Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Photo: HT
Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Photo: HT

Copy... and paste: Plagiarism in literature over the years

Over the years, there have been scandals and allegations galore, from Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan to Ismat Chugtai to Redscar McOdindo K'Oyuga

When the springs of imagination run dry for some, their ethical gene sometimes takes a hiatus and furtively, some choose to glance sidelong at another’s possessions and covet it for themselves. Ctrl C… Ctrl V is then a mere keystroke away. 

In the January 1929 issue of the Modern Review, a certain Jadunath Sinha made a sensational claim. None other than Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan had plagiarized from him, or so he said. His Indian Philosophy Vol. II had lifted several passages from Sinha's thesis. The battle spilled over into the February, March and April issues of the magazine too as Sinha cited several more passages to bolster his claim. Radhakrishnan hit back with letters in the February and March issues.

 In August 1929, Sinha sued Radhakrishnan. Radhakrishnan counter-sued both Sinha and Ramnath Chattopadhyay, the editor of Modern Review. Given Radhakrishnan’s stature, it was a battle royale.

Sinha himself was no sensation-monger. He had completed his BA in philosophy in 1915 from the Calcutta University, bagging both the Philip Samuel Smith Prize and the Clint Memorial Prize, and then finished his MA in philosophy in 1917. Well-regarded by his teachers, he was appointed an assistant professor in Ripon College, Calcutta, even before his MA results were announced. In 1922, he was awarded the Premchand Roychand Studentship. It was the two-part thesis that he submitted as part of this grant that Radhakrishnan allegedly filched from.

Recent scandals

About a year and a half ago, a Kenyan poet dazzled the English-speaking African literary world. In August 2016, he was awarded two literary prizes and shortlisted for a third. In no time, Redscar McOdindo K’Oyuga was the toast of the literary establishment, till it emerged that he had been copy-pasting from many, many sources after merely altering a handful of words. The road to perdition was swift. 

It was an echo of a similar scandal a decade ago in the US starring an Indian-American. Kavya Viswanathan published How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life while still a teen in 2005, and then landed a two-book $500,000 contract while a freshman at Harvard. And then the similarities of her book with another book by Megan MacCafferty tumbled out. "Photographic memory" was the first defence offered. But then, it turned out that she had copied from Rushdie too. The shutter came down on her contract and her published book. 

In recent times, the late Avtar Singh "Pash" has been targeted by right-wing educationist Dinanath Batra for his poem Sab ton Khattarnak. Batra objected to the poem’s violent undertones and concluded that poems of this sort could "incite violence", demanding therefore that it be removed from the Class XI NCERT Hindi textbook.

Parallelly, a scandal erupted that this poem was more than a little similar to Die Slowly by Martha Medeiros. A close reading of both is inconclusive. Experts, while acknowledging similarities, are loath to conclude plagiarism for this poem. But another by Pash—Gha (Grass) turns out to have lifted a few lines from Carl Sandburg’s Grass. Clearly, a moment of weakness for an otherwise great poet. 

Scandals from the 20th century

In 1942, Ismat Chughtai came out with Ziddi. The plot was set in rural India and had the rich boy-poor girl setting that became a common Bollywood theme in the years to come. Then it emerged that Ziddi was a rehash of a Turkish novel, Hajira, the writer of which went by the pseudonym Adalat Khanam. Chughtai had altered the Turkish names, put Hindu and Muslim names in their place and turned the comedy into a tragedy, but had retained the plot, dialogue and settings. Regardless, Ziddi remains popular and was even turned into a Dev Anand movie in 1948, the first film to feature a Lata-Kishore duet, in fact.

In 1977, the book Roots won both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. A highly acclaimed TV mini-series followed. But its author, Alex Haley, was soon subject to a plagiarism suit and forced to concede that he had in effect "borrowed" parts of the book from a 1967 novel, The African by Harold Courlander. The case was settled out of court for $650,000. But the scandal tainted the book and while the book is popular, it is not considered part of the literary canon, a more than a serious rap on the knuckles for Haley.

In the early 1990s, a time before The God of Small Things, when Indian English writing was still in relative infancy, a book by Indrani Aikath-Gyaltsen called Cranes’ Morning which was initially hailed by critics was found to have been plagiarized word for word from an earlier work, The Rosemary Tree by Elizabeth Goudge. It was puzzling why she had done so, especially since her first novel Daughters of the House had been well-received.

But when the plagiarism was discovered, it was a huge scandal. The author’s mysterious death within a few months only made things murkier. The plagiarism is proven, but the author’s reasons will now never be known.

Once upon a time 

In the 1840s, America was witness to what came to be termed the "Longfellow War". While today Edgar Allan Poe is remembered as a poet and author of tales of the macabre and early detective fiction, then he was America’s pre-eminent critic. He was known as the Tomahawk Man, which tells us something about the nature of his reviews. A particular target of Poe’s was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whom he accused of imitation and also stealing from Tennyson and Milton, among others. 

When an unknown admirer (“Outis") defended Longfellow and made the claim that Poe’s The Raven was plagiarized too, Poe in a series of five replies both defended himself and elaborated on his view of Longfellow. Poe claimed he had exercised "… great moderation in charging him (Longfellow) with imitation alone" and went on to add, "Had I accused him, in loud terms, of manifest and continuous plagiarism, I should but have echoed the sentiment of every man of letters in the land beyond the immediate influence of the Longfellow coterie."

Longfellow kept his silence throughout the humiliating battle and in the years following Poe’s untimely death in 1849, he maintained a running correspondence with Poe’s mother-in-law sending her books, money and doing her other favours—an odd conclusion to a bitter war. 

The Radhakrishnan tale ended happily... for Radhakrishnan! Sinha crumbled before the pressure exerted on him by the high and mighty, including the then vice-chancellor of Calcutta University, Shyamaprasad Mukherjee. In 1933, the matter was settled out-of-court. Indian Philosophy Vol. II remains in print.

Karthik Venkatesh is an editor with a publishing firm and a freelance writer. For his previous Mint on Sunday essays, click here.

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