Friday, July 31, 2009

Blast from the Past: Notorious

Kaavya stared dully at the laptop screen, her eyes bleary from the lack of sleep. “Don’t forget to finish your 50 pages of novel. It’s due tomorrow”, rang her mother’s admonition. The page had two lines on it, paused for the last 15 minutes on “…and Opal”. “I hate Opal, hate this novel writing gimmick, hate Amma, hate Appa…” She closed the laptop, dropped it unceremoniously on her table and grabbed her backpack, ready to clear her head with a short walk in the gated neighborhood. She paused at the door, turning for a last glance at her room, her eyes alighting on an untouched pile of shocking pink and purple books.

Her eyes narrowed as she remembered where she got them -- “Here you go, Kaavya. Some reading material to put you in the mood for producing the style of prose we need for this novel. I like your story, but it has too much angst to crack the NY Times top 100” the literary agent had said, handing over the bag of books to her mother, who had already stretched out her hand in anticipation of the action.

All thoughts of going for a walk fled. Kaavya dropped her backpack, picked a book at random out of the pile and fell back on her bed, thumbing through it rapidly.
“My daughter’s a very gifted writer”, Mrs.V. had gushed to the IvyWise counselor. “You must see the samples of her writing that we’ve brought. She actually won an award for young writers last year, and her earliest writings appeared in Stone Soup.” Kaavya tried to keep a straight face as she remembered the initial outcry from her parents over the Stone Soup submission “You wrote a story in which you take out your anger at us for moving from Scotland to New Jersey!” They were persuaded by the teacher to grant permission to submit the story to the magazine only after repeated assurances from the teacher that the writing showed great promise and a maturity beyond her years.

“That sounds very interesting. Let’s review her work to see how we can use that in her Harvard application.” The counselor pursed her lips, radiating wrinkles faintly visible as the Botox was wearing off. She unpursed them as the words on the page started to take flight from a slow-taxi start, her eyes widening and taking on a curious glint. Kaavya could almost see the dollar signs flashing in them. “Mrs.V, her writing shows remarkable talent. You should really let me put you in touch with a literary agent that I know. She may be able to get a book deal for Kaavya, and that would be just the thing to boost her chances of getting into Harvard.”
“I wanted to be a serious writer. Not stuck with rewriting my story to pander to hordes of teens. Ha… they want cutting and funny; I’ll give ‘em cutting and funny!” Kaavya flipped open her laptop, booted up and opened the document that she had been working on. She went into the online ‘search inside the book’ feature for the title she had chosen and tiled two windows side by side on the laptop screen. Cut/paste/change, cut/paste/change… Inspiration finally struck a couple of paragraphs later and her fingers started tapping rapidly as her own words took over.
The weeks had rushed by, but no one had caught on to her little trick. “They made me do this…it’s their fault for pushing me to do what I didn’t want to!” Truth be told, she was starting to enjoy her little secret, borrowing odd lines and paragraphs from this book and that. Not the editor, not the proofreader, no one had noticed the little snippets ‘borrowed’ from over half a dozen novels in the pile. It was even making it easier for her to ‘get in the mood’ and complete her despised novel.
The hype had become overwhelming. She had undergone more makeovers this last week than any beauty pageant contestant in a year. Interviews, photo-ops, flashing light bulbs, loads of congratulatory emails, letters, envious comments, the works! Kaavya was incredulous at the attention that she garnered as one of the youngest authors to receive a massive advance for her work. “They’re marketing me, not just that damned book! What would happen if they found out about the plagiarism? Hmmm…maybe nobody will. I think I was careful enough to change the passages somewhat. Amusing and scary at the same time!” The pressure was building up to unbearable levels, as her email inbox started overflowing with comments both gratifying and unwanted. Classes at Harvard were becoming an exercise in stress management - the scent of resentment and overweening expectations were driving her crazy.

“I know that you freshmen keep late hours, but this is ridiculous- falling asleep for the fifth time in a row in section! You need to rearrange your schedule and priorities!” The teaching fellow struggled to phrase it civilly. “And the quality of your work isn’t nearly what it ought to be. Are you having some kind of personal problem? All that fame going to your head?”
Kaavya bit back a rude retort and stared sullenly in response.

She overheard classmates speaking in the restroom. “She thinks she’s so hot because she got all that money for a silly chick-lit novel. It reminds me of just about everything I’ve read: Sloppy Firsts, Second Helpings, Princess Diaries… I could do better than that!” A cold sweat trickled down her spine. “What if somebody found out?” She felt as though her head was going to explode from the weight of contradictions burdening her. She ran out of the restroom, blindly searching for fresh air and found a quiet spot under a tree for a few blessed minutes of tranquility. By the time her friends had found her, she had repaired her make-up, smiling at them with calm resolution.

The next day, the story broke. “Young author accused of plagiarizing passages from another novelist” the headline trumpeted. “Based on a tip from an anonymous reader, investigating reporters at the ….” And the barrages of accusations, counter-accusations started.

