The weekend began with an excellent buy for mom. We were at Dilli Haat and I was sorely tempted by a luscious, maroon bedspread embroidered with dull gold zari. It would really brighten up my parents’ room, given that it is lathered in beige and white, and has several panels of polished mirrors.
Then, because my brother was here, we treated him to our Haat staple of fruit beer and momos. With his astute sense of stall observation (or observation of any kind related to food), he asked me why no-one ever sat at the Kashmiri stall. It was an interesting question, and in response I burped and ordered another fruit beer.
Finally, as we exited through colorful huddles of hair-beading enthusiasts, I saw a pavement book-seller. The first thing I noticed was the enthusiastic way he slurped his mango. When I looked beyond the delectable victual, I noticed that he had ‘How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life.’ I remembered the plagiarism stir and also the fact that the author is a Harvard student. (If anything asides from the pyramids has inspired awe in me, this worship-like hush, it is Harvard. To me, the institution is stratospherically superb. People with a rarified bloodline of good karma get in there and what’s more, any person from Harvard can do no wrong.) So, despite the risk of attracting some sort of punitary damage, I bought the novel.
I read it.
I loved it.
I absolutely, completely, thoroughly loved it.
The book is about a high school student, Opal Mehta, who wants to get into Harvard. Ever since her baby gums spouted baby teeth, her parents had been working on the HOWGIH plan. They are so driven that every little step to Harvard comes with flowcharts and reports. Nothing is left to chance. Opal is a very willing subscriber to this dream. She’s interested in academics and physics, and not much else.
One day, she goes for some kind of an early application interview to Harvard. Here, she meets the Dean of admissions, who will basically gauge her chances of getting into THE school.
He skims over her resume and is duly impressed with the accolades. And then he asks her what she does for fun.
Opal is stumped.
He further asks her who her close friends are.
She names her cat but fudges details so that he is introduced to the Dean as her relative.
After the interview, she is left with a sickening knot in her heart that she may never get into Harvard unless she loosens up a little, unless she gets a little down and crazy. Her parents, enthusiasts who will aide her no matter what, work really hard on the ‘HOWGAL’ plan. A plan that is as ambitious as ‘HOWGIH’. A plan that is as determined to make Opal succeed.
But while HOWGIH is ‘How Opal will get into Harvard’, HOWGAL is ‘How Opal will get a life’. Slightly more difficult, slightly more twisted, and slightly more messy.
From here on, the novel deviates from being just another chick-lit flake. It becomes a book that resonates with something real, fragile and endearing.
Sure, sometimes parts of it read like the script of ‘Mean Girls’ and there are characterizations that seem exaggerated (what kind of teenage bimbos actually swear pledges on the ‘Elle’ magazine? No-one’s that vapid.) There is also a healthy portion dedicated to matters of the heart. As expected, one of the objects of Opal’s affection is a Darcy archetype.
But somewhere along the way, the book stole my heart. Maybe it is when Opal wonders if Harvard is what she really wants or whether she is just dreaming a stereotypical FOB (Fresh of the Boat - derogatory term for immigrants, I think) fantasy. Then, she spends one weekend with a Harvard student on campus and realizes that, irrespective of how clichéd her choices may seem to the outside world, she would love to be there. She sees Harvard as a world where people are just allowed to be. They are not persecuted for being intelligent or academic. An option of choosing reading over clubbing does not bring with it a catalogue of judgments. The students she interacts with are happy, grounded people, whose self-esteem doesn’t depend on making some-one else feel bad. So, even though Harvard is regarded as a petridish for avaricious,, highly competitive, and successful people, Opal truly believed that she would fit in. Because she saw a community of people who were simple and sweet, yet driven to structure their lives and live up to their potential. And what was so wrong about that?
Now, why did I like it so much?
Of course, there is no explanation for why one may like one book over others. But there’s this thing that Salinger says in ‘The Catcher in the Rye’. A good book makes you want to call up the author and talk to him. And this time, after finishing the novel, I wanted to talk to the author. I guess, after a really long time, I felt a bond with the author, as apposed to the book.
I know there are portions that are lifted substantively from another novel. (I haven’t read the original though.) But, somehow, those are not the portions that connected with me. And that’s why, I don’t think ‘How Opal Mehta....’ is any less of a novel than the original or any other.
I felt a tug in my heart when the author describes this scene. It’s Diwali and Opal’s house is hosting a family dinner. Around this time, Opal is in the throes of getting sexy and happening for Harvard. (All part of the HOWGAL plan.) But there are times when she feels unsure. That night, she watches people drive in, go about eating laddoos, watching the neighbor take out trash, and she realizes that the world is so large. Harvard may be such a big deal to her, but out there, float so many countless big deals - somebody’s son, somebody’s job, somebody’s marriage. There is a solace in knowing that you are one of many. Sometimes, insignificance is comforting.
It’s in the way this bit is written that....I don’t quite buy the plagiarism bit. After all, you can’t copy an insight and you definitely cannot plagiarize the connection with a reader.
Maybe, this novel will be remembered as a tremendous faux pas by a novice writer. But this post is just a record that the book was a lot more for me. It was a terrific find....just like the maroon, zari-embroidered bedsheet.