I’m coming in late on this, but bear with me.
This is what happened: Prufrock, who runs an admirable lit blog, spotted a paragraph in Mahmood Farooqui’s 1,500-word review of Jan Dalley’s book on The Black Hole in Outlook, that had been lifted directly from Anne Garvey’s review of the same book in The Independent. Prufrock wrote this post; Mahmood responded, acknowledging the one-paragraph plagiarism but defending himself from broader plagiarism allegations. Prufrock accepted Mahmood’s response and posted the defence on his website in the interests of fairness, but by that time, a lot of venom had been spewed out over at the Outlook website.

I’m not going to defend Mahmood, except to say that what he did was foolish and careless–but not criminal. (If you’re wondering who Mahmood Farooqui is, here’s a link to one of his more interesting projects, the revival of the ancient storytelling form known as dastans.)

Instead, I’d like to argue for higher standards for plagiarism. True plagiarism has an element of lunatic hubris about it; when the true plagiarist is caught, the ambition and scale of his plagiarism should make you blink in horrified awe. I still remember comparing a notorious column by V N Narayanan with the original by Bryan Appleyard, in stunned disbelief. Narayanan hadn’t borrowed a line or a paragraph; he hadn’t settled for stealing Appleyard’s central idea. Instead, he had whacked the entire column, merely writing himself in so that he claimed Appleyard’s experiences, observations and most intimate thoughts.
I spoke to Narayanan many months later, and it was a frightening conversation. The impression I received was of a man who was perfectly capable of original work, who had slowly, over the years, got used to “borrowing”.
I imagine it would have started innocuously, with a borrowed idea, perhaps a borrowed quote; at some stage, he stopped seeing the need to use quote marks, and then he committed the equivalent of suicide in full public view by stealing the whole damn column.
“Of its 1,263 words, 1,020 words were mine,” wrote Bryan Appleyard at the time. Like Appleyard, I had trouble understanding a key point in the defence Narayanan employed: sure, he might have “internalised” some of the writing, but as Appleyard said, how could Narayanan have “internalised” Appleyard’s walk through Newark airport, without having performed said walk himself?
The other truly notorious case of plagiarism in India concerns Indrani Aikath-Gyaltsen, whose novel, Crane’s Morning, was almost identical to Elizabeth Goudge’s Rosemary Tree. Indrani Aikath-Gyaltsen died shortly after the plagiarism was uncovered; at the time, what struck me and anyone who read the two books side-by-side was how thorough the plagiarism was, how the opening lines, the dialogue, the characters were identical. Today, what strikes me is how hard Aikath-Gyaltsen worked to transplant a novel set in an English vicarage to the “tumbledown village” of Mohurpukur in Bengal. There could have been no “internalising” here; as she worked, changing small details about the house, the villagers, the landscape, but leaving Goudge’s plot, characters, dialogue and structure intact, she must have been sharply aware of what she was doing. Writing is less tolerant of “versions” and “variations on a theme” than either art or music, for good reason; but if Aikath-Gyaltsen had presented Crane’s Morning as an experiment in cultural and geographical translation, rather than as her own, original work, it would have been a highly successful experiment.

Narayanan may be an extreme case, but his kind of plagiarism is something that all of us who write for a living secretly fear might happen to us. Most of us read furiously: books, newspapers, magazines, columns on the Net, blogs. As Anne Fadiman commented when speaking of John Hersey’s extensive–and unacknowledged–borrowings from her mother’s writings, one of the occupational hazards of being a certain kind of reporter or editor-writer is that you get used to running other people’s prose through your typewriter and calling it yours. Another occupational hazard is simply that much-derided plagiarism defence: it was my unconscious wot done it, so sorry. It’s been over-used, but cryptomnesia does occur more often than we realise.

Aikath-Gyaltsen, on the other hand, sets my standard for what plagiarism of the worst kind really is: grand larceny carried out on a scale where the plagiarist also manages to inflict terrible and irreparable psychic damage on herself or himself.

Prufrock was perfectly correct to flag Mahmood’s stolen paragraphs. But there is a distinction between the kind of plagiarism that raises a gasp of moral outrage, the grand theft of the soul of another writer’s work, and the kind that raises just a warning flag.

Being at the receiving end of plagiarism accusations is a strange experience; this happened to me only once, when someone wrote in to say I had plagiarised a piece on Vikram Seth that came out in the Business Standard from a piece in the Financial Times about Vikram Seth. My piece was carried in the Lunch with the BS section; the piece I was supposed to have plagiarised from was carried in the Lunch with the FT section. The confusion in my accuser’s somewhat dim mind was understandable: there was Rahul Jacob of the FT having lunch with Vikram Seth, and there, just the next month, was the Babu at BS swearing that it, too, had lunched with Vikram Seth. (It didn’t seem to occur to my accuser that Vikram Seth might eat lunch more than once, and that too, with different reporters in different restaurants in different cities.)
But the accusation had its effect. For a brief, but dizzying moment, I found myself questioning my memory. Had I really taken Vikram out to lunch? Had we really ordered fried prawn and meen moiley? Had he really hummed in time to the Carnatic music drifting from the speakers? Had the waiter recommended the appams to me, or was all of this just a figment of my overheated imagination?
And worst of all, was I really me, or was I in truth Rahul Jacob?
A few months later, Rahul Jacob came by for dinner at the Babu’s place and was very reassuring on this subject: I was most definitely not him, he said kindly. Such a relief to have that cleared up.