Write or Wrong

Since the Chetan Bhagat plagiarism controversy erupted, internet has been flooded with opinions, polls, viewpoints, authors taking sides. Some secretly happy, some genuinely concerned. Being an author myself, I have been asked to give my two cents on this burning debate in the Indian literary scene.  I will refrain from taking sides because I have neither read One Indian girl by CB nor Anvita Bajpai’s short story. The allegations are CB’s latest book is based on a short story by AB. He has been accused of stealing the plot, characters, flow of thoughts from the short story. Even if I would’ve read both I am no body to pass a judgement on right or wrong? The matter is in the court so let’s wait for the court to decide.

Chetan Bhagat is neither the first author nor would be the last to be embroiled in plagiarism. In the past, many authors have been involved in plagiarism. Roots: the saga of an American family written by Alex Haley brought to light the hitherto unknown facts about slavery and the plight of African American families living in America. Published in 1976, the book was an instant hit and adopted into TV series. Haley was sued by Harold Courlander, a white author who claimed that the author of Roots had lifted passages and plot from his novel The African. Haley admitted that though he didn’t plagiarize, a part of material had originally appeared in The African. The case was later settled out of court for $ 6, 50,000.

Most recently, editions of Trump’s former ally Monica Crowley’s What the (Bleep) Just Happened were pulled from sale amid accusations that the author had plagiarized a part of her work. As more skeletons tumbled out of cupboards, it was proved that her previous works including the PhD dissertation was plagiarized. A book can be written on the rise and fall of Monica Crowley as the plagiarism costed her not just the literary fame but a white house job too. She was disqualified from joining the US National Security Council. JK Rowling was once accused of plagiarism with a British author claiming that JKR had stolen ideas from a book titled The adventures of Willy the Wizard and used it in Harry Potter and the goblet of Fire. But later these charges were proved wrong.

Much has been written about How Opal Mehta got kissed, got wild and got a life, a young adult novel by an Indian American Kaavya Viswanathan. She wrote the novel just after high school. Overnight the Harvard grad became a role model of millions aspiring writers. After being put on a pedestal, she was thrown down when it was discovered that several parts of the bestselling novel were lifted from Salman Rushdie’s work and various other sources. The unsold copies of her book were recalled and destroyed by the publisher and her contract for the second book cancelled. The plagiarism charges against Ms Viswanathan not only pulled the curtains down on her literary career but also busted every Indian’s American dream. The author had a distinct style of writing, it wouldn’t have been difficult for her to produce better content herself then why she had to steal someone’s material? Can’t answer this.

I browsed the internet for any other Indian books which have been involved in plagiarism controversy in the past but thankfully the internet doesn’t show any results except CB’s latest book.

Plagiarism is every author’s biggest fear. Someday someone will come from nowhere and shout from the roof top that the author has taken the easy route of copying the content from a source. Even if the fear of plagiarism lurks in the mind of every author but nothing prepares her/him for a public allegation, a court case, a full-fledged battle in the media. Even if CB is innocent (which hopefully he is), sure he must be having sleepless nights. I remember when I was submitting my debut novel The Other End of the Corridor to the publishers, I checked multiple times if any sentence in my book had been unintentionally inspired from any of the books that I had read multiple times. Thankfully there was none.

Look at the positive side, controversies always do good to the writers. Art and literature thrive on controversies.  Remember Raj Kapoor, just before the release of his every movie, a controversy would appear from nowhere – an affair with the leading heroine or something more sensational which will drive more people to the theatres. Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses flew off the shelves after the ban on the book. There is a joke among literary circle, if your book is not selling well then create a controversy around it and then sit back and watch the drama unfold. This is definitely not true in CB’s case as his book is already # 1 and there are enough controversies about him. For sure, the man who made India read doesn’t need more.

According to dictionary.com, Plagiarism is an act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author’s work as one’s own as by not crediting the original author. Is stealing an idea or a part of a plot is plagiarism? The dictionary doesn’t say so. Love story by Oliver Twist was the first love story before literature was inundated with mushy love stories. Most of the romance novels revolve around the same plot with a few changes in scenes, names, and scenario. It is like old wine in a new bottle but does it mean that the ideas are stolen? Every reader would know that it is not the plot but the treatment to the plot which makes a book distinct.

Any author worth his/her ink knows the consequences of plagiarism. The question is not if CB had read AB’s story or if she gave her book to him at the Bangalore Lit Fest, their plots could still have similarities even if he hadn’t read the book. The plagiarism accusation on a bestselling author doesn’t come as a surprise. It is not that successful authors can’t steal the ideas. They can though they have the potential to create better material than the stolen text. What is surprising is that if CB were to copy content from someone’s work, would he be so naive to pick the entire plot, the characters, the flow to make sure that both the works look similar. The similarities could just be a coincidence and coincidences are not the prerogative of only fiction, they happen in real life too. Irrespective of whether the similarities (if any) are mere coincidence or intentional, the justice should be done but let the trial be done by the court and not by the media.