Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

You can't tell your own story using someone else's voice

Plagiarism is all in the news these days, but it's old hat (tired topi?) around these parts. I don't know why people are so surprised about
Kaavya Vishwanathan; darn near every other Indian movie (except Lagaan. I like Lagaan) has a plot plagiarized from another Indian movie, which many times stole its story, in turn, from a Hollywood hit. Hit Indian film songs are often techno versions of Western hits (and I don't mean they sample vintage records here and there for flavour - I mean, they take entire hook lines and re-sing them as though it's their own). Lots more film songs just stay closer to home and rip off vintage Indian melodies. In 2004 a major film was released in which "each and every thing," as they say here, was lifted from Philadelphia.

Why don't the authors of the original screenplays sue? Probably because they'd then be ensnared in the Indian court system the rest of their natural lives (and beyond. The only explanation I can find for the Indian court system is a sincere belief in reincarnation).

It's a shame. Real Indian melodies are unmistakeable - unique, complex, and classic; like real Indian dances, and Indian storylines. So many people are so eager to go West - have they stopped singing their own songs and telling their own tales?

There seems to be an entirely different perception here of acceptable levels of pirating, copying, and ghost writing or singing. In the 1980s, Milli Vanilli was a scandal in the western entertainment industry; their lip synching led to Grammies returned, careers ruined and eventually, the drug addiction and suicide of the shamed performers. Even in the 1960s (before the rise of the verite singer-songwriter), Audrey Hepburn's dubbed singing voice in My Fair Lady caused shame and embarassment. Here, there's an entire Milli Vanilli Universe - a music industry built not around but squarely on top of faked performances in films (none of the actors really sing; the vocals are all done by professional playback singers). This doesn't seem to bother anyone; and I guess as long as it's presented so unapologetically it shouldn't. In other words, everyone knows the singing is fake; therefore, there's no misrepresentation.

Something Borrowed
Most revealing to me was Vishwanathan's defense of herself. Her story was different from McCafferty's, she explained, because "I am an Indian American. I got good grades." (Her precise words, as quoted in Hindustan Times.)

To her, I guess that makes all the difference. What else is there - but to be Indian, and get good grades? By her standards, she has fulfilled the ethical requirements placed on her by her parents and culture. That's enough to make someone else's story hers.

Indian columnist Cyrus Mistry wrote one of the most relevant pieces regarding the whole Kaavya mess, in which he asked, "Do we Indians just not see anything wrong with plagiarism?" He didn't feel the need to answer his own question.

Pedagogical Peculiarities
The variance in values must be due to the vast difference in cultural teaching methods. Western pedagogy puts a real premium on originality, asking questions and finding one's own voice. Asian teaching methods tend to emphasize memorization and repetition (ie, imitation). A student here is expected to absorb and internalize the lesson completely and wholly, with as little variation as possible. Also, the Western mentality is based on the Socratic Method - that is, asking questions. Here, asking questions (and having one's own opinion) is often just considered rude.

My British friend who taught English Literature Appreciation at Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeeth in Vallickavau, Kerala could not find a way to convey this to his students. They could read Shaw's Arms and the Man in a flash, and recite passages from it back to him nearly verbatim. When asked their thoughts about it, their feelings, or opinions, they were silent. Finally Tristan realized they didn't have an opinion about the book - they weren't capable of having one. And NOT because they didn't have the language skills (they did ) or because they weren't intelligent - they had simply never been taught, or perhaps been allowed, to think independently in such a fashion.

In a culture where it means so much to be a part of the group, finding one's own voice is not a big priority. In fact, it might even be detrimental. So naturally Vishwanathan "didn't realize the extent to which" she "had internalized McCafferty's work" - she was just being a good student by internalizing, absorbing it completely and recreating it elsewhere. In other words, she was doing what had always worked by her standards.

This doesn't mean she shouldn't be held to the standards of the West, where she was published - just that unconscious mimckry is, in her world (or perhaps that of her parents), often the acceptable way things are done.

Similarly, my Nepalese students at Rangjung Yeshe took meticulous and painstaking notes, were terrified of making mistakes and had great to absorb and regurgitate the words of the Khenpo (Buddhist abbot) who was teaching complexities of Buddhist philosophy. When I would ask them to describe the teachings in their own words, they were really at a loss. Often their answers began, "What the Khenpo taught was that...." and were followed by verbatim quotations from the week's lectures. They were becoming talented stenographers, not philosophy students. The late-night verbal wranglings over dharmic concepts and contradictions - what one might expect of philosophy students elsewhere - were the province of the visiting Western students.

They just had a completely different concept of what "a good student," or a good anything, is. This is not to say that one concept is superior to the other - they produce entirely different results that are appropriate to their respective sources.

