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‘Borderlands’ vs ‘Borderlands’ Take Two: The plagiarism debate that wasn’t played out

The case was settled out of court, but the question marks over plagiarism in general remain.

News broke on Monday evening about a legal suit against writer Chetan Bhagat and his book One Indian Girl by another writer on charges of plagiarism. All the time that the legal process was underway, however – the past two months or so – one more book has been defending itself against a similar accusation.

The case against Borderlands: Travels Across India’s Boundaries, by journalist Pradeep Damodaran, has had all the elements of a heady courtroom drama: two hotly contested claims, allegations and counter-allegations, and a great air of mystery. Scroll.in had reported the events of the case as they unfolded last month.

The dust seemed to settle for a while...only to flare up again.

A brief rewind

Chennai-based author and lawyer Suchitra Vijayan had moved court in early March to object to the release of Damodaran’s book, claiming its contents were 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, staying the release of Damodaran’s Borderlands.

But Hachette India, the publisher of Damodaran’s book, responded quickly in court and the temporary injunction against sales – the same kind that a Bengaluru court has imposed on Bhagat’s book – was lifted on March 28, allowing the book to go out again to online and offline bookstores.

But what exactly happened in court to reverse the fate of the book? The story unfolds a bit in the manner of a “he said, she said” episode, but let us consider all the claims.

First, Hachette India told Scroll.in that what transpired behind closed doors was as simple as Vijayan withdrawing her claim, and retracting “unfounded allegations” that there was a similarity between her book proposal and the published book by Damodaran. Vijayan’s counsel, Arun C Mohan, apparently backed this up by stating that the previously contested book was in fact “an original and distinct literary work being independent and having no resemblance to the plaintiff’s work”.

The matter, given such statements, seemed to be drawing to a close. But it didn’t.

Damodaran’s book was now out in the market and the favourable ruling was all very well, but it was indeed still to swallow the damage that had been done. “I wish that Ms Vijayan had at least done a basic check to see if there was any similarity between my book and her work before going to court thus causing hardship and serious damage to my professional reputation,” Damodaran said in a statement.

And then came a counter-allegation. When Scroll.in contacted Vijayan for a response on the new developments, she called the statement made by Hatchette India factually incorrect. The parties were indeed directed to negotiate by the court through mediation, she confirmed, but “the suit has not been withdrawn and it has been settled based on a mutual memorandum of compromise. I have made no retraction nor has there been any ‘unfounded allegation’. Misrepresenting mediation agreements, attributing false and untrue statements to my lawyer and me are unacceptable and beneath the stature of publishing house and its writer.”

So does that mean she continues to believe her work was copied by Damodaran? “In the world of ubiquitous internet search, discovering my work that has been in the public domain since 2012 is not impossible. When I saw Mr Damodaran’s book, its title, the subtitle and the book blurb, it felt like a truck had hit me. I went to court to protect my work that has been in the making for all these years. To make sure its future was protected…Without merit, it would make no logical sense for a young author to take on a large publishing house.”

To counter Vijayan’s claim, Hachette India jumped in to contend that her case was so weak that her counsel asked for mediation after seeing the written arguments. There was a “settlement” agreed to, said a Hachette India representative, claiming that Vijayan had retracted all that she been alleged earlier – though Vijayan denies this – and so “...the suit is therefore automatically deemed withdrawn.”

For now, that is the final word on the sticky case. This throws up two possibilities: one, that there are strands to this story that have not made it out of the court or mediation room, or two, that Vijayan simply jumped the gun by going to court. Damodaran’s book was not out in the market at the time Vijayan filed the legal suit.

A brief history of plagiarism

Conventionally, plagiarism cases are contested when both, or at least one of the two works in question are in the public domain, to be able to compare text objectively and verify the claims of copyright infringement, if any.

In 2013, for example, when copies of well-known scientist Jane Goodall’s book Seeds of Hope were sent to the media, reviewers at The Daily Beast and The Washington Post swiftly discovered passages copied from Wikipedia and other uncredited and unreliable sources. Goodall apologised and the book was reworked for a release the following year.

More famously in India, readers will recall plagiarism charges against publisher and author David Davidar in 2012, when poet-novelist Sivasundari Bose claimed that the plot of his novel The House of Blue Mangoes was copied from a manuscript she had submitted to Penguin when he headed the publishing house. But this came ten years after his novel hit bookstores.

There are plenty of other widely-reported plagiarism cases in publishing. Remember the bestselling How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life by Harvard University student Kavya Vishwanathan that crashed hard when it was called out for lifting bits from two books by Megan McCafferty? Similarly, 17-year-old German writer Helene Hegemann’s fame wore off quickly after being accused of copying from lesser known books for her bestselling Axolotl Roadkill, though she still made it as a finalist for an award.

Among the bigwigs, TS Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land reportedly had elements in common with poet Madison Cawein’s Waste Land. Eliot himself appeared pretty lenient about such matters with his “good writers borrow, great writers steal” mantra.

All of these controversies, over time, have been open to public scrutiny, making it easier, in a way, to verify all claims. This, unusually, isn’t what happened in case of Borderlands versus Borderlands, of which only one is a published work, tipping the whole matter in its favour.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.