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Nilanjana S Roy: When it's not stealing

Nilanjana S Roy  |  New Delhi 

The plagiarism story has been an old party standby for years. And yet, an ocean of hurt lies behind it.

Some years ago, I took out to lunch. We went to Dakshin, the signature South Indian restaurant at the Marriott; I switched my tape recorder on and ate very fancy appam-stew. The interview ran in this paper.

A few days after it came out, I received an angry email from a man who accused me of plagiarism. at the Financial Times had also taken out to lunch the month before. My accuser claimed that I had never actually had lunch with Mr Seth; I had stolen Mr Jacob’s experience for the column.

The problem was that Vikram Seth behaves the same way when he’s taken out to lunch. He will duck under highly polished tables to see if they’re polished on the underside. And his opinions on writing and books in my interview and Mr Jacob’s interview were presumably similar, though there were no direct quotes in common.

I knew my accuser was misguided, and yet, the accusations were surprisingly hurtful. I hadn’t read Mr Jacob’s Lunch with the FT before writing my own column. But still, I wondered whether I had managed to rip off his style in an act of psychic theft. When I did read both “Lunches” side by side, I finally understood my accuser. Mr Jacob and I had taken the same man out to lunch and had come up with different experiences — but we talked about the dishes Mr Seth ordered, his enjoyment of the meal. Plagiarism was built into the grid.

I spent much of last week reading an obscure book by Sivasundari Bose, a writer who claims that David Davidar, in his The House of Blue Mangoes, plagiarised from her novel, I should make it clear that Mr Davidar is an old friend and currently my editor, but I read with dispassion, placing side by side and comparing individual passages and pages.

The dispassion came from bitter experience. Many years ago, I had investigated the alleged plagiarism committed by Indrani Aikath-Gyaltsen, in her second novel, Crane’s Morning. When the accusation was made, by a librarian in Concord, my instincts were cautious. Ms Aikath-Gyaltsen had written a really good first novel, and then produced the second; and then she had died in murky circumstances up in Darjeeling, where her husband had a tea estate. We protect the dead far more zealously than the living. I was inclined to be protective.

But Elizabeth Goudge’s was available at the local library, and when I compared it to Ms Aikath-Gyaltsen’s Crane’s Morning, I felt physically sick. Ms Aikath-Gyaltsen hadn’t lifted plots, ideas, characters: she had stolen everything, every single sentence, transporting Ms Goudge’s novel to Darjeeling in identical, copycat phrases. There was, as her former mentor Khushwant Singh and her editor, David Davidar, said, no possible defence for what she had done.

That is why plagiarism is the worst crime in the writer’s catalogue — it is a theft of the self, a looting of one’s most personal beliefs. But as I read Mr Davidar’s Blue Mangoes and Ms Bose’s Golden Stag, the anger I felt went in the other direction.

When J K Rowling came out with her Harry Potter books, she was haunted by Adrian Jacobs, who claimed that she had plagiarised his book, The Adventures of Willy the Wizard. Mr Jacobs – and after his death, his estate – persecuted Rowling for seven years. His belief that she was a plagiarist was founded on a misunderstanding of the crime. Mr Jacobs had written about boy wizards; therefore, he believed that no one else should write about boy wizards. He had written about magic; he believed that no one else should write about magic.

The case of vs Sivasundari Bose is sub judice and cannot be commented on in detail. But Mr Davidar’s accuser appears to believe that no one except for her has a right to write about South Indian history pre-Independence and about long-running family sagas, even if they’re writing about their own family history, as in Mr Davidar’s case. Her book also touches on the Gulf War and 9/11 — she omitted the tsunami only because her publishers wouldn’t allow more changes. As a reader, it’s hard to take her accusations seriously. It’s like someone accusing Salman Rushdie of plagiarism because they, too, had written about India in 1947, or accusing Amitav Ghosh of plagiarising their Opium War novel because the books are set in the same period.

For Mr Davidar, as with Ms Rowling, these accusations are not laughable. It will take time to settle the matter in court, and the residual stain may not easily wash out. Once in a while, people still ask of Ms Rowling: “But wasn’t she accused of plagiarism?” It should be as much of a crime to make false accusations as it is to commit plagiarism itself. The damage to the writer at the receiving end of even a risible and easily dismissed accusation is permanent and lasting.  

First Published: Tue, July 10 2012. 00:43 IST