Friday, 31 December 2010

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a..

..plagiarism accusation!

(Note: please see the update at the end of this post.)(Update 2)

Background and disclosure: I work for Forbes India, where I handle a section of the magazine. Also in my portfolio is the fancy-pants new-age designation, "Editor, Social Media." Which means that I handle the magazine's social media presence: our LinkedIn group, our page on Facebook, and our Twitter handle. And I'm part of the team that creates our covers.


Everything I say below this is my own opinion, and should not be construed as being official communication from Forbes India or it editors and stakeholders. My own personal opinion. Not official. Clear? Thank you.

Today, I got a few alerts from friends that someone called @acorn had said, on Twitter, that the latest Forbes India cover was ripped off from another magazine. Here's the tweet: Forbes India Dec 2010 cover plagiarises from Pragati Oct 2010 cover

This made me grumpy. Make that more grumpy. We're handling regular issues of the magazine, plus a new project that we launch in a bit, and it already looked like I'd have no time to do more than raise a glass with friends to bring in the new year before getting back to work. Now I'd have to go find out who this acorn is and what they were wittering on about.

So, acorn is the Twitter ID of Nitin Pai, who identifies himself as the editor of Pragati, The Indian National Interest Review, from The Takshashila Institution. Now that 'national interest' bit rang a bell. It sounded like a name I'd heard and dismissed from my mind a long time ago. (Dismissed on the admittedly arbitrary grounds that it sounded to me like a rip-off of The National Interest, a US-based foreign policy magazine, and people who can't even think up an original name aren't worth paying too much attention to.) Later, smart pals like Amit Varma linking to The National Interest from time to time persuaded me to check it out a few times. But then I found nothing of particular interest to me in what they had to say, so the blog vanished from my mind. Until now, when I learn that it also has a magazine.

And so, to the plagiarism bit. Mr Pai is saying that we stole their original creative idea. That is a very serious accusation, the kind that lawyers make lots of money on. And one that I, as someone who has made a living out of creating original work, take very seriously.

Let's see now. This 'magazine' did a cover in October, in which a muscular man clad in a kurta, waistcoat and Gandhi cap is shown opening up the buttons of the first two items of clothing, to reveal that he is wearing a blue undershirt on which, within a diamond shape, you see the Ashoka Chakra. The headline says, "Time for change."

(Quick aside. Ye learned ones: Doesn't this flout the Flag Code of India, 2002? It says, among other things, "the Flag shall not be used as a portion of costume or uniform of any description nor shall it be embroidered or printed upon cushions, handkerchiefs, napkins or any dress material." Or are parts of the flag exempt?)

Forbes India's year-end issue cover has a muscular man opening up his sherwani to show that he is wearing a blue undershirt on which is emblazoned a red and yellow diamond shape, within which you see the words "Person of the year 2010." The copy says, "Smarter, bolder, stronger, braver, tougher, bigger, wiser. Better. The Best of the Year."

So, if Forbes India is guilty of plagiarism, it must mean that this person that Pragati portrays is an original creation of their...think tank. Let's see now. Have we seen a similar visual somewhere? No, that can't be true. They wouldn't put a fictional American comic book character on their cover in a pose that large numbers of people around the world would recognise instantly , make a few cosmetic changes, and then claim that it is an original concept. So that must mean this is a totally original thought. (But then, one doesn't get the symbolism of this gentleman taking off his traditional Indian clothing to show us his underwear. Maybe they meant Time to Change. You know, "change your underwear, kiddies," that kind of thing. Good lad. Not sure what the point, but I'm all for hygiene.)

We, in the Forbes India team, are pretty clear where we got our inspiration from. None of us had heard of Pragati before today (and, between us, we do read pretty widely). We were paying homage to a hero of our misspent youths. Who was faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Who would zip into phone booths and rip off his street clothes and spectacles to reveal his superhero costume underneath.

Fabulously original? No. We were paying homage to an iconic image, the mild-mannered reporter turning into the Man of Steel. The cover sought simply to convey that our person of the year was, in a way, a super human. Simple enough.

(I'll admit that I don't think it's as good as some of our previous covers. But we have, more than once, played with old tropes to deliver a thought. This recent cover, for instance, paid homage to a classic VW campaign. Inside joke: VW is now the world's largest car-maker; we took delight in twisting VW's original approach, created by the famous Mr Bernbach and his team, to show what we thought Toyota was trying to do. And this cover was a take on a concept that has had many avatars on the Web, but was originally done by The New Yorker (see this image for a reference) back in 1976. More recently, The Economist did a similar cover, about China's world view.)

Still, Mr Pai says we're plagiarists. And Mr Pai is, undoubtedly, an honourable man. So I guess I'll see their lawyers, or communication from them, in the office soon.

Or, perhaps, *gasp* Mr Pai is trying to get some much-needed visibility for his little magazine by making accusation about Forbes India.

Could it be, could it be, could it be?

Naah. Perish the uncharitable thought. Not from a high-minded organisation that aims to be "credible." That unambiguously pursues the national interest "through consistent high-quality policy advisories." They wouldn't do that.

So, perhaps, I should ask my bosses to get the company's lawyers to speak to Mr Pai about slander. What say ye, Gentle Reader?


This evening, I wrote to Nitin Pai. I'm extracting a part of my first email to him.

My relating Pragati's size to the matter was immature, and what is worse, ungentlemanly and irrelevant. I apologise for that, without conditions and without reservations.