Kaavya smiled grimly to herself that night as she hit the ‘Submit’ button on the online ‘tips and comments’ form to yet another newspaper. “And justice will be done…” She snapped the laptop shut and fell into a deep sleep for the first time in months, at peace with her self.

Note & Disclaimer:
The above piece is a fictionalized version of events relating to the Kaavya Viswanathan plagiarism affair and is only loosely based on reality. I make no claims to veracity in this story.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Blast from the Past: Crafty Conclusions

(originally published April 2006 on the now-defunct

I have more than a dozen UFOs from the constellation Craftia hiding in my closet, wondering when I will finally let them see the light of day. These UnFinished Objects are in various stages of completion- I’m hoping that highlighting some of them in this article will jog me into going back and finishing them.

First came Herkimer Mouse, an adorable little grey fella with a bright red sweater, hands clasped in prayer (or was he pleading “Please finish embroidering me...Please!!”). Bought for the miserly price of $1.20 from the clearance bin at a JoAnn Fabrics store in a galaxy far away, he was just awaiting finishing touches such as the whiskers and the twinkle in his eye to make him complete. What to do with the finished project? He clashes with the d├ęcor in my kids’ rooms. He looks too prayerful to fit in the office, family, living or dining rooms. He would stand out like a sore thumb in the puja cupboard, although placing him next to Ganesha, whose vehicle is a rodent, might not be such an outlandish idea. I give up --. Herkimer is going up for adoption, free to the first reader who would like to have him. Or if there are no takers, I will drop him off as an anonymous donation at the local Church.

Being quite the knitting aficionado, I embarked on Barbara W’s Learn to Knit afghan with the enthusiasm of the convert, eager to learn all the nuances of knitting technique. Her 63 block afghan, I was convinced, would immeasurably improve my knitting skills and send me straight to Knitting Nirvana. I badgered my husband to let me piggyback the book onto his order rather than go through the hassle of borrowing it repeatedly from the library. Triumphantly thumbing through my new copy of the book, I quickly got through squares 3, 4, 5…6……7……..8…….9……….10. The afghan squares rest in a dusty basket, stuck at square 11 in the series, patiently awaiting my return some day. I may even be able to finish it as a gift in time for my 6th grader’s high school graduation.

Next came Salley M’s Wee folk, made of pipecleaners, felt clothes, wrapped embroidery floss and beads with painted faces, cotton or yarn for hair. Who wouldn’t be charmed by the glorious full-color photos of armies of flower fairies and wee folk with acorn cap hats in her book! This fad had me trudging through 5 inches of snow to dig out sad little acorn caps under our oaks. In the first flurry of enthusiasm, I came up with a miniature doll dressed in bright orange felt, black yarn for hair and my daughter promptly dubbed her the “Japanese doll” for the Oriental slant to her eyes. A tiny Santa Claus , considerably leaner than normal, became a craft magnet on my fridge. A large flower fairy doll greets me daily next to potted plants on my kitchen window sill. I grew more ambitious, visions of demand for my handmade creations burgeoning from my friends. I was going to make several mini-Krishnas and see how the concept caught on. This called for an investment in assorted wooden beads, craft paint, doll’s hair and felt pieces. I got as far as painting three Krishna/Rama faces with varying degrees of success… and stopped. My favorite sewing needle was needed to complete some long-pending darning and had to be taken away from this promising cottage industry.

Enthused by the brochure sent out by the local community college, I signed up for a non-credit course on beginning watercolors. My instructor turned out be a most eclectic gentleman whose primary credo was – “Anything goes, even it looks like the discombobulated efforts of a 2 year old elephant. ” In fact, he was highly impressed by the photos of elephant artists and Koko the gorilla painting that I managed to locate for his edification. “That’s the true artistic spirit!” he announced to the class, a sea of white haired heads with a lone dark spot. I was too timid to admit that my personal tastes ran more to Thomas Kinkade style English cottages and flower gardens dripping with nostalgia and artful lighting. I attempted a few insipid trial paintings before coming up with my piece de resistance (according to my instructor, at least!) - a mysterious-looking and colorful painting of a cross legged man in the forefront, with a menacing cloaked figure in the background. This was my MoMA-worthy ‘interpretation’ of a National Geographic photo of some Afghan rebel smoking a cigarette in a desert, with his burqa-ed wife in the distance. Next, fired up by the instructor’s assertion that living creatures are among the best subjects for a stunning composition, I identified an old blurry photo of nestlings with wide open mouths as my next subject. Having sketched the picture, I got as far as painting a few underwashes of yellow, brown and green before I abandoned the project due to lack of interest in the subject.

