An elegant meditation on the lies we tell
At the start of Amitava Kumar’s latest novel, A Time Outside This Time (Aleph Book Company, 2021), the main character Satya, an Indian-American journalist, is at a posh artists’ retreat in Italy where he reads 1984 and wrote his own novel, Enemies of the People. Focused on fake news, his novel in construction seeks to explore the truths and lies that make up our reality. Facts, Satya tells us, can “take you in any direction, it just depends on what kind of story you want to tell.” In the background, Trump tweets away from his porcelain throne as a new virus called Covid-19 begins to engulf the world.
Satya’s mission is to weave together a wide range of disparate sources from her own life into a novel. This includes childhood memories, journal entries, tweets, news clippings, scientific facts, his research into the nature of lies and experiences he learns from his wife, Vaani, a psychologist by birth. Indian. As a result, we get a nonlinear account of his upbringing in India and his adulthood in America: a touching chapter on communal tensions in the late 1970s that he witnessed as a child in Patna, his cover separatist movements and marginalized communities as a journalist hungry for stories, his marriage to Vaani, alongside a litany of facts and research into lies.
A Time Outside This Time could easily serve as an introductory college-level psychology course and a pandemic news time capsule. There are pages devoted to the infamous Milgram experiment at Yale which studied our obedience to authority figures even if it means inflicting pain on others, the Dunning-Kruger effect (a cognitive bias that leads unskilled people into a task to overestimate their abilities), and the marshmallow experiment studying children’s ability to delay gratification, etc., as well as the biggest titles of the last two years. Vaani, who, according to Satya, “lives in a world of experiences”, is our main vehicle in the world of science. Here too, Satya argues, scientists are just telling stories, “the same mixture of fiction and fact.”
The novel is scholarly and elegantly told, but its central charm is its closeness to its subject. The pandemic continues to rage. We have barely woken up from the nightmare that was the Trump presidency and the question of what is true (and what is not) remains unresolved in our culture. To have a fictional character navigate Covid-19 and the alternate facts so starkly debated on the page as we experience it ourselves is thrilling, unnerving, and reason enough to choose this novel. And while other novels about the pandemic have been written in the past couple of years by Western writers, Kumar’s critical focus on the global South Asian experience is necessary and resonates easily with a Bangladeshi reader.
In an early chapter, Satya meets Farooq, a Pakistani immigrant detained after 9/11 and forced by the FBI to translate tapes of tortured men. Satya’s literary inclination is to side with Farooq as a victim of Islamophobia, but this becomes complicated when Farooq himself proves less than truthful. Another section takes Satya to the Indian outback to investigate the murder near Kolkata of a young rebel leader, Avinash, a stand-in for the insurgencies that dot contemporary South Asia. Here, the facts of systemic state oppression merge into the fiction of nationalism. We are witnessing the alarming devolution of the Indian press over the past few decades, humorously portrayed by a conniving TV host known for yelling at his guests. We reflect on what these developments and our tendency to look away mean for democracy and the future of truth in our context.
As the story unfolds, a creeping suspicion of Satya’s own reliability as the narrator may take hold. Why is this man so obsessed with lies? His obsession feels personal, hinting at something waiting to emerge from emotional backwaters, or, perhaps, sinister intent. This turns out to be more cynicism on the part of the reader, a bit of our past conditioning, than the fact of the novel. Despite Satya’s opening premise that “in our world we are surrounded by lies”, A Time Outside This Time does not betray any malevolent intentions of its main character. Satya is a serious storyteller who writes a novel about lies as the world around him crumbles.
Amid the uncertainties of Covid-19, it may even come as a relief to some, as it did to this emotionally drained reader. It may also make A Time Outside This Time an ultimately unsatisfying read for others.
Shoaib Alam is a writer and chief of staff at Teach For Bangladesh.