(This apology is in my personal capacity, as was my blog post. Like my blog post, it does not have the sanction or approval of my bosses and Forbes India.)

This still stands: Your accusation of plagiarism is completely unjustified. I am, to put it mildly, upset about that, and do not apologise for my conclusions on why you made that accusation

Nitin replied to my email promptly and courteously. We have since exchanged a number of very civil emails and while we haven't agreed on everything, we are finding common ground. Nitin's emails to me are personal, and therefore privileged, and it's up to him to decide what he wants to share of their content.

8Update 2

Nitin Pai had told me why he jumped to the conclusion that Forbes India had ripped off his cover: he knew that a Pragati designer had shown work (but not the cover in question) to someone at Forbes India. I agreed with him that I would very likely have come to the same conclusion under the circumstances. (While I disagree with his tweeting his outraged conclusion rather than contacting us, I have to admit that I might well have done the same.) He asked me to check with our design team. I did, and wrote back to him thus:
I checked with the three people involved with the cover, and all three assured me that they had no knowledge of Pragati. The only Pragati they'd heard of as an entity is the very famous printing press in Hyderabad. I did an extra check with the remainder of the team, just to make sure, and got similar answers.
My design chief says he has seen over 50 portfolios in the last two months (we've been looking rather intensively for a couple of designers), and yes, it is possible that he may have seen the name Pragati in portfolios that he has seen, but has no recollection of it.
I can do no more than offer you our collective word on this. I hope it is enough?

I know that in a situation like this, with hurt professional pride and anger welling up — like this post of mine, for example — it would be easy to dismiss this assurance. Mr Pai has been a gentleman and has taken my word for it. He has since tweeted an apology and an explanation — 1, 2, 3 — and updated his post.

I'm glad we were able to resolve this despite the acrimonious start.

Thank you, Nitin, and good luck to Pragati. Here's to more and better from all of us.


Monday, 20 December 2010

In Madras

We were in Madras for a few days (as part of the Poetry With Prakriti festival). Though we've visited the city a few times as an adult, this was the the first time since we were twelve or thereabouts that we saw a bit of the place. We lived there between ages six and nine, and a lot of what we remember had had changed, of course.

These are brief notes on the trip.

• No road seems to meet another at right angles: they merge, curving into each other at acute angles, undulating, flowing around obstructions, never seeming to come to a full stop.

• On the streets, near-misses that would have resulted in fist-fights in Bombay or Delhi are dismissed with a shrug, or in the case of the driver of the vehicle that ferried us around, a giggle.

• Vehicles obey signals at 2 a.m. but ignore them during rush hour.
The right side of the road on a two-way street is merely a suggestion, not to be taken seriously.

• Driving in Madras is as distinct a genre of the art as driving in Bombay, or Delhi. Practitioners of each would look down on the others.

• Did we say Madras has no straight roads? Madras has no straight roads. What it does have is a profusion of one-way streets.

• The city wakes up earlier and goes to be earlier than other metros; things like late breakfasts and dinners are regarded with some suspicion.

• A service apartment is not what you think it is. The one I stayed in had beds, electricity, an AC and a small water heater (more than we expected or needed), but no soap or towel, no heating jug, one plastic chair, no hangers in the closet, no storage one could lock, no room cleaning (all of which we could have used).

• On our previous brief visits, we noticed that coffee house franchises weren't as ubiquitous (except for the now defunct Qwiky's) as in other Indian cities. Figures, we said to ourselves: they take their coffee seriously, Tamil folks. This time, we were surprised to see Baristas and Cafe Coffee Days abound.

• In Madras, you understand what sambhar really should be.
And that dosas are not just for vegetarians. Our first meal was egg dosa with chicken curry in a place called Midnight Masala, which was, apparently, the only non-5-star eating option open at 1.30 a.m., when our flight landed.

• When people say they'd like to meet up, they make the effort to do so.

• And, at an event, if you have a low turn-out, it's no point waiting for late-comers; everyone who wants to be there will be there, on time.

• Low-slung, sprawling, set-back-from-the-road type houses still survive, though newer parts of town have their profusion of ugly concrete boxes And in the business districts, glass-walled skyscrapers are sprouting, which seems like a bad idea in a city that is infernally hot most of the year!

• And on Mount Road, we were delighted to see that Indo-Saracenic frontages still survive. We in Bombay are used to Victoria Terminus being used as the ultimate example of the genre. Chandrachoodan tells us that that isn't correct: for one, the school really first took shape in Madras; and VT has a big helping of Gothic in the mix.

• British-era place-names still survive, not just in everyday conversation; they're also there on street signage.

• No one picks on you if you say 'Madras' instead of 'Chennai.'

• Contrary to popular belief, Madras has a winter. And the winter rain is a wondrous thing: a fine spray that keeps dust and the temperature down.

• The only Hindi you hear is from North Indians in restaurants trying to to talk to waiters.

• In Madras, I have an accent.

• They take their movies stars seriously.

• Life does move slower; and there are more courtesies and rituals. A friend says an Open Mic with a time limit for performers, like the one we run in Prithvi, would not work. People would expect to be able to finish their poems no matter how long they last. Remember, she said, this is a place where the alaap of a performance can take an hour.

• And yes, we fell in live with Amethyst (which, we hear, is moving soon, and the lovely mansion in which it is housed may be demolished). Fab food, great ambience, and of course, a beautiful place.

Wethinks we will write about Poetry With Prakriti separately. Soon.