In conversation with Amitava Kumar
A novel becomes an archive of the present moment, says Amitava Kumar, whose latest book, A Time Outside This Time, is on the stands
Fake news, post-truth, new alternatives, infodemic and, most importantly, the Orwellian hand of the state in shaping narratives and, therefore, our lived realities – Amitava Kumar’s new novel, A time outside of this time, he has got everything. It’s a reflection on the present moment, with the narrator, an author named Satya, inspired to write a novel “based on a fake story”.
Author and journalist Amitava Kumar has analyzed the state of the world in all his works, the most incisive Fanatic husband and A Stranger Carrying a Small Bomb in His Arm: A Writer’s Report on the Global War on Terrorism. He reflects on the role of reporting and the relevance of fiction in this interview. Edited excerpts:
Right now, you are in a writer’s residence, just like the narrator of your novel. How much of the book is fiction and how much non-fiction?
Writer Geoff Dyer once said The Guardian, “I like to write things that are only an inch from life, but all the art is in that inch.” I started writing as a journalist, and the journalist’s voice, or the reporting voice, feels real to me. And so, I work hard even writing what is fictional to give it a reportage texture. My storytellers always seem to relate – from what they can see outside their window to the kind of life they lead. It is fascinating to blur the line between fiction and non-fiction.
For this work in particular, this meditation on post-truth, why did you choose fiction over non-fiction?
It’s exciting to push the boundaries of the novel. I was reading a novel titled Crudo by Olivia Laing which begins with a wedding, where someone takes the
phone and says, “Oh, Steve Bannon has resigned.” I liked it – not only the interruption of the marriage but also the novel, the fiction he weaves, by real world news. And I thought of a man sitting down for a breakfast of idli and sambar, for example, and saying, “They lynched another man yesterday. It’s a good way to let the world enter our pages of fiction.
What is the role of slow news in all of this? How can he help us take a step back?
This novel asks the question: “What is the role of fiction when we are surrounded by this fiction called fake news?” Some world leaders spread lies every day which are then amplified by their followers. One thing fiction can do is not let new news swallow up yesterday’s. It can be a current report. In this way, a novel becomes an archive of the current moment, so that the current moment does not die on us with each successive title.
I also thought, “If I surround the news with meditations on the news, maybe I can slow it down for my readers.” It was the idea: to make everyday consumption a more reflective and critical act.
Academic psychology occupies an important place in your book.
I continue to note the interesting psychology experiments that come to my attention. My narrator is happily married to a behavioral psychologist: psychology tries to provide scientific and rational explanations for certain seemingly inexplicable human behaviors. Why, for example, does Celine Dion play on a loop in Walmart? Because if you listen to a sad song and you are sad, you want to get over your sadness and buy things to make yourself happy.
My narrator loves his wife, but is a little skeptical of such polished tales, because he thinks the tales are sometimes more complicated, more individual, and they defy the symmetries of science. I wanted to tell readers that they must be skeptical not only of state-propagated fictions but also of what is presented as science. Our reception of science is also often ideological or political – I wanted to stress this.
What is the role of journalists and journalism in the post-truth era?
Journalists must have courage. There are media houses that are still able to stand up to power, but we know what it costs. About two days before her death, Gauri Lankesh tweeted that she wished journalists the best of all fighting fake news. No matter how strong we are, we must keep this spirit of dissent alive.
And what can we do as citizens, as consumers of information?
You can’t save the world, but you have to save it. Everyone, every citizen, should keep track of what happened today. My book begins with the narrator reading about Obama’s daughter saying she liked what Hemingway said: “Write the truest sentence you know. My narrator turns it over and thinks it will write the most telling lie.
I was thinking of a video of a Muslim from Delhi, who had been wrongfully imprisoned for 17 months, saying, “Please hang me rather than give me bail, because you have crippled me, rendered worthless. I would only be a burden on my family. This is the kind of mann ki baat I want to listen, and I want to record his words.
It’s really a moment-in-time job – the zeitgeist, the pandemic, all of that. How do you think the novel will be read in a few years?
I’ve always wanted to write a novel that would be like blood on a bandage. There would be a sense of immediacy, a certain clear sense of having a wound underneath.
I started the novel in the days leading up to the first anniversary of Mohammed Akhlaq’s death. It affected me. I wrote: “There is a lot of life left for a man who is killed. These were my first words. I tried to imagine what he would remember as life ebbed from him. I was trying to extend his life in a way. This is what the novel is: a response to the present moment.
In the future, I hope it will be read like a period document, in the same way that 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 also learn something about the present. The novel will be relevant later too, I hope.