How Opal Mehta saved our lives

Kaavya Viswanathan's spectacular plagiarism screw-up should reassure overachieving Indian-Americans that we can fail and survive.

Published May 5, 2006 5:20PM (EDT)

Dear Kaavya Viswanathan,

I know this must come as small consolation to you these days, as dreams of book deals, film projects and maybe even Ivy League futures seem to wither on the vine. But as one Indian-American to another, I say thank you. I have to confess to a sneaking sense of relief when Opal Mehta's life came crashing down around you. It's not schadenfreude. It's just this relief that finally we can fail, that we can screw up spectacularly and live to tell the tale.

Only we Indian-Americans know it's hard out there for an overachieving Indian-American. It was bad enough that we were the anointed model minority. (Did you know our median income is higher than that of any other ethnic group in the United States? That we have 200,000 millionaires and 41,000 doctors?) Now we are expected to excel at everything we do. We are the first-class first minority. "Doesn't anyone's kid ever come second in anything anymore?" wondered a friend bemusedly listening to a group of Indian mothers at a potluck.

It isn't just first-class first. It's first-class first at the first attempt. Jhumpa Lahiri writes her first book. It wins a Pulitzer. Arundhati Roy writes her first book and wins the Booker. Salman Rushdie wins the Booker of Bookers. When an Indian kid writes a good essay in school and brings it home, his fond aunt doesn't say, "Well done." She says, "Mark my words, my little nephew will win the Nobel Prize one day."

What was wrong with aiming first for the neighborhood Rotary Club essay competition?

There's nothing wrong with a quest for excellence. And I kind of believe you, Kaavya, when you say you had a photographic memory. We do. I don't know whether it's genetic or because we have to memorize so much history (the Guptas, the Mauryas, the Tughlaqs, the Khiljis, the Mughals, the Brits), but we do imbibe facts like pictures. We remember things. That's why we are so good at spelling bees.

I mean, we don't just win spelling bees. We do a clean sweep. Last year, all four finalists were our people. Our Bollywood actress Aishwariya Rai can't just be beautiful, she has to be the MOST beautiful woman in the whole world. That's why it was such a relief to see a stoner South Asian in that film "Harold and Kumar." Except Kumar wasn't just a pothead; when push came to shove he was also a medical whiz.

It would be funny, this race to the top, if it wasn't also a race to conformity. And it left very little room for someone who didn't fit into this shiny brown prototype. No battered wives, homosexuals (and other unmarried types) or illegal immigrants, please -- we are Indian-Americans. When I quit working in a "goodjob" (for us it's always one word) in software programming to be a journalist, I imagined a kind of hush that could be sensed worldwide -- or at least all the way from my neighborhood in Calcutta to that Yahoo group for the alumni of my old college. "His poor mother," I could almost hear it say.

Your Opal's parents made master plans with handy acronyms for their progeny -- HOWGIH (How Opal Will Get Into Harvard), followed by HOWGAL (How Opal Will Get A Life). And you, Kaavya, wanted to write bestselling chick lit about Opal and win the Booker and try investment banking. Why, Kaavya, why? We have over a billion Indians in the world. Why can't we leave some things for them to achieve? Instead we just keep setting the bar ever higher. When I was a kid and won prizes at school I would be sent over to the neighbors to display them on some kind of tacky victory tour. It was the most excruciating experience ever -- I felt like some wicked Red Riding Hood bearing grief rather than goodies. There I was bringing shiny trophies to display to the neighboring moms, who would then no doubt berate their less worthy children who had only managed to come in second in the English grammar test.

But like a demented magpie I couldn't resist the lure of those shiny achievements. More, more, more, shinier, shinier, shinier. Then one year I almost flunked my mathematics exam. It was the best thing that could have happened to me. Paradise Lost. Earth Regained.

Dear Kaavya, it might not seem so now. But one day you might thank Opal Mehta for setting you free. Just call 1-800-HOWGAL-ASK (How Opal Will Get A Life -- And Save Kaavya).

This story was originally published by New America Media.

By Sandip Roy

Sandip Roy is an editor with New America Media and host of its radio show "UpFront" on KALW (91.7 FM) in San Francisco.

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