How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got A Life - Plagiarism - Additional Accusations - Tanuja Desai Hidier

Tanuja Desai Hidier

On April 26, 2006, Viswanathan had told The New York Times, "I've never read a novel with an Indian-American protagonist ... The plot points are reflections of my own experience. I'm an Indian-American." Subsequently on May 3, 2006, The Harvard Independent noted three passages in Opal Mehta similar to Tanuja Desai Hidier's Born Confused (2002), another young adult novel about an Indian-American teenager in New Jersey. They cited "uncanny resemblance in imagery, sentence structure, and paragraph organization" between the two books. Hidier later stated that she had "ironically" been alerted to the allegations on the day Viswanathan was quoted in The New York Times. Hidier said:

"I was stunned to find two dozen instances of lifting from Born Confused in the Opal Mehta book ... I also drew largely from autobiography to tell the story of my 17-year-old Indian American Jersey girl, Dimple Lala. And I hadn't read any books I could recall with a South Asian American teen protagonist at that point (I wrote Born Confused in 2000/2001 and it launched in 2002). To the best of my knowledge Born Confused was the first book with a US female teen desi heroine; that was one of the reasons my publisher wanted it, and it is certainly one of the reasons I wrote it ... And so I was extremely surprised to find that the majority, though not all, of the passages in Opal Mehta taken from Born Confused are those dealing with descriptions of various aspects of South Asian culture (food, dress, locale, even memories of India, etc.) and the way that culture is expressed in America; essentially every scene of Opal Mehta that deals with any aspect of South Asian culture in more than passing detail has lifted something from Born Confused. One would think that these kinds of cultural details at least could have been drawn from Ms. Viswanathan's personal experience, given our similar cultural backgrounds (and the similar cultural backgrounds and ages of our protagonists)."

An excerpt of Born Confused had appeared in Seventeen magazine in 2002. Hidier was subsequently contacted by Viswanathan's future book packager 17th Street/Alloy, but she declined their offer to collaborate with her on an "Indian-American teen story." Hidier noted in 2006 that "several parts of this excerpt – including the opening and closing – are present and strongly echoed in the Opal Mehta book." She added that Born Confused contained many specific details from her own life which had been recycled by Viswanathan:

"It was a surreal experience for me, looking at these and the other parallel parts side by side. The feeling was almost as if someone had broken into your home – and in some ways this is what literally had happened, considering so much of Born Confused is drawn from my life (and home): The alcohol cabinet in my non-drinking household in small town Massachusetts was now in Opal's, the details of my family's two dinnertimes because of all the years of working late into the night by my father, too; my mother's food, from her mother's recipes, transplanted to Opal's table, her slinky black outfit too; my ecstatic and eye-opening discovery of Jackson Heights, Queens during an enthralled and emotional day there many years ago, suddenly turned to Edison, New Jersey ... Did think you could just substitute one kind of Indian for another? A friend brought my attention to a couple observant bloggers who seemed to have caught on early to this grand error, commenting on how jarring it was to see a Gujarati/Marathi meal on a South Indian table ... and that some of the memories of India hearken back to a much older India in the Opal Mehta book (which makes sense considering the many years that separate Ms. Viswanathan and myself) – details that may have escaped a person not familiar with the culture."

Hidier's Born Confused Viswanathan's Opal Mehta
page 85: "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." page 125-126: "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."
page 92-93: "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." page 130: "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."
page 13: "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." page 230-231: "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."

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