Plagiarism and mystery

Byline: Molly Moore
Credit: Washington Post Foreign Service

It's a story with all the ingredients of a good mystery, including a feuding family, a bizarre crime, exotic locales, and a body on the bedroom floor. The last chapter, however - the one where the detective calmly explains whodunit and why - may never be written.

What led 41-year-old Indrani Aikath-Gyaltsen, a promising but wildly insecure writer, to plagiarize from Elizabeth Goudge, a romance author almost as popular in her day as Danielle Steel is now? The deception was sure to be uncovered and, over the last two months, it was.

Aikath-Gyaltsen isn't around to answer any questions. On Oct. 3, she wrote a short letter to Khushwant Singh, one of India's best-known contemporary authors and her mentor. "I am still in a very bad frame of mind," she wrote. "Afraid to live, afraid to die. But you are right. Only I can help myself."

Later that day a niece reportedly found her sprawled on the floor of her Bihar house with "something white dripping from her mouth, leading to the belief that it was poison," said Uttam Sengupta, editor of the Bihar edition of the Times of India. She died the next day.

Suicide is one obvious explanation. If plagiarism destroys the integrity of the soul, following up with the destruction of the body is grim but understandable. But the writer's husband is placing some of the blame elsewhere: He is accusing Aikath-Gyaltsen's mother and sister of letting her die by failing to get her appropriate medical care. He has reportedly asked both police and state officials to conduct an inquiry.

Finding the cause of death will be difficult. In accordance with Hindu custom, no autopsy was conducted and the body was cremated. Reporters in Bihar said the cause of death is listed simply as "disease," a typically vague notation here.

Meanwhile, Aikath-Gyaltsen's third and final book will be published posthumously next month. The title: "Hold My Hand, I'm Dying."

The source of Aikath-Gyaltsen's plagiarism was "The Rosemary Tree." Goudge's tale of a Devonshire vicarage was pop fiction, meant to be consumed and forgotten. When it was first published in 1956, the New York Times Book Review criticized its "slight plot" and "sentimentally ecstatic" approach.

After Aikath-Gyaltsen recast the setting to an Indian village, changing the names and switching the religion to Hindu but often keeping the story word-for-word the same, it received better notices. In February, the Times called it "magic" and "full of humor and insight," although it conceded that the "deliberately old-fashioned" style "sometimes verges on the sentimental."

The Washington Post was also impressed. "Exquisite," wrote Paul Kafka, adding that the story "is at once achingly familiar and breathtakingly new. ... {The author} believes we all live in one borderless culture."

Kafka, a novelist himself, says now that "there's a phrase `aesthetic affirmative action.' If something comes from exotic parts, it's read very differently than if it's domestically grown."

He still thinks "Cranes' Morning" is "pretty delightful. Maybe Elizabeth Goudge is a writer who hasn't gotten her due."

Even those who found something directly out of place about "Cranes' Morning" found ways to dismiss their doubts.

Jacquelin Singh, writing last July in India's literary magazine, the Book Review, noted: "Details of the physical surroundings seem more reminiscent of Europe or England. Villagers' thatched-roofed hovels are called `lodges' and villagers themselves `countrymen.' ... Furthermore, formerly rich landlords, more at home with English fairy tales, nursery rhymes and Shakespeare than with Hindu mythology and Tagore, are difficult to `place.' "

Still, Singh came to the conclusion that perhaps "all these anomalies on the Indian scene would doubtless make the setting more accessible to foreign readers at whom the novelette may be aimed."

Goudge, who died in 1984 after writing dozens of extremely popular religious sagas set in small English towns, apparently had a memorable storytelling technique. The first to discover the plagiarism was an Ontario woman. She read "The Rosemary Tree" 30 years ago, she said in a March 15 letter to Goudge's English publishers, "but I remember it very well."

She added: "Having no more than a lay person's knowledge of copyright laws, I express no opinion on this but do wonder how Miss Goudge's story could be taken over with no acknowledgment whatsoever. If it were that easy, we could all write bestsellers!"

The Goudge estate was investigating when a Concord, N.H., librarian realized she had also read "Cranes' Morning" before. She told her local paper, a reporter contacted all the relevant parties, and a scandal was born.

Success and Insecurities

Indrani Aikath was born the daughter of a fairly well-to-do coal mine owner in the hill town of Chaibasa in Bihar - the poorest, most backward, most politically violent state in all of India.

Local mafias and vigilantes control the government and the local judicial system, meting out justice with axes and knives, slicing off heads or hands of those believed to be criminals. It is India's largest coal-producing state, and for decades entire towns and villages have been swallowed by the fires that rage underground in uncontrollable infernos.

Aikath's family moved in circles that allowed her to avoid the wretched lives around her. Like the children of many Indian families with enough money, she studied abroad at Columbia University in New York City, gaining a Western perspective on life.

Her first marriage was brief, and as a young divorcee she found many male admirers in the social circles of Calcutta, three of whom ended up vying for her hand for a second marriage. Friends said she turned down one dashing military officer because he spoke English with a Punjabi accent, the Indian equivalent of a blue-collar nasal rasp.

Instead, she married Sonam Gyaltsen: Tibetan by background, tea planter by trade, well-mannered if slightly dull by temperament. Some friends found the couple ill-suited. Said Khushwant Singh: "She was full of malicious gossip and wit, and he stutters and is soft-spoken."

