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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

How “Opal Mehta” Was A Desperate Cry for Help

Poor Kaavya Viswanathan, the widely derided, panned and disgraced author of “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life”. The day she was supposed to hear from Harvard via the computer on the status of her early decision application, they experienced a server crash. Viswanathan heard nothing from Harvard, meanwhile three of her classmates received their acceptance. She took this as a rejection, and “spent the whole night – 13 straight hours – weeping inconsolably and trying to look at life ahead” Of course, it was just an server crash, and Kaavya indeed got early acceptance into Harvard. And the rest is history.

But nevermind the striking similarities between Opal and not one, but two other books, now, the real shockers are the similarities between Kaavya and Opal. Opal “tells the story of a stressed-out Indian American girl fixated -- along with her Range Rover-driving neurosurgeon father and obstetrician-turned-stay-at-home-mother -- on getting into Harvard” [1] who has been on track to get into Harvard since birth, but is told by the Harvard Dean of Admissions to get a life, or her chances at acceptance will severely jeopardized, because Harvard doesn’t want “automatons.” By application time, Opal is told to “come back and show [Harvard] what a well-rounded candidate [she has] become.” (qtd. in [2]).

Kaayva, “Like the character in her novel… ….is "an Indian-American girl who got good grades, from New Jersey, who wanted to go to an Ivy League school." It was only to be expected, then, that Viswanathan's, yes, Range Rover-driving neurosurgeon father and obstetrician-turned-stay-at-home-mother signed their only child up with IvyWise. This admissions counseling service will, for a fee -- the platinum package will set you back $30,000 -- "take all the raw material and help you put it together in the way that an admissions officer is going to be most impressed by,"” [3].

Both Opal and Kaayva are bright young women, who are in situations that are far beyond their control. Opal found her life hijacked by her parents, who hatched an absurd, slightly comic, new life plan for their daughter, when their first one failed. Kaayva’s life was probably similarly influenced by her parents, who tossed her in science magnet school, and signed her up for a college packager to pad her application. This high-priced advisor wondered “why Viswanathan hadn’t listed her novel-in-progress on her resume.” Then the book packager Alloy become and involved and Kaayva had her book and writing hijacked by a book packager which helped shape the plot, deeming her original story about Irish history too dark.

Clearly, “success” for both Opal and Kaayva was more important that anything else. Opal traded her authenticity, individuality and personality away as a career move. Kaayva traded away her creativity, her own authenticity and her artistic vision for the same reason. Both of them prostituted themselves to get ahead: shamelessly trading their selfhood and identity for a kind of cheap social conformity all in the name of an ambition that wasn’t even really theirs to begin with. Harvard was Opal and Kaayva’s parents ambition for her, and both seemed to accept this dream and vision as their own. Were Kaayva’s tears genuinely the product of her dying dream, or the disappointment and fear that she has let her parents down. Did she plagiarized maliciously? Or was it because she was in over her head: a college packager had taken her writing hobby and twisted it, a book publisher had been sufficiently impressed by her prose, and offered her an enormous contract for a young person, and she simply could not make her ideas stick?

Kaayva’s book was her form of rebellion: A half-million dollar book contract, using other peoples’ words and a tale about a girl who learned to have some fun (but all under the guise of proper parental blessing). Kaayva needs to take a long hard look at her life: She’s a national figure now, an infamous example of the pressures on young people to succeed, and how they fail. Her punishment is Opal’s on a national, and perhaps international level: exposure and humiliation as a fraud. Young Kaayva has made a colossal mistake, and had to suffer through national notoriety. Poor girl.

[1] [3] Washington Post – Passage to Harvard
[2] Slate – How Kaavya Got Packed and Got Into Trouble: Plagiarism and Teen-Marketing Culture
Wikipedia – Kaavya Viswanathan
Hindu Magazine Interview with Viswanathan – A Fairy Tale Debut

Posted by George Gordon | Tuesday, May 02, 2006 | E-mail this post

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