Sujata Rajpal, the author of ‘The Other End of the Corridor’ looks at the raging plagiarism controversy where Anvita Bajpai has accused bestselling author Chetan Bhagat of stealing content from her story ‘Drawing Parallels,’ from her book ‘Life, Odds & Ends’ to write his latest book ‘One Indian Girl.’
By Sujata Rajpal
Ever since the Chetan Bhagat plagiarism controversy erupted, internet has been flooded with opinions, polls, viewpoints and authors taking sides. Some secretly happy, some genuinely concerned. Being an author myself, I feel I should 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 Chetan Bhagat nor Anvita Bajpai’s short story. The allegations are that Chetan Bhagat’s latest book is based on ‘Drawing Parallels, from the book Life, Odds & Ends’ by Anvita Bajpai. 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 controversy. 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Most recently, digital editions of Trump’s former ally Monica Crowley’s “What the (Bleep) Just Happened” were withdrawn from sale amidst accusations that the author had plagiarized parts of her work. As more skeletons tumbled out of cupboards, it was proved that her previous works including the Ph.D. dissertation was plagiarized. A book can be written on the rise and fall of Monica Crowley as the plagiarism cost 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 she (Rowling) had stolen ideas from a book ‘The Adventures of Willy the Wizard’ and used them 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 works and various other sources. All shelf copies of her book were recalled and destroyed by the publisher and her contract for the second book was cancelled.
The plagiarism charges against Kaavya not only drew the curtains on her literary career but also busted every Indian’s American dream. The author had a distinct style of writing and it wouldn’t have been difficult for her to produce better content herself. Then why she had to steal someone’s material? I can’t answer this though. 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 Chetan Bhagat’s latest book.
Plagiarism is every author’s biggest fear. Someday someone will come from nowhere and shout from the top of the roof that the author has taken the easy route of copying the content. 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 and a full-fledged battle in the media. Even if Chetan Bhagat is innocent (which hopefully he is), he must be having sleepless nights for sure. 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 in the literary circles that if your book is not selling, then create a controversy around it and then sit back and watch the drama unfold. This is definitely not true in Chetan Bhagat’s case as his book is already No. 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 of the plot which makes a book distinct.
Any author worth his/ her ink knows the consequences of plagiarism. The question is not if Chetan Bhagat had read Anvita Bajpai’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 ideas. They can, though they have the potential to create better material than the stolen text. What is surprising is that if Chetan were to copy content from someone’s work, would he be so naïve to pick the entire plot, the characters, and 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, justice should be done. But let the trial be done by the court and not by the media.