Plagiarism charges

‘Borderlands’ versus ‘Borderlands’: A writer accuses another (and his publisher) of copying her book

Suchitra Vijayan has alleged in court that Pradeep Damodaran’s book owes much to hers in terms of concept, content and even the title.

It isn’t often that a book from a well-known publisher faces the sort of allegations that journalist Pradeep Damodaran’s Borderlands: Travels Along India’s Boundaries has. Published by Hachette India, the book ran into territorial issues just days before it was to hit the bookstores on March 15.

The Chennai-based writer, lawyer, photographer Suchitra Vijayan moved court to object to the release of Damodaran’s book, claiming its contents are nearly identical to a book she has been working on since 2012. On March 5, the Madras High Court granted an interim injunction to Vijayan for four weeks, valid till April 3, retraining the two defendants – Hachette Book Publishing India Private Limited and Pradeep Damodaran from “directly or indirectly in any manner, copying, reproducing, adapting, using the plaintiff’s content in the impugned work amounting to infringement of copyright, or in any other manner whatsoever, pending disposal of the suit.”

The court order also specifically ordered the defendants from using or passing off their book title and cover design as their own, both of which Vijayan claims have been “slavishly imitated” from her book project.

The allegation

Damodaran’s (his previous book is titled The Mullaperiyar Water War: The Dam That Divided Two States, published in 2014 by Rupa Publications) book covers his travels to the areas on the borders between India and its neighbours, such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, as well as to the extreme edges of the country, such as Campbell Bay in Andaman and Nicobar. Trouble is, Vijayan claims that her book covers precisely the same areas, with the same theme. And that it predates Damodaran’s.

According to Vijayan’s complaint, filed by her lawyer Arun C Mohan, the contents of Damodaran’s book appear to be very closely on the lines of her research, which she began working on as a graduate student at Yale in 2012. “She was embedded with the ISAF forces – 172 infantry brigade, in Paktika Province, Afghanistan conducting research counterinsurgency practices in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, which became her graduating thesis. The applicant spent two years researching and documenting stories along the contentious Durand Line, and later travelled throughout the northern frontiers of India and has documented her experiences in the book titled ‘Borderlands’ described as ‘A Journey through India’s border’,” states the complaint to the court.

Vijayan’s was to be a crowdfunded project, through a Kickstarter page that was launched in March 2013 following a piece published in The Huffington Post, titled A Journey Through India’s Borders. The piece also has a poster designed by Sruthi Vijayan which, the applicant, claims has been copied by Hachette for Damodaran’s book.

The defence

When Scroll.in contacted Hachette India for a response, the company responded with this statement: “Hachette India are shocked at Suchitra Vijayan’s allegations against our book Borderlands and our author Pradeep Damodaran. The allegations are completely false and are purely based on conjecture and misinformation. As the matter is in court we shall wait for due process to unfold. We would however like to put on record that we are appalled at this denigration of Pradeep’s hard work over many years. We condemn Ms Vijayan’s attempts to malign the book, the author and us the publisher and shall take full legal recourse as necessary.”

Excerpts from Vijayan’s book, along with the title “Borderlands” have appeared in the print and online media since. “The applicant states that she created an extensive book proposal, amounting to 50 pages, which has been circulated to multiple publishing houses,” the complaint further states. “The book proposal gives an outline of each chapter, consisting of excerpts from the book.”

Vijayan claims Prerna Vohra, editor at Hachette, approached her expressing interest in reading this book proposal on October 24, 2016. Vijayan, however, said she opted out of talks with Hachette over a phone call on December 7, 2016, as she was already in conversation with three other publishing houses at the time.

When Scroll.in contacted Hachette India for a comment on these claims, a representative said, “As the matter is sub judice we wouldn’t like to comment further on this till we’ve made our representations in court.”

The counter-claims

In February 2017, it came to Vijayan’s notice, she said, that Hachette India was publishing a book titled Borderlands: Travels along India’s Boundaries. “The applicant reasonably believes that the 1st respondent [Hachette] has commissioned the 2nd respondent [Damodaran] in the year 2015 to replicate the contents of the applicant’s book proposal, along with an almost identical title.” Vijayan contends that the book has replicated the “storyline, plot and narrative” of her book.

On her website, under the “The Borderlines Project” section, Vijayan states she is currently in the process of finishing her book. Her description of this project: “The book Borderlands is my 9,000-mile journey through India’s borders to better understand the human dimension of political borders. It is a travelogue chronicling stories along India’s border with Pakistan, China, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Burma. Part visual anthropology and partly an attempt at understanding the Indian state, and the fringes it governs.”

On Hachette India’s website, Damodaran’s book is summarised thus: “For most residents of India’s bustling metros and big towns, nationality and citizenship are privileges that are often taken for granted. The country’s periphery, however, is dotted with sleepy towns and desolate villages whose people, simply by having more in common with citizens of neighbouring nations than with their own, have to prove their Indian identity every day. It is these specks on the country’s map that Pradeep Damodaran rediscovers as he travels across India’s borders for a little more than a year, experiencing life in far-flung areas that rarely feature in mainstream conversations…From Minicoy in Lakshadweep to Taki in West Bengal, Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh to Raxaul in Bihar, Damodaran’s compelling narrative reinforces the idea that, in India, a land of contrasts and contradictions, beauty and diversity, conflict comes in many forms.”

It’s difficult to predict the outcome of this battle. While there have been charges of plagiarism in the past – most recently concerning Rajiv Malhotra’s book Indra’s Net – there haven’t been many accusations of the scope of those of Vijayan’s against Damodaran and Hachette. Nor, in the recent past, has a major publisher had to deal with a speedily obtained court injunction against publishing a book on these grounds. The final ruling will set several precedents.

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