For more Indy coverage, see KaavyaGate.
When charges first surfaced last week that her debut novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life — now permanently shelved by Little, Brown — plagiarized from earlier “chick-lit” titles, Kaavya Viswanathan ’08 insisted that, whatever similarities were found, her book was essentially unique.
“I wrote about what I knew, my personal experiences,” she told Katie Couric on NBC’s Today Show. “I’m an Indian-American girl who got good grades from New Jersey, who wanted to go to an Ivy League school, and I drew upon my own experiences, upon quirks of the people around me and my culture, to create my character Opal Mehta.”
New passages discovered by the Independent, however, reveal striking similarities between Opal Mehta and Tanuja Desai Hidier’s 2002 novel Born Confused (Push/Scholastic) — another book about an Indian-American girl growing up in New Jersey. The possibility of similarities between the two novels was first suggested by an anonymous user posting a comment on DesiJournal.com, but he or she did not identify specific passages.
Drawing on her own experiences?
Since the plots of Opal Mehta and Born Confused are so openly similar, one would expect overlaps in general themes and situations. But what is so striking about the passages in question — and what makes them perhaps the most egregious found yet — is the uncanny resemblance in imagery, sentence structure, and paragraph organization used to describe Indian and Indian-American traditions and practices.
Both Opal Mehta and Born Confused, for instance, include single paragraphs in which the narrator recounts her childhood memories of India. In Opal Mehta, Viswanathan writes of being bathed, drinking buffalo milk, seeing hibiscus flowers, and waiting for a hot liquid to cool before drinking it — all imagery found in the corresponding paragraph of Born Confused.
In another passage, Viswanathan describes an Indian meal: “the house had smelled of spices all day, and when we sat down at the dining room table, I nearly combusted at the sight of the extravagant feast my mom had conjured up.” A similar passage in Hidier’s earlier novel reads, “All day the house had smelled of spices…The feast my mother had conjured up was extravagant.” The paragraphs go on to list customary Indian dishes in a remarkably similar fashion: both move from rotis and puris to garlic to a simile involving butter to a container of raita to a deep-dish lamb/mutton “centerpiece.”
Opal Mehta also seems to directly copy from Born Confused a scene in which the teenage narrator opens a box containing traditional Indian clothing. In both novels, the outfits — spelled “salvar khamees” in Born Confused and “salwar kameez” in Opal Mehta — are discovered after “carefully” packed “layers” of “tissue” paper are removed, and both novelists describe them as being deceptively heavy.
From page 13 of Born Confused:
“India. I had few memories of the place, but the ones I held were dream clear: Bathing in a bucket as a little girl. The unnerving richness of buffalo milk drunk from a pewter cup. My Dadaji pouring tea into a saucer so it would cool faster, sipping from the edge of the thin dish, never spilling a drop. A whole host of kitchen gods (looking so at home in the undishwashed unmicrowaved room). Meera Maasi crouching on the floor to sift the stones from rice. Cows huddled in the middle of the vegetable market, sparrows nesting on their backs. Hibiscus so brilliant they look like they’d caught fire. Children with red hair living in tires. A perpetual squint against sun and dust. The most delicious orange soda I’ve ever drunk — the cap-split hiss, and then the bubbling jetstream down a parched throat.”
From pages 230-1 of Opal Mehta:
“I had only a few memories of India; the last time my family visited was six years ago, when I was in the sixth grade….Some impressions stood out sharply in my mind, still as clear as freshly developed Polaroids. I remembered the cold, creamy taste of fresh buffalo milk, Babaji pouring Ovaltine from one tin cup to another until froth bubbled thickly on the surface and it was cool enough to drink. I remembered shooting rockets made of coconut leaves off the rooftop terrace, and watching the beady-eyed green-and-yellow lizards that scuttled over the putty-colored walls after a hard rain. I remembered cold baths from a bucket with a plastic dipper, and sweet, oily badam halva from the nearby Chola hotel. Sometimes I still read the old Enid Blyton books, which were only available in countries of the former British empire. Most of all, I could close my eyes and return to the smells of sun and dust and refuse, mixed with sharp chilis, my grandmother’s soft rose talcum powder, and the heady, sweet scent of blossoming hibiscus.”
From pages 92-3 of Born Confused:
“All day the house had smelled of spices, and now before our eyes lay the resulting combustion of all that kitchen chemistry. The feast my mother had conjured up was extravagant, and I realized how hungry I was; I wasn’t a big fan of Indian food, at least not on a daily basis, but today the sight of it was pure poetry.
“Brown sugar roti and cloud-puff puris just itching to be popped. Coconut rice fluffed up over the silver pot like a sweet-smelling pillow. Samosas transparent, peas bundling just below the surface. Spinach with nymph-finger cloves of garlic that sank like butter on the tongue. A vat of cucumber raita, the two-percent yogurt thickened with sour cream (which my mom added when we had guests, though she denied it when asked; I’d seen the empty carton, not a kitten lick left). And the centerpiece: a deep serving dish of lamb curry, the pieces melting tenderly off the bone.”
From page 130 of Opal Mehta:
“This year, fortunately, there wasn’t an egg in sight. Instead, the house had smelled of spices all day, and when we sat down at the dining room table, I nearly combusted at the sight of the extravagant feast my mom had conjured up. Usually I wasn’t a big fan of Indian food, but today I was suddenly starving. The table creaked with the weight of crisp, brown rotis and feather-light, puffy puris. A basket of my favorite kheema naan sat beside the clouds of cashew and sultana-studded coconut rice in an enormous pot. There was plump okra fried in oil and garlic till it melted like butter on the tongue, aloo curry studded with peppercorns and glistening chopped chilis, and a crock of raita, a cool, delicious mixture of yogurt and sour cream, bursting with finely chopped onions and cucumbers. The centerpiece was a deep dish of mutton curry, the meat (my mom only used halal bought from an Arab butcher in Edison) already falling off the bone.”
From page 85 of Born Confused:
“Finally, I tore open the package they made me save for last. Inside, padded carefully between layers of tissue, was an unbelievably resounding salvar khamees, one of those Indian outfits consisting of loose-fitting pants with a long top and scarf, or dupatta. The deep crimson fabric screamed sanguinely open. A river of nearly neon gold dye wound noisily through its length. The salvar was ornately embroidered with gold and silver and garnet beads and little bells that made a racket even as I lifted it out of the box. All in all it was, in fact, so loud I could hear it. Heavy, too — funny how all those little driblets could add up.”
From pages 125-6 of Opal Mehta:
“I looked at the multicolored swirl-patterned box hesitantly. In my past experience, gifts from Edison rarely boded well. And when I tore apart the layers of carefully packed tissue paper, I found an elaborate salwar kameez — loose pants, a long tunic-style top, and a trailing scarf, or dupatta. The salwar was a startling peacock-green, and embroidered so ornately with gold and silver threads and glittering beads that it made my eyes hurt. When I lifted it up, the room resounded to the tinkle of thousands of tiny golden bells. It was surprisingly heavy — all that jigna really added up — and it was the last thing in the world I ever wanted to wear.”