Fake news, post-truth, alternative news, the infodemic and, above all, the Orwellian hand of the state in shaping narratives and, thus, our lived realities — Amitava Kumar’s new novel, A Time Outside This Time , has it all. It is a cogitation on the present moment, with the narrator, an author called Satya, inspired to write a novel “based on an untrue story.”
Author and journalist Amitava Kumar has been analysing the state of the world in all his works, most trenchantly in the award-winning Husband of a Fanatic and A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb: A Writer’s Report on the Global War on Terror. He reflects on the role of reporting and the relevance of fiction in this interview. Edited excerpts:
Right now, you’re at a writer’s residency, just like your novel’s narrator. How much of the book is fiction and how much non-fiction?
Writer Geoff Dyer once told The Guardian , “I like writing stuff that is only an inch from life, but all of the art is in that inch.” I started writing as a journalist, and the voice of the reporter, or the voice of reportage, feels real to me. And so, I work hard while writing even what is fictional to give it a reportorial texture. My narrators always seem to be reporting — from what they can see outside their window to the kind of life they lead. It is exciting to blur the line between fiction and non-fiction.
For this particular work, this meditation on post-truth, why did you decide to go with fiction rather than non-fiction?
It’s exciting to push the boundaries of the novel. I was reading a novel called Crudo by Olivia Laing that starts with a wedding, where someone picks up the
phone and says, “Oh, Steve Bannon has resigned.” I liked that — not only the interruption of the wedding but also of the novel, of the fiction it weaves, by news from the real world. And I thought of a man sitting down to a breakfast of idli and sambar, for instance, and saying, “They lynched another man yesterday.” It’s a good way to let the world into our pages of fiction.
What’s the role of slow news in all this? How can it help us gain perspective?
This novel asks the question, “What is the role of fiction when we are surrounded by this fiction called fake news?” Certain world leaders are spouting lies everyday that are then amplified by their followers. One thing that fiction can do is not let a new piece of news swallow yesterday’s news. It can be a record of news. That way, a novel becomes an archive of the current moment, so the current moment doesn’t die on us with every succeeding headline.
I was also thinking, “If I surround news with meditations on the news, perhaps I can slow it down for my readers.” That was the idea: to make the consumption of the everyday a more reflective and critical act.
Academic psychology features prominently in your book.
I keep noting down interesting psychology experiments that come to my attention. My narrator is happily married to a behavioural psychologist: psychology tries to provide scientific and rational explanations for certain apparently inexplicable human behaviour. Why, for example, does Celine Dion play on loop in Walmart? Because if you are listening to a sad song and you’re sad, you want to recover from your sadness and buy things to make yourself happy.
My narrator loves his wife, but is a little bit sceptical of such neat narratives, because he thinks narratives are sometimes more complicated, more individual, and they defy the symmetries of science. I wanted to tell readers that they should be sceptical not only of the fictions propagated by the state but also of what is presented as science. Our reception of science also is often ideological or political — I wanted to underline that.
What is the role of journalists and journalism in the post-truth era?
Journalists should have courage. There are some media houses that are still able to stand up to power but we know what that costs. Some two days before she died, Gauri Lankesh tweeted that she wished the best for journalists fighting fake news. With whatever strength we have, we should keep that spirit of dissent alive.
And what can we do as citizens, as consumers of news?
You can’t save the world, but you must record it. Everyone, every citizen, should keep a record of what happened today. My book starts with the narrator reading about Obama’s daughter saying she liked what Hemingway said: “Write the truest sentence you know.” My narrator flips it and thinks he’ll write the most revealing lie.
I was thinking of a video of a Muslim man from Delhi, who had been wrongly jailed for 17 months, saying, “Please hang me rather than giving me bail, because you have paralysed me, made me worthless. I would only be a burden to my family.” That is the kind of mann ki baat I want to listen to, and I want to record his words.
This is very much a work of this moment in time — the zeitgeist, the pandemic, all of it. How do you think the novel will be read a few years down the line?
I always wanted to write a novel that would be like blood on a bandage. It would have a sense of immediacy, a certain clear sense of having a wound underneath.
I started the novel in the days leading to the first anniversary of Mohammed Akhlaq’s death. It had affected me. I wrote, “A lot of life is left in a man being killed.” Those were my first words. I was trying to imagine what he would remember as life ebbed out of him. I was trying to extend his life in a way. That is what the novel is — a response to the current moment.
In future, I hope it is read as a document of the times, in the same way you might read a novel to find out what happened during the plague in London. But things like love and death, greed and power are eternal — when you read how they played out in the past, you discover something about the present too. The novel will be relevant later too, I hope.