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Subcontinental plagiarism

August 14, 2012

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IT was Fareed Zakaria’s misfortune that he was born in the Google era, a double-edged sword. “While it is extremely tempting to plagiarise these days because it is easy, it is also easier to catch the plagiarist,” a senior editor commented when the prominent Time magazine and CNN journalist was recently caught.

Zakaria is not the only one we know of who has indulged in the practice. He is simply one who immediately apologised and admitted his mistake.

There is a long history of plagiarism in our subcontinent, and those found copying from books and articles written by others include a number of prominent names of Urdu literature. They were luckier than Zakaria, as their handiwork was exposed much later; there was no Google then. But they do stand exposed.

Prominent journalist Syed Hasan Masanna Nadvi and his colleagues have done some research on plagiarism that was carried by the literary magazine Mehr-i-Neemroze, launched in the 1950s, and has now been compiled into a book. Che Dilawar Ast is a ready reference on plagiarism, and these facts have been borrowed from it.

Krishan Chander is a big name of the progressive writers’ movement, and a very popular one. He wrote the preface for Mawra, the first collection of the prominent poet Noon Meem Rashid, which was an immediate hit. But it was later discovered that the preface was an adaptation and translation from C.D. Lewis’ book, A Hope for Poetry, which spoke of new trends in English literature. Nowhere did Chander mention that it was a translation, or even refer to Lewis.

Niaz Fatehpuri, another well-known name in Urdu literature, was editor of the literary magazine Nigar, which dominated the subcontinent’s literary scene for around four decades. He wrote on subjects ranging from literature to religion to sex. Commenting on new ideas in literature, he penned a book called Intiqadiat that immediately became very popular for its high level of intellectual discourse. It was after some time had lapsed that scholars read William Henry Hudson’s book, An Introduction to the Study of Literature, of which Fatehpuri’s book was an adapted translation, including references in Intiqadiat to other western critics. Fatehpuri only once mentioned Hudson, in passing, and had not directly studied any of the other critics.

But then Fatehpuri had always been suspected of plagiarism. One of his popular books — which is still very popular — is Targhibaat-i-Jinsi, an adaptation of Studies in the Psychology of Sex by Havelock Ellis. Fatehpuri selected passages out of the six volumes of Ellis’ work and combined them into one book, at some places changing expressions and geography to create the impression that his work was original.

Who hasn’t read Ismat Chughtai’s short stories and novels and fallen for her? Anyone who has read Lihaaf or Til or Masooma or Ziddi is fond of her. The latter, which was also made into a film, is an almost plagiarised version of a Turkish writer’s novel, Hajira.

The Turkish author, who wrote by the pseudonym of Adalat Khanam, penned Hajira in English in the late 19th century. After prominent historian Amir Ali highly appreciated the book in his presidential address at the Calcutta Mohammedan Educational Conference in 1897, it was translated into Urdu in 1899.

Some 43 years later, Chughtai came out with her novella, Ziddi. She changed the Turkish, Muslim names into Hindu names and turned the comedy into a tragedy. Most of the plot, dialogue and setting remain the same; if there was a fire in Hajira, it was there in Ziddi as well, with the hero risking his own life to save the heroine and others, to mention just one similarity from among hundreds.

While the list goes on, from poet Ghalib to modern-day humorists, there is one person who cannot be ignored: Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the former president of India and author of the book Indian Philosophy. The work was immediately challenged by one Jadunath Sinha, a student of Radhakrishnan’s who had submitted his dissertation to him and another instructor.

When Radhakrishnan’s book was published, Sinha wrote a number of letters to Calcutta’s Modern Review magazine claiming that passages from his dissertation had been stolen for the book. Radhakrishnan’s misfortune was that many of Sinha’s articles had already been published in magazines before the publication of the book, giving weight to Sinha’s claim.

And then there was Qazi Abdul Ghaffar, who copied Kahlil Gibran in Us nay Kaha and Aleksandr Kuprin in his book Laila ke Khutoot. Prominent playwright and humorist Imtiaz Ali Taj ‘created’ a character, Chacha Chhakkan, who was in fact copied from English writer Jerome K. Jerome.

These are just some of those who borrowed from the works of others from among the long list of shining stars of Urdu literature. The only difference for those born in the Google age is that they can’t hide as long as their predecessors did.

The writer is associate editor, the Herald.