How Kaavya Got Punk'd

Forget the actual story, the media and blogosphere frenzy behind the rise and fall of Kaavya Viswanathan is no less compelling. First, there were the breathless reports in the papers, both Indian and non-Indian alike, about the scale of the deal, the film rights, the background of the author and, most importantly, her age. Seema Sirohi sums up the underlying feelings best:

Let's be honest. Many of us were a trifle jealous when Kaavya, barely 17 summers old, was handed a fortune by Little, Brown to churn out a novel based on the reading of just one chapter. After all, how can someone command a sum of $ 500,000 when in the school of life, they haven't even begun? She wasn't out of college, barely even in college when in the wiser judgement of the publishing hounds, she was declared the next it, the sensational new writer who was going to ride fearlessly into the annals of "chick-lit."

Then came the exposes, courtesy her own classmates via the Harvard Daily Crimson. Mark Morford notes the schadenfreude:

But over at Harvard, savage competitiveness isn't just a requirement, it's a mantra, a way of life at the expense of intellectual joy and raw curiosity and drunken sex on the dormitory steps at 3 a.m. (or, you know, so I'm told). Everyone there actively seeks and fully expects wild success, but when a friend or colleague gets it, they are viciously resented and loathed. Such is the nature of the beast.

I can't say I read each and every Kaavya-gate related desi blog entries injected into the Internet at the peak of the whole affair, but those I did come across gave her no quarter. This illustrated entry from Grumpy Old Indian Man is pretty representative. Consequently, it seems to me, Mark could just as well have been talking about the desi blogosphere. Once the ball started rolling, the luminaries jumped in, digging deeper into the book:

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...
The similarities with Meg Cabot's 2000 novel The Princess Diaries were reported on the comments section of the online journal DesiJournal

Meanwhile, Shobak felt the South Asian American press were MIA:

The South Asian-American press, normally salivating over the success of Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri, Fareed Zakaria, etc. seems to be running as far away as it can from this story. This journalist crew seems to only care about "model minority" and "India Shining" stories, but nothing involving awkward, messy, flawed real life.

Now that the furor is dying down, some voices are finally trying to put the whole thing in perspective and even offer some sympathy. Seema Sirohi again:

Perhaps, having a book to her name before a bachelor's degree was seen as just another "opportunity" by the young woman. After all, on the list of achievements it certainly would be the sexiest tag. In the hyper-competitive environs of Harvard, where most professors are stars, where big names jut out from corridors like headlines on a bad day, authorship of a novel at the tender age of 17 would give her traction. It would get her noticed and who knows may even please her parents! So she did what many have done before her and many surely will do after her -- lift from what's already on the shelf. The hard labour of writing, rewriting and editing out didn't fit the schedule of a young woman in a hurry. She had loads to do. Like take classes, get A's and have fun. She probably didn't even think of the moral and ethical questions involved in copying, often verbatim, passages from her "favourite" author, Megan McCafferty's books (and now as it seems, possibly from Salman Rushdie, Meg Cabot, and Sophie Kinsella as well). As Salman Rushdie points out, pushed by the needs of a publishing machine, the rush evidently was too much.

And Sandip Roy thanks Kaavya for performing a community service:

I know this must come as small consolation to you these days, as dreams of book deals, film projects and maybe even Ivy League futures seem to wither on the vine. But as one Indian-American to another, I say thank you. I have to confess to a sneaking sense of relief when Opal Mehta's life came crashing down around you. It's not schadenfreude. It's just this relief that finally we can fail, that we can screw up spectacularly and live to tell the tale.

Only we Indian-Americans know it's hard out there for an overachieving Indian-American. It was bad enough that we were the anointed model minority. (Did you know our median income is higher than that of any other ethnic group in the United States? That we have 200,000 millionaires and 41,000 doctors?) Now we are expected to excel at everything we do. We are the first-class first minority. "Doesn't anyone's kid ever come second in anything anymore?" wondered a friend bemusedly listening to a group of Indian mothers at a potluck.
I mean, we don't just win spelling bees. We do a clean sweep. Last year, all four finalists were our people. Our Bollywood actress Aishwariya Rai can't just be beautiful, she has to be the MOST beautiful woman in the whole world. That's why it was such a relief to see a stoner South Asian in that film "Harold and Kumar." Except Kumar wasn't just a pothead; when push came to shove he was also a medical whiz.

The only trouble here is that Kumar isn't an Indian-American invention, the script having been written by two Jewish Americans. No matter, perhaps this is something Ms. Viswanathan can rectify, now that she's seen the seamier side of success.

Update: Grumpy Old Indian Man writes in response to his entry:

While its fair enough to note the Schaudenfreude currently raining down on the Sundaram-Vishwanathans --- I must point out that the illustrated entry from my blog that you cite as an example (and thank you very much for the link :) of no quarter given -- does have the disgraced wunderkind surrounded by a whirling confusion of influences and pressures in its fourth panel. School ... truth .... fame ... money ... orientation ... expectant parents. That's a quarter Given ... perhaps even fitty cents.

Great blog you have going on! ... Keep up the good work.

I should also note this post is in no way trying to defend the actual plagiarism. I'm more interested in the pattern of the desi reactions out there. To quote Morrissey, "we all hate it when our friends become successful" and I wonder whether this sentiment cannot be extended to the desi community, particularly the expatriate version.

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- May 5, 2006 7:58 PM // Books