Amitava Kumar’s new book, A Time Outside This Time (Aleph Book Company, ₹699), is a shape-shifting entity. Quick-witted and nimble, this odd literary beast has its ears to the ground. It slips into modes of narration that may appear radically opposed to one another but are, in fact, two sides of the same coin. Interspersed with scraps of news reports, photographs and drawings, it signals its affinity with the uncategorisable genre practised, most notably, by the German writer W.G. Sebald. The latter once tellingly said that his real medium was prose, not the novel. A similar belief rings true across Kumar’s books.
At its most fundamental, A Time Outside This Time is an ingenious work of fiction and an impassioned commentary on the political crises besieging our divisive present, rolled into one. It is also, ostensibly, a novel and a theoretical treatise on what it means to write a novel when fiction’s biggest enemy is its evil twin, “fake news”. And last, though certainly not least, the book is a meditation on the writerly costs of bearing witness to the long 21st century, especially as Artificial Intelligence proves itself, time and again, to be a superior teller of tales, while pushing humanity into a quagmire of half-truths and lies.
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The narrator of this curious meta-fictional “novel” is Satya, an Indian-born journalist and writing professor based in the US, much like Kumar. As the book opens, he is cocooned in an arts residency in Italy, working on a new project centred around fake news, even as the world outside his bubble is turning upside down with the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. Away from his psychologist wife Vaani and their daughter Piya, Satya finds himself getting sucked into a daily vortex of confusion, panic and brazen misinformation, fanned by unscrupulous media and incompetent politicians, especially by the noxious leader of his adopted homeland, Donald Trump. So he reaches out for his notebooks, returns to his old journals and reporter’s diaries, seeking to connect the dots that have brought us to this pass.
In his idyllic retreat, Satya may be relatively safer from the many contagions—physical and psychological—raging in the world outside but he isn’t immune to his memories. Like the men and women in the Italian writer Boccaccio’s story cycle Decameron, who flee a plague raging in 14th century Italy to seek refuge in a villa in the country, Satya and his cohorts spend their days in camaraderie. However, instead of merely entertaining one another with made-up stories, they share their anxieties and apprehensions as they struggle to make sense of the “banality of the banality of evil” that surrounds them—the phrase is Satya’s, borrowed from his many compelling punch-lines.
Faithful to his name, Satya is already engaged in sifting the truth from the muck of lies. His work-in-progress, titled Enemies Of The People, is inspired by one of Trump’s many tweets haranguing a section of the media as “enemy of the people” for fact-checking and calling out his pathological stream of falsehoods.
As a reporter and novelist, it is Satya’s duty to unmask the actual enemies of the people, those who are sowing the poison of racism, xenophobia and communal hatred in the countries of his residence and birth. The question, therefore, that haunts his ongoing writing project is simple but immensely poignant—and resonant with anyone who refuses to turn their face away from the theatre of sectarian violence and mob lynching that is contemporary India: “Who among your neighbours will look the other way when the figure of authority comes to your door and puts a boot in your face?”
From his brush with the US’ insidious “war on terror” to his reportage on the Indian state’s suppression of the violent Naxal insurgency in its heartland, Satya invokes fragments of his life to create a mosaic of feelings—anger, helplessness, bewilderment—that come together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to reveal the contours of our unhappy age.
Auto-fiction of this form is not particularly new—Patricia Lockwood, Rachel Cusk and Jenny Offill have all experimented with similar formats in recent years. In Kumar’s hand, however, this subgenre assumes an aura of warmth and tenderness, borne out of his narrator’s ability to make himself touchingly vulnerable. If there is a lingering mood of pathos, there are also enough moments of levity, albeit mostly dark ones, such as in the “invention” of Vaani’s vile ex-husband, a blustering fool of a TV anchor called Gautam Sikdar, unforgettably described by Satya as “a vomitous colostomy bag bursting with the fecal fluid of bad faith”.
Satya’s aim is to counter the criminally irresponsible journalism perpetuated by people like Sikdar, whose “alternative facts” have infected WhatsApp networks and led to the killing of innocents. But he must find a way to achieve his goal without endangering himself. Under authoritarianism, the plain-speak of a reporter can be a ticking bomb. Satya is reminded of this truism during his assignments as a cub reporter in India and, years later, as he reads George Orwell’s novel 1984 for the first time at the Italian retreat shortly after Trump’s ascendance. Satya’s most astute bet, therefore, is to forge a style that combines the ethics of non-fiction with the energy of fiction.
A Time Outside This Time is an attempt to find this delicate balance, to recalibrate the terms and conditions of the novel as we know it. If Kumar unpeels the many layers that hide the person behind the writerly hand, he also turns a critical eye on the responsibilities of the reader. Each time we, as readers, confront a sentence, we open ourselves to becoming willing collaborators with writers who may or may not be telling the truth. By buying into one person’s reality, we reject another ’s version of it. In the process, as Kumar’s novel reminds us subtly, consumers become complicit in the actions of creators.
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