Amitava Kumar’s A Time Outside This Time reads less like a novel and more like a validation of all the fears, anger and disbelief one has been living with for the past few years, in the face of the worrying rise of a global right wing extremism, an ever expansive intolerance of the “other”, and the unrelenting nightmare of a virus that brought all humankind to its knees. It reads less like a novel than a mediation on the collective trauma of a world plunging into despair.

It reads less like a novel and more like a collective sigh of relief at having found a community that is struggling with the same concerns, the same challenges and is desperately trying to hold on to the tenuous hope that things will change, that there will be a time outside of this dreadful time.

Lies and perceptions

Written as a first-person account, the narrative starts at a writing fellowship amidst a motley crew of researchers from various disciplines, in glamorous European environs, a villa on an island, in close proximity to “where George and Amal Clooney spend their summers.” Its temporal location seems to be early 2020, right before the virus started its devastating death march.

The narrator, a journalist/fiction and non-fiction writer, is working on a novel that concerns itself with lies and deception but also with how these are received / consumed and what that says about public behaviour, ethics, and the nebulous morality of a post-truth world. He declares that the idea of the book, tentatively titled Enemies of the People, was born two days into Donald Trump’s presidency, in the thick of fake news already being peddled to a receptive citizenry.

Satya, our novelist-narrator, tells us that the primary question his novel explores is, “Who among your neighbours will look the other way when a figure of authority comes to your door and puts a boot in your face?” Perhaps the corollary to this is as important. Which of our neighbours will not look the other way when that boot in the face happens?

This ambiguous space of action/inaction and just how much each one of us is willing to be complicit in the gradual erosion of rights and freedoms of individuals and communities and ethnic / linguistic / religious minorities is what Kumar’s complex book seems to be invested in.

India US bhai bhai

Kumar has made explicit the cousinly relationship between India and the USA. Both led by leaders with totalitarian tendencies, both thriving on a systemic discrediting of verified, science / evidence based information at the time when the pandemic struck. The parallels are as obvious as they are unnerving. Hate crimes in America have centred on race; in India, on caste and religion.

While the US was sponsoring racial hatred with Trump’s insistence on the nomenclature of the “Chinese virus”, Indian ministers and godmen/women were touting magic ways of “building immunity”. Even while the crisis was intensifying, Trump claimed that that they had it under control, that everything was going to be fine, referring to the virus as the Democrats’ “new hoax”. Meanwhile, in India, we were exhorted to clap hands, beat plates and ring bells, ostensibly in a show of support to health workers, but interpreted by spokespersons from the ruling party as a means of fighting the virus since “ancient Hindu scriptures instruct us that temple bells and blowing into conch shells kill germs.”

Before the rational world had finished facepalming at this inanity, we were inundated by similar “ancient wisdom” about how lighting candles en masse was going to burn the virus away. Kumar collates these instances, building up his case for the sheer ludicrousness and large scale validation of “fake news” and “alternate facts” that defined state responses to a massive threat to both life and livelihood in both India and the US.

Fake news, Satya insists, begins to shape public perception. The phenomenal success of WhatsApp in India and the ease with which WhatsApp forwards are presented as the gospel truth stands testimony to Satya’s assertion. It is “formulaic, often sentimental, and has about it a quality of sickening repetitiveness (…) It exists to create die-hard believers in an incomplete and intolerant view of the world.” The lies we are sold by those in positions of power take a life of their own, generating far-reaching, often violent responses, ranging from people choosing to drink bleach to lynchings of those suspected of kidnapping, or worse, of attempting to harm cows.

Lewis Carroll’s Alice, whilst in the Looking Glass World, might have met a Queen who takes great pride in having believed “as many as six impossible things before breakfast”, but Trump, real and living and leading the world’s most powerful country, is supposed to have spoken an average of six daily lies, in his first three years in office, Kumar reminds us. Lies and fake news and their means of dissemination- social media, WhatsApp, news agencies- remain the challenge to Satya’s world as much as they are to our own.

What fiction does

The lines between fiction and fact are blurred, not just in the novel, but also in our everyday, lived, experiential reality. What then, is the role of fiction, in a world where truth itself has become casualty? Kumar’s answer is embedded in the writer’s sense of social responsibility. Citing as example the short fictions of Anton Chekhov and Alice Munro, Satya points to the excoriating nature of fiction. It shakes us, he says, “out of our complacent understanding of the world. It makes us sceptical of what we thought we knew about ourselves and, more than that, about others.”

Fiction unsettles. It asks questions. The fiction writer is not just a chronicler of the world but also a modifier who changes what stories are told, how they are told and influences how they are to be consumed. The boot in the face can only be deflected, after all, by responsible, collective action. Imaginative literature, we are told, promotes engagement among readers. Does the novel then become a tool for social change?

The book engages insistently with the role of fiction in this dystopic world we have come to inhabit. Satya reads Orwell’s 1984, marvelling at the confluences between an imagined totalitarian regime and contemporary political structures that pretend at democracy but are seen largely to be destabilising it. Surveillance, propaganda, non-compliant citizens and protestors made to disappear, are no longer just happening in the pages of 1984.

While Orwell’s book remains Kumar’s primary intertext, those of us concerned with gender and assaults on bodily autonomy cannot help but hark back to that other dystopic text that has come horrifically alive in this disjointed time, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. In either case, what seemed to be only fiction has now become the quotidian.

Satya’s wife, Vaani (such a clever choice of names for characters exploring the nature of truth and the silencing of voices- “Satya” meaning truth, and “Vaani”, voice, or speech), in an academic, almost dispassionate study of racism, describes it as “part of the social unconscious of American citizens.” Human beings, as per research, she says, are trained to distrust those who don’t look like them, those who are different.

But can we possibly ignore the hierarchy of race, Kumar forces us to ask. Distrust translates into violence only unidirectionally. Power, as always, rests with the dominant majority, whether in America or in India. If America witnessed the brutality of George Floyd’s murder in an act of racial distrust, India has an unfortunate number of Mohammad Naeems and Tarbez Ansaris who have been lynched for belonging to the wrong religion.

Kumar’s novel refuses to allow the reader the complacency of forgetting. He insists on chronicling names, incidents, exact acts of brutality, stripping away the bubble wrap, reducing the gap between novelistic storytelling and journalistic excavation of truths. When regimes and state records erase or falsify the past and silence the present, it becomes the citizen protestor’s responsibility to keep records and chronicle our truth(s), as Satya does, when he reconstructs the story of an insurgent encounter and the ripples it leaves in its wake.

Interspersed with anecdotes, literary references, news reports, snatches of poetry, behavioural psychology experiments, and topical short stories, A Time Outside This Time tackles uncomfortable questions of responsibility and complicity. It is fiction, sure, but it also a detailed record of injustices, excesses, acts of violence and the absence of empathy, set against the horrors of a pandemic. It refuses to conform to any straitlaced norms of genre or stylistics, refusing also the luxury of distance from difficult subjects of race, religion, caste, the migrant crisis, and hate crimes. Satya’s project might as well be the reader’s own- to parse the truth from lies, to resist oppression, to ensure that the boot in the face of a neighbour does not have us looking away.

A Time Outside This Time

A Time Outside This Time, Amitava Kumar, Aleph Book Company.