Monday, 30th October 2017

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 7.05.06

The righteous are seldom rewarded in this world, but silliness is almost invariably penalized. Ms Kaavya Viswanathan has landed herself in an almighty mess because she has been downright silly. To lift passages straight out of two books by the same author, and then some more from another, and something less from yet another, and hope to get away with it is hardly expected of someone with Ms Viswnathan?s academic credentials. It is almost as if she has relived the dilemma of her heroine, Opal Mehta, without the novel?s bouncy ending. The drama surrounding her youthful career, thrown into sharper relief by the fact that it is taking place in the high-stakes publishing world of the West, has given shape to hitherto unspoken doubts in many wary minds about the quality of work of young people pushed to succeed by ambitious Asian-Indian parents.

Her crime is stealing, politely called plagiarism or identity theft, according to the context. By itself, though, plagiarism is a foggy concept. The philosopher, Mr Michael Dummet, when asked by a member of the audience at one of his lectures where ideas come from, had ruminated a while, and said, ?From other people, dear lady, from other people.? If there is anything embarrassing about this reality, it certainly did not embarrass William Shakespeare. Neither were the classical Greek dramatists bothered by such na?ve notions as originality, they knew there is no new story in the universe. Their audiences always knew the story, they only wanted to see what the poets had made of it. Philosophy, or science, would be impossible without other people?s ideas. What would Einstein, for example, have had to go on without Newton?s apple, and where would Newton be without Galileo?

Stealing naturally becomes a more sensitive issue in the sphere of literature, which makes stories its business. T.S. Eliot, who gives the most cerebral elucidation of the issue in ?Tradition and the individual talent?, said, with Mr Dummet?s frankness, ?Good poets borrow; great poets steal.? Daylight robbery in the world of ideas is never a problem, as long as there is a new twist. The twist is the latest author?s signature, his creativity, his own vision. Literature is an ongoing conversation spanning ages and spaces. To enter it, one must get a foothold on predecessors? ideas, themes, styles and quirks. ?What the world calls originality is only an unaccustomed method of tickling it,? said George Bernard Shaw. Ms Viswanathan was too anxious to tickle; she forgot that there is an invisible copyright on someone else?s ideas expressed in a certain order of particular words. That alone carries the author?s signature, which cannot be borrowed without acknowledgement. Plagiarism is one of those difficult crimes, one of degree. Discretion is certainly not Ms Viswanathan?s outstanding virtue.