically required me to live in a corner of the library."

The issue erupted just as scores of publications across the country sought to interview the Chennai-born writer whose book had just been called 'a clever novel' by The Boston Globe. The newspaper described her as 'one of the hottest young talents in fiction.'

The novel, which has been bought by Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks (now a part of Paramount) for a sum that could make Viswanathan a millionaire, tells the story of Opal Mehta who is taken aback when the Harvard admission dean asks her: What do you like to do for fun? Opal, who had hoped she would be accepted on the spot at Harvard, is sent away to have fun and come back with a more impressive resume. Her parents, who had been plotting her admission into Harvard for many years, join her on her adventures and misadventures.

Kaavya, who plans to major in English at Harvard, told rediff nobody believes her when she tells them the book is not autobiographical.

"My dad is possibly the most unhip person on the planet," she said. "And my mom is also not tuned into pop culture." Viswanathan dedicated the book to her parents.

There was no pressure, she said, from her parents -- father Viswanathan Rajaraman is a neurosurgeon and mother Mary Jayanthi Sundaram, an obstetrician -- that she should pursue a medical career or go to Harvard. Her parents, Kaavya added, gave her "amazing support" in her academic career and her literary pursuits.

'I am the first person in the family -- aunts, uncles, cousins -- who has ever shown the slightest inclination to be creative,' she told The Boston Globe last month. When asked in interviews if she, an Indian-born woman, found herself an anomaly in American literature, she said, 'Some years ago, the idea of an Indian writer in America could have been an anomaly, but after the recent storm of South Asian fiction, it isn't anymore so.'

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Arthur J Pais in New York