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Why Su-prose? "Su" in Sanskrit is a prefix for "good". This is a place where we will discuss and analyze prose (with a South Asian Connection) - that which is good, awesome, excellent, and maybe rant about prose that could be better.

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Monday, May 29, 2006

Kaavya Viswanathan -- Who is she?

I was waiting at the Burdicks Coffee Shop in Cambridge, MA and right on time at 10am a vivacious good-looking young Indian American woman, dusky complexion, high cheek bones, petite slim built, in a short pink pleated skirt and a striped Ralph Lauren shirt came walking up the street talking to herself very intensely. We introduced ourselves and ordered mint teas. She saw some of the questions I had planned to ask her, sighed and told me how delighted she was that I did not have too many questions about her book.
My interview with Kaavya Viswanathan, which was done just a few days before the plagiarism accusations surfaced, was more about her as a person and her desires and ambitions. She had been talking about her book a lot she told me, having been interviewed by numerous publications and media companies. She was excited to talk about herself and told me about her life, what she wanted to achieve and her goals.
Kaavya Viswanathan was born in Chennai, India to parents Viswanathan Rajaraman a neurosurgeon and Mary Sundaram, a gynecologist who gave up her career to bring up her daughter. Her mother wanted her name to be different from the other Kavya’s of the world and spelt her name with an extra “a”. Kaavya Viswanathan moved to Scotland with her parents when she was 3. She has very warm memories of Scotland where she went to elementary school; she is so very fond of England that one of her dreams is to win the Booker Prize. Her parents eventually moved to New Jersey when she was 11.
Transition to the American way of life was a little bit difficult, since she was already in Middle School. The going only got easier for Viswanathan, because her parents were extremely liberal, socially and culturally. Academically her parents expected the best out of her, like many Indian parents, and wanted nothing less than an “A”. Once they realized that she was as committed to getting A’s in school they did not push her and encouraged her to go get a life, somewhat like Opal.
Viswanathan describes herself as laid-back, ambitious, and very motivated. She likes to have her share of fun but is good at prioritizing her tasks, and its no wonder she is able to juggle as many things as she has been doing. “I think I am a nice person,” she said smiling and added, “I am a very normal person, I am nothing special.” During her free time, what little she has of it, she likes to go to the movies, read, shop and cook gourmet cuisine.
“My parents are my role-models obviously,” says Viswanathan who grew up with an agnostic Hindu father and a religious protestant mother. When she visits home, Viswanathan goes to church sometimes with her mother. An only child she is very close to her family and has had Indian values instilled in her from a very young age. She believes that this and her focus on education have helped her through some arduous times. Her high school journalism teacher and Katherine Cohen her counselor from Ivywise are some other role models.
Viswanathan has dated around and had a boyfriend while at Harvard but she decided to break-up with him because it was getting too intense. She believes that her education and academia are of primary importance to her. In fact, she condones the decisions of some of her high school friends who made choices on their college based upon their boyfriends and relationships. Talking about intimate relationships she says laughingly, “One thing that my mother always told me was that nobody will buy the cow if they can get the milk for free.”
Writing has always been a part of Viswanathan, “I did not wake up one fine day and say, I have to write, writing is a part of me,” she says. “It’s been so much a part of my life that I did not even notice when I actually started writing,” she adds. Even as a little child she would write stories and her father would help her to send the stories out to various children’s magazines. “I cannot tell you how many rejection letters I got, but I really appreciate all that my father did for me,” says Viswanathan.
Like Opal, the protagonist in her novel Kaavya applied early action to Harvard and unlike Opal she was accepted. Not surprising since Kaavya had always been a star student. In fact she was accepted to Bergen County Academy for the Advancement of Science and Technology, a public magnet school in Hackensack, New Jersey, a high school for gifted students. Viswanathan was editor-in-chief of her school newspaper and took advance placement tests. "I was surrounded by the stereotype of high-pressure Asian and Indian families trying to get their children into Ivy League schools," she said in an interview with the New York Times.
Viswanathan’s parents had hired Katherine Cohen, founder of IvyWise, a private counseling service to help her through the college application process. Cohen who is the author of "Rock Hard Apps: How to Write the Killer College Application," read Viswanathan’s work and recommended her to the William Morris Agency.
An English concentrator at Harvard, British pre-war and post-war fiction, works by Kazuo Ishiguro and Evelyn Waugh are some of her favorite. She also enjoys reading Jane Austen and Henry James. She is a member of Women in Business, Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority and other social clubs. “I’m going to be writing whatever my job is, so I might as well get a real job says Viswanathan who wants to become an Investment Banker. “Eventually I would like to do something more entrepreneurial like start my own company,” she adds.
Where does she hope to be 10 years down the road – “Successful, Alive!” she says. “Professional success is very important to me at the moment.” A firm believer in equality she says, “I want to have a family, if I am making more money then I don’t see any reason why my husband should not be the stay at home father.” Viswanathan who sees herself living in New York City and intends to be financially independent says, “I am humorous, fun to be around, and I make sure I achieve my goal, these are some of my best qualities.” What does she like least about herself, “My mom says I talk back a lot. I do not tell people what I don’t like about them.”

by Visi Tilak

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