On to the next fad. I flirted with crochet, quilting, pottery, decoupage, paper crafting…. The list goes on, and each time produced more UFOs to reside in my closet. Trying to get this craftmania under control, I put myself through the 12-step Craftaholics Anonymous process. I’m currently at the stage where I’m reduced to ooohing and aaahing over the lovely pictures in books from my local library, without being able to actually try them out (part of the self-control techniques needed to get out of the addiction). So many crafts, so little time!


Some kind doctor is going to issue an online diagnosis of adult ADHD and send me a prescription for Ritalin or whatever drug it is that is currently not on the FDA blacklist for causing potential strokes or heart attacks.

That grand old lady of Television Craftdom, or Carol “Kizhavi” (‘old woman’ in Tamil), as my friend Pankajam maami likes to call her, will give me a call to appear on her show as a craftaholic par excellence.

My kid’s school is going to receive a huge donation of assorted art and crafting supplies that have taken over every available room in the house. (My inner craftaholic pipes up in glee “Then I can go out and buy some more!!!”)

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Squirrel Spa

Considering that the previous bird feeder was ripped to shreds by the friendly neighborhood squirrel, I marched off to the store, determined to find something that would withstand the depredations.
The shelf was lined with several contraptions, but the one that caught my eye as a good candidate in terms of price vs. sturdiness was this one.
'Squirrel stumper', as it was called, I thought that it might do the job of deterring the attacks effectively.
So I filled the bird feeder and waited, and waited and waited...
No sign of birds, much less squirrels.
I refilled the bird bath (not the rusted 'copper' birdbath, but the nice terracotta saucer placed on top of it.)
Soon enough, Squirrel #1 showed up. Let's call him Larry.
He took a few dainty sips at the bird bath and scampered on to the bird feeder and sat there woefully for about a minute, or so I thought.
Next he casually put out his paws and attempted a half leap to grab it.Ha...he would have his comeuppance!
No such luck. Larry dextrously put out his paws and scooped out a single sunflower seed which he proceeded to munch through with great satisfaction as he posed on the deck railing. Then he repeated the same maneuver, continuing thusly for the next half hour, till I got tired of watching and went off.
An hour later, I stopped by and Larry was gone, his place taken by Curly, who being more acrobatic, had wrapped himself around the feeder, dangling upside down and filching seed from the feeder every now and then. A lone red cardinal watched cautiously from a nearby branch, venturing every now and then to grab a few millet seeds spilled below the feeder, flying off to feed its baby.
Curly finished off with a draught of cool water and ran off, as Moe chased him away and came to get his share of the spoils. He couldn't quite figure out how to get to the seeds, the lack of perch making it hard for him to grab hold of the feeder, but tried shimmying up the shepherd's hook that the feeder hangs from instead. Then he sat back on the railing and thought a little 'think', much like Winnie the Pooh.
And it came to him, he adopted Larry's tactics and was able to get out individual sunflower seeds with no major antics.
So, we've gone from Bird Feeders to becoming the Squirrel Spa, as Larry/Curly/Moe nap on the railing in between sunflower seeds. The squirrel stumper has turned out to be more of a bird stumper, since it lacks perches that make it easy for the birds to rest and feed.
I think I will go back to the old plastic feeders for the birds and set up the 'squirrel stumper' as the squirrel feeding post, filled with sunflower seeds and corn.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Summer Reading

There's nothing like reading lists handed out at the end of the school year to send the kids screaming for the hills, apparently.Mine have definitely decided to go off the beaten track, this year, even as NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof strikes a familiar chord in his column on his Best Childrens' Books of all time, and scores over 2000 reader responses on his blog asking for reader's suggestions.
A lot of those mentioned by the readers are old favorites of mine, but my kids have decided on their own favorites for the season.
M, a rather advanced reader for an 8+ year old, has zipped through several of the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary, and is now avidly waiting for the next arrival (reserved and still in the library queue) in the fractured fairytale series called the Sisters Grimm.
She's also hugely fond of a Catholic school series about the Murphy family(authored by a Pittsburgher named Colleen O'Shaughnessy McKenna- whew, and I thought only South Indians had long names!)
S is tired of all the highbrow reading for school coursework and has embarked on a diet of miscellaneous teen/Young adult writers of sci-fi, world war and adventure books for light reading. For heavy reading, he's glued to "Introducing Character Animation with Blender'.
My reading list has been rather sparse. I plodded recently through 'Lulu in Marrakech' by Diane Johnson. Lulu is a secret agent, sort of Valerie Plame meets anti-Mata Hari, and naturally, falls into all sorts of adventures when she heads for Marrakech, ostensibly to meet an old flame.
I delved into the 'Summer World' by Bernd Heinrich, chapter after chapter about the insects, birds and small animals of the summer, sort of Thoreau-meets-research-scientist style of writing which pits incongruous rhapsodizing about the beauty of nature against statistical tables on how the author determined precisely when pupa would sense the lengthening days and start the transition to the adult form. Fascinating, and yawn-inducing.
What's on your bookshelf?