He cribbed from me definitely – Rajpal Abeynayake | Sunday Observer

He cribbed from me definitely – Rajpal Abeynayake

6 November, 2022

Sri Lanka has been dealt blow after blow, defeat after defeat in recent times. Facing the country’s worst economic crisis in its recent past the Sri Lankan society has been left struggling, disillusioned and hopeless.

So when on October 17 this year Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka won the prestigious international Booker prize for his second book ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’, it was a moment of rare celebration for the beleaguered country. During his trilingual acceptance speech, Karunatilaka dedicated the book to the Sri Lankan people who were elated about his win. “I wrote this book for you,” he said.

But an event that was of great pride for Sri Lanka has now been quite unfortunately marred by several undesirable incidents. First, pirated copies of Karunatilaka’s winning book began to make rounds forcing the author to request people to stop sharing the unauthorised version and purchase the book instead.

Now as the country’s many issues lay by the wayside, Karunatilaka has been hit with more troubles becoming the latest topic of discussion and brouhaha among the populace. The international award winning author is being bombarded with allegations of plagiarism by Rajpal Abeynayake, a journalist and Attorney at law.

Abeynayake is claiming Karunatilaka has stolen off a manuscript he had handed over to the award winning author many years ago while scouting for a publisher.

While Karunatilaka has since denied all allegations calling them ‘baseless and insulting’, Abeynayake has doubled down claiming he has evidence of Karunatilaka’s alleged plagiarism off his to date untitled and unpublished manuscript.

The Sunday Observer spoke to Abeynayaka to elicit his version of events.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q: You recently made a serious allegation against Shehan Karunatilaka’s book, ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’, which won the Booker Prize this year, claiming that it was written based on one of your manuscripts. What evidence do you have to support this claim?

A: Plenty, really. I can show a cross-comparison to anyone and it would be obvious. Ridiculously obvious. I caution to say not his entire book is copied. But certain vital parts have been and I’d say more than enough to constitute a serious copyright violation.

Q: Can you precisely point out the similarities of the form of the narration of your manuscript and the ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida?

A: Not in this short interview. I can definitely point out the many instances he cribbed from me. It has to be done systematically and shown, and I can do it. But not here in this short interview. But I can assure you he violated my copyright. It can be proved without much effort.

Q: Why did you send your manuscript to Shehan? Are you both friends? What is the response you received?

A: He was more of an acquaintance than a friend. Even though I know better now, I thought at that time he was a decent human being and sent it to him for his review/opinion and to, if possible, get me in touch with a publisher as he had some experience publishing a novel. Now I know that he shouldn’t have been trusted to do that, but at that time I didn’t. I repeat — now I know better.

Q: ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’ is the edited version of ‘Chats with the Dead’ which was originally published in 2020. Which edition are you referring to in your accusation?

A: The new one is Seven Moons, but I find the other one is similar. I can see now that it is similar but I hadn’t heard of both until the Booker shortlist was announced. It was then and in fact after he won the Booker that I bought Seven Moons and read it. I don’t look out for Shehan’s books. I never knew these two books existed, and was not a clairvoyant to know beforehand that he had copied from me. But as everybody else was, I was curious to read the Booker winning book, and that’s a natural thing to read a prize-winning work, isn’t it?. But when I read it I hit the ceiling, seeing what had happened.

Q: What was the name of your manuscript? Where is it now? Why haven’t you published it so far?

A: It is untitled, because it’s only a manuscript. I once gave it a name in a printout but have forgotten that name. But it’s basically untitled as it is. I can keep it untitled as long as it is unpublished, there is no magic in that. Where is the manuscript? It’s with me now where else could it be? I haven’t published it because it is my business to decide when and where to publish my own work. There is no law to say if I write I must publish before such and such a date. I can publish when I want — take my own sweet time. It’s mine. I create, I decide.

Q: Have you submitted your manuscript to any literary festivals local or international? If not, why?

A: No I haven’t. Well, to be as polite as possible, why should I? Is there any law to say I should? Anyway, to be extremely polite, no I haven’t. What exactly do you mean to submit to a Literary Festival? Like, to be read before an audience? No, I haven’t read it at a literary festival or anywhere else before people.

