Cutting Corners With Chai

Suma Nagaraj
The Water Cooler

Greg Mortenson, mountaineer, founder of a charitable organisation that builds schools for children in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and co-author of a successful memoir, 'Three Cups of Tea' based on actual life involving mountaineering and his tryst with charity, might well be this year's James Frey.

Remember Frey? His autobiographical 'A Million Little Pieces', based on his time in prison and subsequent life lessons, was found to contain 'facts' and 'incidents' that were a figment of his very active imagination and not really, well, life experiences. He was invited on Oprah Winfrey's show to present his defense, (where Oprah tore up his defense into pieces, more because his book was featured on Oprah's Book Club than anything else), but nothing could stop the chaos that followed - his book was pulled off bookshelves around the world, he was subjected to scathing criticism for having the gall to embellish his memoir with wild imaginations and his thereunto bestseller quickly disappeared off a million reading lists in one gigantic swoosh.

There's no greater criminal than one who presents a non-existent sob story to the world.

Until Greg Mortenson and his Three Cups of Tea, that is.

For not only is Mortenson's best-selling memoir supposedly full of fabrications, the non-profit organisation he helped build, Central Asia Institute (CIA), is in the eye of the storm for allegedly not honouring its promises of supporting the many schools/students it's said to finance. Allegedly, only 41% of the funds CIA's received have been used to benefit these schools. CBS Television's "60 Minutes" has alleged that the much-celebrated humanitarian might in fact have glossed over certain 'facts', skimmed funds from the proceeds and charity CIA has received over the years to help promote his books and himself and for, well, manufacturing an image that is based completely on lies.

Jon Krakauer, author of 'Into the Wild', (the biography of a student, Christopher McCandless, who gave away his last penny to charity and trekked into the Alaskan wilderness to see if he could co-exist with nature in its purest form and subsequently died of starvation), is one of the chief whistle-blowers on Mortenson, saying he has "doubts" about the authenticity of the memoir.

(Interesting segue: Krakauer was embroiled in a similar controversy not too long ago.)

The last decade has been largely the decade of the memoir/confessional, most of them making it to the New York Times bestseller, the most popular yardstick  to measure a book's global success/appeal. Add one of my favourites, Liz Gilbert's 'Eat, Pray, Love' to it. (She also 'manufactured' some of the happenstances, if you will, but stayed well within the part fiction, part fact romance genre. And we're ALL guilty of fabricating our romantic lives at one time or the other, aren't we?) You can even add Khaled Hosseini's 'The Kite Runner', which, though a novel, drew inspiration from the author's own escape from Taliban-ridden Afghanistan to the US, seeking political asylum there. The moving story, told in exquisite prose, attracted indignant claims that it was a mere exercise in anti-Muslim pro-US propaganda.

Mortenson's flimsy excuses (he blames his co-writer for the fabrications and claims he's unaware of the financial dealings of CIA) don't really suggest innocence or even ignorance. More proverbial excrement will hit the fan and we're far from knowing the exact scenario, but if it was indeed a sham, which is the larger offense here - that of taking money from people on the basis of a fictionalised journey to hell and back, even if for a genuinely good cause? Or of manufacturing the memoir itself?

I'd go with the latter. For if the very foundation is flimsy and the line between fact and fiction is so blurred you can't tell one apart from the other, I'd feel cheated right then and there, tea be damned.

Further recommended reading:

What is a memoir, in the strict sense of the word?

The story of Sarah Chayes

Top infamous fake memoirs

US Military's fave do-gooder