There are two recurring fantasies in the life of a person lucky enough to travel through time. One: travel to the past and change an event you regret. Two: travel to the future and see how it all turns out (and then travel back to the present and change it if you don’t like it). Time travel is a bit like the philosopher’s stone. It’s a chance at multiple lives within this fleeting, soon-to-expire life that the universe has given us. It’s delightful, sinful cheating.
Science fiction writers know this. That’s why Western literature is full of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff: time travel machines, technology, franchises (Back to the Future, anyone?) complete with complicated science, rules, consequences, paradoxes, the doppelganger syndrome. It’s serious, comic, tragic, horrifying. And yet, we don’t have a lot of it in the Indian subcontinent.
Cracking our time problem
Let me preface this by saying “Indian subcontinent” is a ridiculously broad term. I can only speak for the literature I’ve explored, which is painfully small when you take into account that I haven’t covered writing in languages other than English.
Nonetheless, when I was asked to speak about time travel in a South Asian context at the Anglia Ruskin University recently, I found myself drawing a blank. Sure, I knew about time travel. But most of the stories I had consumed about it were foreign; my visualisation of it was foreign, as was my understanding of its politics.
There are a few time travel novels in an Indian context. There’s Shovon Chowdhury’s The Competent Authority, where characters travel back in time to prevent the assassination of Gandhi, a subplot in a sea of plots. And there’s Kama’s Last Sutra by Trisha Das, in which an archaeologist finds herself transported by a tantric to 1022 CE. Das’s novel is a particularly rich example, exploring precisely what time travel adores: the interplay between past and present and what the interaction says about both phases of time.
But these novels are recent (published in 2013 and 2018 respectively) and rare when we consider our extensive engagement with the past in fiction. We go back and rewrite all the time – Midnight’s Children, Until the Lions, Palace of Illusions – but without the helpful crutch of time travel. Authors simply reach into history, pluck a time period and get going. Does it make us more confident with the past? That doesn’t seem right either – the past is so contentious here, so loaded, that most authors prod it gently, afraid it will yield trouble if embraced too vigorously. So why doesn’t time travel feature more in our literature?
Many pasts, many facts
I think the answer lies in how we conceive of the past.
Time travel relies on a crucial assumption: a single version of time. Think of any time travel story you’ve encountered and it will deal with the past as fact. In other words, events happened, they led to the present and events in the present will lead to the future. Voila! Done and dusted. Time travel is risky, dangerous and enthralling precisely because it disrupts this singular version of time.
There has to be a boilerplate version of time, a version everyone agrees on, that time travel can play around with. Take the Back to the Future films. Marty’s parents meet, fall in love at a dance, and give birth to Marty. If they don’t meet or don’t fall in love at the dance, Marty’s future is in jeopardy. He will be erased from time. Marty spends most of the movie trying to ensure the past happens in the right way.
But the past becomes trickier when it comes to the Indian subcontinent. People disagree all the time: they disagree about what happened, when it happened, how it happened, whom it happened to and why. The demographics are so rich that our history is layered with many versions of the past as fact, each considered equally valid by its many fractions. In an interview, Das spoke about handling these contesting versions in Kama’s Last Sutra: “There is always the risk that readers will disagree with period details in the book because they grew up hearing different stories. Folklore, unfortunately, is kind of like the historical version of fake news – it changes constantly depending on the storyteller.”
It certainly makes time travel difficult. What is the one version we pick? Play around with our past in time travel and chances are, you’ll be writing a version of history already imagined and believed real.
But we do reimagine the past. We come at it obliquely, through a layer not often explored in time travel literature but that we consider integral to our idea of time – the fantastic.
The past as myth
Two of the books I mentioned earlier, Until the Lions and Palace of Illusions, have nothing to do with the past as is traditionally defined. They are rewritings of the Mahabharata from women’s perspectives, offering different versions of an epic. In some circles, this would be defined as retelling a story, like with Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast. But it’s more complicated than that.
Das’s comment on folklore is telling. When she speaks about readers disagreeing with history because of what they grew up hearing, she’s touching upon a reality (their reality) that is more than just fact. I’ll borrow from Julio Cortazar here, because the Latin American tradition is the closest I can find to one that envisages the world as we see it:
the fantastic never seemed like the fantastic but rather like one of many possibilities or existences that reality can present to us […] That’s probably where fantastic literature comes from […] It’s not escapism; it’s a contribution to living more deeply in this reality.
Replace “fantastic” with “myth” and you have the lived experience of many South Asians. These stories aren’t asides or adjuncts to our reality. They’re a part of it. They’re reflections of philosophy, religion, gods, beliefs. We hold them close. We consider them great stories but also moral texts, sometimes religious ones. We find reverberations in our physical world: Adam’s bridge is the remains of Hanuman’s bridge to Lanka, the Ganga was released from Shiva’s hair.
And we rewrite the past through them. Midnight’s Children approaches Independence through this fantastic lens; Until the Lions and Palace of Illusions reimagine these myths to make space for more feminist and nuanced selves. Each time we do, we reimagine ourselves.
But if there is potential for beauty here, so is there ugliness. This fluidity of the past has been politically weaponised, with Hindutva ascribing modernity to these myths to stake claim on all human progress. Ganesh is the first example of plastic surgery, the Kauravas were test-tube babies, the sage Bharadwaja, who lived around 7,000 years ago, invented the first aeroplane, not the Wright brothers. These claims may read as ridiculous, but they reveal a dangerous underbelly to our conception of reality – in time as water, it can be difficult to find solid ground.
Holding onto water
With these versions of the past – the past as fact and the past as myth, both complicated, fluid and changing – time travel doesn’t hold much appeal. Time travel assumes the past as a series of facts that you can go back and change to make space for fantasy/alternate realities. Past doesn’t bleed into the present, the alternate time stream is separated from current time stream, you from the future can meet you from the present. Even with everything moving around, most things stay in their place. (Read a delightful exception to this, “All You Zombies”, a short story that will make your head hurt, which makes it the best kind of story.)
This cannot work with a past that embraces fluidity, unknowability, as a fixed feature of its existence. If time in Western literature is a string (the past, present and future knots along its length), then I imagine this version of time as a nebulous mass of liquid colour, changing appearance and luminosity with every splintered moment. What else is there to do but reach into it and shape as we can?
Where do you go to, my lovely?
But come back to you, sitting on the ledge of your life, having been granted the gift of time travel. You get to choose: move forward or move back? Your life stretches out in front of you, a line, a linear movement, a scale you can slide up and down upon.
Except it doesn’t. The version of the world you live in allows space for alternatives hidden in crevices, for the imagination to have as much weight as fact, for fantasy to be seen as the other side of the coin to reality, perhaps the same side on days when we aren’t looking too closely. Suddenly, what you have before you is not a road but a maze, and you’re the master, capable of reordering what you want and what you like in whatever form you wish.
For how we see time is how we see narratives. And how we see narrative is how we make sense of what happens to us: the order into which we put the chaotic events in our life. It’s how we tell the stories of ourselves. There’s possibility in how we see the past: rich, complicated, with no hard boundaries in place. How will you choose to use it?