She moved to the massive house amid the lush tea gardens of Gyaltsen's estate in Darjeeling, in the hill country of northern India. The nearest neighbor was 30 miles away over bumpy, twisting roads, and a dinner out at the tea growers' club entailed a weekend stay. The couple's only child was enrolled in boarding schools from the time he was 7 years old and is now a law student in the south Indian city of Bangalore.

Aikath-Gyaltsen was "thoroughly bored with the life of being the wife of a tea planter" when Singh received his first letter from her almost eight years ago, he said. He responded encouragingly, as he has done with many young writers over the years. He nurtured her through her first novel, which she mailed to him in small bites as she finished each chapter. "It was very powerful," he said.

The correspondence blossomed into friendship, and Singh invited Aikath-Gyaltsen to visit. One evening, he recalled, she asked bluntly, "Do you think I'm beautiful?"

"She wasn't," said Singh, "but how do you answer a question like that?" The conversation added to his impression that she was an insecure, if highly talented, individual.

Singh did not hesitate to propose that Penguin Books, where his recommendations are taken as gospel, publish her first work, "Daughters of the House." The story about strong women prevailing over bumbling, impotent and unsuccessful men would become a recurring theme in her writing.

That was in 1991. Two years later, "Cranes' Morning" made its debut in India. The response and the sales - and Singh's backing - were enough to earn the author a whopping 10-book contract from Penguin.

Still, the insecurity persisted. When Aikath-Gyaltsen accompanied Singh to a book fair in Calcutta, she seemed annoyed at the fans who flocked to his side in quest of autographs.

"Why don't people ask me for autographs?" she asked.

"You're young," Singh replied. "You'll just have to wait. It will come."

But when it came to writing, there was little insecurity. She once boasted, "I can churn out a novel every six months."

That troubled her mentor. "I wish she hadn't started being so prolific."

Not only did the words seem to flow effortlessly, but her handwriting was so clear and crisp that her manuscripts didn't require typing.

But she failed at an attempt to become a regular columnist for the Statesman, a Calcutta daily. Editors canceled the column after about six weeks.

According to Singh, she put little effort into the reporting or the writing. She begged Singh to ask the paper's editors to reconsider, but he refused, saying, "I warned you, you have to be more careful."

Caught in a Family Dispute

There was another troubled side of Aikath-Gyaltsen's life: her family. Her father's death last year was not only emotionally devastating, it set off a family feud between Aikath-Gyaltsen and her mother and elder sister over his substantial coal and land holdings.

She returned to the large family estate in Bihar to protect her interests. She lived on the second floor of the house, while her mother and sister inhabited the first. They barely spoke.

When Aikath-Gyaltsen talked to friends she veered between bragging about how wealthy she would be when the mines were sold and complaining that she was nearly penniless, a claim that surprised those aware of the sizable advance she'd received from her publisher for the 10-novel contract.

Then, suddenly, she was dead. According to accounts from reporters, friends and complaints filed with the police, her mother and her sister did not take her to a hospital when they discovered her on her bedroom floor.

Instead, they called the local doctor, who gave her intravenous fluids. According to the husband's accounts, the mother retired to her bedroom and her sister went on to her job as schoolteacher. Aikath-Gyaltsen sank into a coma and died the next day.

Her husband told police and the press that "since there was this dispute, they neglected her on purpose, just let her die," according to Alka Choudhury, a reporter in Bihar for the Times of India.

Calls placed to the mother and the sister, said to be still at their Bihar estate, went unanswered. The husband, who was staying at a guesthouse in Bihar - a region where telephone connections are extremely poor - also could not be contacted. He is reportedly asking for an official inquiry.

When Singh received the small, neatly penned letter from Aikath-Gyaltsen a few days after her husband called to inform him of her death, he said, "It shocked me. My first suspicion was suicide."

Now he is siding with the husband and wrote to the chief minister on his behalf, seeking an investigation. He said bitterly of the mother and sister, "They could have saved her and didn't."

Mystery and Aftermath

The various publishers of "Cranes' Morning" have had different reactions in the past week. In England, the firm got lucky: The book hadn't yet been published and was easily canceled. In India, Penguin editor David Davidar said only: "The matter is under inquiry. It is a legal matter now."

In the United States, Ballantine had shipped 6,500 copies of "Cranes' Morning," a typical figure for a literary novel. The publisher has not ordered booksellers to return the book - something nearly impossible to enforce in any case - but has stopped fulfilling orders.

Aikath-Gyaltsen's first book, "Daughters of the House," was reissued by Ballantine in January to accompany "Cranes' Morning." Although people are obviously looking at it rather doubtfully, Ballantine Editor in Chief Joelle Delbourgo said: "I have at the moment no reason to doubt its authenticity. It's in print."

Delbourgo corresponded with the author over two years. "She never said anything that could have indicated this turn of events," the editor said.

Singh, too, is mystified. "I became her father," he conceded. "She got totally latched onto me as a mentor and guide. I exaggerated praise for her to build her into a writer of the future."

But he still can't understand either the plagiarism or her death. "Nothing," he said, "makes sense."

Staff writer David Streitfeld in Washington contributed to this report.