I use what is called real life to craft my fiction. How is it different from fake news? Novelists with a great gift of imagination have invented situations, often quite simple and uncomplicated ones, that you can never rid from your mind: a family undertaking a long, tortuous journey with the corpse of a family member in a coffin to the dead woman’s hometown (William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying); two men on a train, each one wanting to kill someone, propose that they exchange murders and thereby have an alibi (Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train); a woman is on her way to buy flowers for a party she will host that night (Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway); a young man arriving in a city to collect his father’s ashes and going on a drug rampage that sends him into a nightmarish spiral (Edward St Aubyn’s Bad News).
I, however, am unable to invent fictional situations, or maybe they don’t interest me that much. Real life, even ordinary life, is what fascinates me, the low road of journalistic observation.
During his last week in office in January 2017, President Barack Obama gave an interview to a book critic from The New York Times. Obama told the interviewer that his daughter Malia had read Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and was captivated by the writer describing his goal of writing one true thing every day. (“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”) When I read the interview, Trump had been president for two days, and I think the idea for this book was born then.
I began keeping a daily journal, but instead of writing the truest sentence, I noted down a revealing lie. The US president was lying every day but falsehoods, I noted, could be from anywhere in the world. Here’s one from my country of birth, India: In the days prior to his retirement from the Rajasthan High Court, Justice Mahesh Chandra Sharma said that the cow should be declared the national animal of India because hundreds of millions of gods and goddesses lived in that sacred animal. The cow is the only creature, the judge opined, that takes in oxygen and also emits oxygen. He also extolled the virtues of cow urine.
The other day a friend posted a few lines from a poem by the radical Hindi poet Gorakh Pandey on Facebook. He was aiming to describe the situation in India under Narendra Modi. I read the extract and that same morning sat down to translate it. In my writing journal, I noted in the margin that this extract could serve as my novel’s epigraph:
King said it is night,
Queen said it is night,
Minister said it is night,
Guard said it is night.
This happened right
A book made up entirely of rumours. A compilation of fatal falsehoods. That’s what I first thought of as my raw material.
What is the opposite of a rumour?
A scientific fact, of course.
But once you start thinking of rumours as stories, which they are, it becomes clear that accounts offered by scientists about their experiments are also stories.
One researcher publishes a study showing that chimps will eat food given to them and not necessarily want to share it with other chimps, and therefore we should conclude that we are born selfish; a different researcher finds that chimps will help other chimps open a door even when they themselves cannot see the bananas strategically placed on the far side. Those inclined to engage in further storytelling go on to say something about the presence or absence of altruism across the species.
We are always telling stories. Because we deal only with stories, in literature, in history, or in science, the simple distinction between truth and lies is a naïve one. Any story ought to be surrounded with other questions. Whose story is it? What ends does it serve? Does it affirm or contradict other stories?
My point is that we can change the way we consume stories. And, of course, the way we produce them.
But till that happens I want to ask scientists to clarify one thing.
On the BBC show Top Gear, a discussion about driverless cars led to conversation about an experiment that was supposedly about self-preservation. You can watch this episode on YouTube. Jeremy Clarkson, the show’s host, says that scientists conducted “an awful experiment” in which they put monkeys and their babies in a box and heated the floor. When the heat became unbearable, all the monkeys picked up their babies and held them in their arms. But when the floor got hotter, “till it was absolutely unbearable,” the monkeys put the babies down and stood on them.
I have a few questions.
The main one is: Did it really happen, this experiment? Where and when?
These are perhaps silly questions. But they remind us that there are many ways to respond to a story. And I haven’t yet processed what the uproarious laughter of the studio audience meant when Clarkson was done telling his story about the monkey experiment.
I also want to pose a more important question: Did all the adult monkeys act in unison, picking up or putting down their babies as one body?
Were there those – or, for that matter, just one – that changed their minds?
Or hesitated just a bit, looking at the other monkeys, with bewildered gray-brown eyes? Or, if you allow me to be sentimental for half a second, did an adult monkey, after standing on her baby for maybe a minute, pick it up to offer comfort? And, before putting it down again – if indeed all of this even happened – give the doomed baby a last kiss?
Do you remember the days immediately after Trump took office? The crowd.
Loud fans in places such as Cincinnati, Ohio, or Des Moines, Iowa, or Mobile, Alabama, had found the freedom to behave like frat boys on a Friday night. Republicans were greeted with chants of “USA! USA!” There was a spike in assaults against Blacks and Muslims and others who, to Trump loyalists, looked like outsiders. The Women’s March took place in Washington, D.C., on January 21, the largest single-day protest in the nation’s history. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) declared its readiness to challenge Trump’s executive orders and witnessed a spike in membership as well as donations.
The New York Times published an ad to highlight the fight over truth, which ended with the words “the truth is more important now than ever.” The online Merriam-Webster dictionary also took up the good fight; after Trump aide Kellyanne Conway described false statements as “alternative facts,” Merriam-Webster sent out the following tweet: “A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality.” (On January 22, 2017, when I saw that tweet, it had been liked 55,914 times.)
One of the residents at the villa is a filmmaker from Connecticut. Her name is LeeAnn Wendell. She shared a bit of her work with us last week, and I got from her this quote that came from Pier Paolo Pasolini: “I don’t believe we shall ever again have any form of society in which men will be free. One should not hope for it. One should not hope for anything. Hope is invented by politicians to keep the electorate happy.”
I wrote down Pasolini’s words because I imagined my editor asking me a question when I sent in the manuscript. “What’s your point?” I plan to quote Pasolini and say, “Point? I don’t have a point. No uplifting message certainly. We are fucked.”
(The residency was shut down when dire reports began to come of the deaths from a new virus. I left and later learned that one of the staff was an early casualty. I had missed an opportunity. There was a researcher there who chattered gaily in Italian with the waitstaff. Her name was Anna Duranti. Her collaborator was a very polite, very serious Chinese social scientist named Li Qinglian. The duo was examining the carbon footprint of fashion in two cities in China, one on the coast and one inland. Li stayed silent during meals unless addressed directly, to which she responded with a monosyllable and an apologetic smile, but Anna could be heard saying things like “Did you know that in order to produce a cotton shirt, up to 2,700 liters of water are needed?” That is exactly what I overheard her ask and she laughed when I made her repeat it so that I could write it down. Trump would go on to call it the “Chinese virus” and the “kung flu.” In India, the Union Minister of State for Health and Family Welfare would say that if people took the step of absorbing the sun’s rays for ten to fifteen minutes between 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m., they would build immunity. The Indian newspapers carrying this statement mentioned a BBC report that cited experts who said that exposure to the sun is “completely ineffective” against the virus.)
Excerpted with permission from A Time Outside This Time, Amitava Kumar, Aleph Book Company.
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