To generalize, The West seems to appreciate bold innovation and "thinking for yourself" - for better or worse (needless to say, this doesn't guarantee originality or genius). Asia seems to value reproducing what already works. It is not a question of intelligence. It's as though they are teaching them: this is what worked before. Learn it; now, go out and keep doing it over and over, because this, after all, is a proven quantity. Asian culture values stability and maintainance over innovation; how else could it have maintained its traditions so well? Therefore, imitation here is not a negative thing - far from it. It's a sign that you have learned well. In fact, it's what you should be doing.

Despairing of their having an original thought (or even reworded version) on the lectures, I encouraged the students to find their own voices by telling their own life stories - stories for which they had no template and couldn't (I hoped) possibly copy, pattern or imitate anything. Things that had only ever happened to them - personal things. This confused them, as they were terrified of making "mistakes" and, with no template to follow, seemed lost. What was "the right way" to tell their story? Any way you want to, I explained.

And if you don't make mistakes, I added, how can I correct you, and how can you possibly learn? Gotta break a few eggs to make an omelette!

Blank stares. They were not at all concerned with, nor conversant with, what they wanted - their entire lives up to this point had been about doing what other people wanted. They had no desire to "tell their own story. " As an American, this was unimaginable to me. As so often happens, it appeared that I, after all, was the one getting the education.

Okay, it wasn't working; they would not be able to function without a role model, so I told my own story. "My name is....I first came to Asia in 2002." I gave a few details about my family and what had brought me to Kathmandu; what motivated me to study Buddhism.

In other words, they were not aware of wanting to say any particular thing themselves - they were only concerned with what I (the authority figure) wanted and doing things "right."

Such a mental environment is bound to lead to imitation and copying; how could it be otherwise? Doing what's always been done is what wins approval. The nail that sticks out gets hammered down. For myself, I have found far more success learning about Asian life by observation and imitation than by asking questions (which are often met with opaque answers, or seen as impertinent).

Lest you think I am some kind of missionary for Western culture, I could definitely see the beauty and value of their learning method, and the way imitation had supported their families, ethnic groups and collective culture through the ages. I wasn't even sure I wanted to encourage Western-style individuality - not if it will lead, eventually, to everyone living in their own isolated antiseptic bubble the way we've become accustomed to in America.

The sad part of the Kaavya Mess is: the story of a first-generation Indian American girl at Harvard really is a unique one, and one that hasn't been told yet. If only Kaavya had found and trusted her own voice and told her story in her own way, rather than packaging it along proven lines for greater acceptance, we might have an original contribution to modern writing. I think this story is still to be told; hopefully someone will learn from her mistakes and step forward with her own story, not "what the market will bear."


mp524 said...

I completely agree with you about the [not so good] way the kids are brought up to learn in our part of the world. Teachers in our schools want their pupils to know (rote learn) what they tell them to and are not really bothered about them (the pupils) having their own thought. Rote learning from "text books" is not new and we were never taught to reference/cite the materials we read OR in fact weren't even told that was necessary. I was fortunate enough to come to the west as soon as completed my high school and I tell you, in my first year at University, I was busy learning "critical thinking" and how to cite, quote, express in my own words than actual course materials. Plagiarism is a word that I only came to know when I started my university in England so, I guess, I needn't tell more on the issue of plagiarism and its Asian connection !!

Sirensongs: Indologist At Large said...

Dear Kshitij (? Hey I dig your Devanagiri font):
you wrote
we were never taught to reference/cite the materials we read OR in fact weren't even told that was necessary.

Thanks for reading and replying. This anecdote confirms what I had suspected.

On the other side of the pedagogical fence, I think western students have forgotten, or are just no longer taught, the importance of memorization nor of "imbibing" (as they say here) and ingesting things wholly. In my parents' generation they were still required not only to learn Latin (lots of memorization, and helps you to better use English) but to memorize things like "Charge of the Light Brigade," "Hiawatha" and the Declaration of Independence (with all Americans should at least be familiar).

No more. Now all that's deemed robotic and useless. Sure, it was probably taken too far, but memorization is a real, useful skill in the real world.

I wonder if our hemispheres will ever get their pendulum-swing extremes evened out. By comparing learning methods this way, I hope east, west and in between can achieve a happier medium.

Aadil said...

Very true!!! The learning techniques in different places are as different as you can possibly get!!! Some have their good points and some their bad ones too, getting just the right proportion of both is what is required but then who cares what the students learn anyway!!!


Shinu Mathew said...

Couldn't agree more!!!! Our learning system just produce a bunch of copycats who can recite a 100 page poem at one go, but couldn't come up with an independend view about it. Pathetic as it may seems, the scenario is changing. The new proffessions such as Software development and unconventional career options that are available today in INdia, makes students thinks differently and take decisions of their own.
Your post is really dug deep into the problem and found the root cause. The teachers doesn't like being questioned. I had a brief stint at teaching and sometimes I wasn't prepared fully and was at a loss for some questions from my class. I politely tell them that I had to refer some book before I answer them. One of senior collegue heard this and offered me a simple remedy. "Just scare the kid by telling him that, Eat what I gave you. Don't snatch from my plate, . trhough I never tried that. :)