Q: Although you are a known lawyer and a former Editor in Chief of several English newspapers in Sri Lanka, your name is not one that is often heard in the literary arena as a novelist. In fact there are hardly any books published by you. Why have you limited your literary career into unpublished manuscripts? Are there more unpublished ones?

A: Well, I have an unpublished manuscript as you know now! Whether I have more I would keep secret for the moment because it’s irrelevant to this matter, with all due respect. To your other question, I have limited my ‘literary career’ to unpublished manuscripts so that some people can look at these scripts and steal them and win prizes. No, I’m only joking. I’m young. I have plenty of time to publish novels and probably will in the future. Of course you can be guaranteed that when I win the Booker prize one day, it will be for my own work and most definitely not for somebody else’s. I don’t copy-write, I write.

Q: According to the authour the theme of ‘The Seven moons of Maali Almeida’ is based on the death of Richard de Zoysa, a well-known journalist, actor and poet who was abducted and killed in 1990. The story develops as a dark, political satire with empathy for victims who were killed by various groups across all political divides labelling them as traitors only to be swiftly forgotten by all. The novel gives the victim’s perspective of the crimes committed against him. However, your political columns are highly nationalistic and patriotic. Do you mean to say that in your ‘unpublished’ novel you have taken quite the opposite ideology?

A: So many things to unpack in that question. Frankly I don’t know what the book Seven Moons really has to do with Richard de Zoysa. Read the book and you will know what I’m talking about. Of course he claims it’s about Richard or something like that, but people can make wild claims as you know only too well now. Just because a journalist is killed it’s not a ‘Richard de Zoysa novel’.

About the rest of the question, I wrote a novel and so did he. I don’t impute political motives to my novels or his for that matter. They are works of fiction, period. So let’s leave that question at that.

Q: Why did you delay until now to make this accusation? Is this a mere publicity stunt?

A: Delay? I read the book just a few days back after he won the Booker as I stated in answer to a question you posed previously. So am I supposed to accuse even before I read and get to know what exactly took place.Am I a ‘Crow Man’ or some clairvoyant to know he copied even before I read his book? Stunt? It’s one controversy that I didn’t start. He cribbed from me, so you ask him that. He has precipitated all this and it’s his baby really. Maybe he likes these ‘stunts’ but I’d rather have been enjoying these beautiful days doing something else other than fending off a hijacker of my book.

Q: Issuing a statement Shehan has denied your claims outright stating that they are both baseless and insulting. His lawyers have confirmed that the claim of plagiarism is entirely unfounded and that the allegations made are libellous. So there’s no validation for all your accusations. Isn’t it?

A: Personal insults unfounded in reality are ‘beneath this process’, and I will not stoop so low as to respond to vicious and obnoxious third parties forwarding statements for some sort of vicarious titillation. About the statement issued by SK so called, presumably Shehan Karunatilaka, let’s wait and see about the veracity of that, now that he has admitted receiving my manuscript. Not only does he have my manuscript, he has it close at hand and handy to send to others too.

Q: What would your next steps be? Have you taken legal action so far? Have you written to the Booker Prize Foundation?

A: The next steps would reveal themselves as time goes on I believe. No, I haven’t taken legal action so far. I haven’t written to the Booker folk. Those are the short answers to those pointed questions.


There are no shared plots, characters nor textBooker winner Shehan Karunatilaka

A claim has been made by a journalist in Colombo that the plot of my novel, ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’ was ‘stolen’ from a 56-page untitled ‘novella’ that he sent to me in 2011 seeking an author’s endorsement. His claim is both baseless and insulting.

I have shared his email and the ‘novella’ manuscript with my lawyers who confirm that the claim of plagiarism is entirely unfounded and that the allegations made are libellous. I have also shared the ‘novella’ with my publishers – who confirm the texts bear no comparison whatsoever with my novel – there are no shared plots, characters nor text – and with the Booker Prize Foundation, so that they may be assured the claims are unfounded.

I am deeply concerned that journalists in Sri Lanka are passing on these unsupported and unfounded allegations. I would ask that any journalist approached demands to see the document on which these allegations are based.

It is sad and disappointing that this statement has to be made. This should be a celebratory moment for Sri Lanka and its writers.

I will be making no further comment on this issue.