Book House

Amitava Kumar’s novel “A Time Outside This Time” is about fake news, memory, and how truth gives way to fiction

Amitava Kumar (Photo Credit: Imrul Islam)
  • The book “A Time Outside This Time” is a brilliant meditation on life in a post-truth era.


  • In the novel, Satya, an Indian writer living in New York, attends a prestigious artist’s retreat in Italy, and finds that the pressures of the outside world won’t let up. For Satya, these Orwellian interruptions begin to crystallize into an idea for his new novel, about the lies we tell ourselves and each other.


  • Balancing the public and private, the imagined and the real, Amitava Kumar ushers us across time and space in the name of art and humanity alike, capturing the chaos and dishonesty of the present with intelligence, beauty, and an eye for the uncanny.


  • Read an excerpt from the book below.


At dinner that night, a woman from Colombia is sitting beside me. The villa staff, dressed in white, serves us our drinks. She says, “Are you Satya? The person who is working on fake news…” I say yes and ask her name. “Isabella,” she says, adding that she’s working on a conceptual art project about evidence. She moved from Medellín to San Diego two years ago. I want to find out more about her work, but Isabella is already saying that there’s so much information in the world today she feels overwhelmed. Even before she finished her sentence, I asked myself if she was going to say overwhelmed. Her use of the familiar wording shows that we all read the same things, she in her home in San Diego, Nikki in New Jersey, myself, wherever I happen to be at any moment, and everyone else everywhere in the world. We’re all reading and thinking and saying the same things. Then Isabella makes a comment that surprises me. A few years ago, she came across an unforgettable line in a newspaper article: “Anyone reading this essay will accumulate more knowledge today than Shakespeare did in his entire lifetime.” I’m a bit incredulous. However, Isabella is confident and says that I can Google it. (I do later in my room and see that she got the quote right. But, at the time, all I could say was that I doubted whether I knew more than Shakespeare. To begin with, language, and the huge gap between his vocabulary and mine. But Isabella was not bothered by my argument. She said that the sheer amount of information, including fake news, any person had in the Internet age couldn’t possibly be rivaled by someone living even twenty years ago. I pondered this.)

At dinner that night, a woman from Colombia is sitting beside me. The villa staff, dressed in white, serves us our drinks. She says, “Are you Satya? The person who is working on fake news…” I say yes and ask her name. “Isabella,” she says, adding that she’s working on a conceptual art project about evidence. She moved from Medellín to San Diego two years ago. I want to find out more about her work, but Isabella is already saying that there’s so much information in the world today she feels overwhelmed. Even before she finished her sentence, I asked myself if she was going to say overwhelmed. Her use of the familiar wording shows that we all read the same things, she in her home in San Diego, Nikki in New Jersey, myself, wherever I happen to be at any moment, and everyone else everywhere in the world. We’re all reading and thinking and saying the same things. Then Isabella makes a comment that surprises me. A few years ago, she came across an unforgettable line in a newspaper article: “Anyone reading this essay will accumulate more knowledge today than Shakespeare did in his entire lifetime.” I’m a bit incredulous. However, Isabella is confident and says that I can Google it. (I do later in my room and see that she got the quote right. But, at the time, all I could say was that I doubted whether I knew more than Shakespeare. To begin with, language, and the huge gap between his vocabulary and mine. But Isabella was not bothered by my argument. She said that the sheer amount of information, including fake news, any person had in the Internet age couldn’t possibly be rivaled by someone living even twenty years ago. I pondered this.)

Our pistachio ice cream is served in ornate green glass jars. We pay attention to our dessert before Isabella speaks again. She says, “For instance, I read on Twitter this morning that a lioness mates up to a hundred times a day.” She adds that she wondered all day, locked up in her studio, if that could even be true. (Of course, I Google this detail too. And a website in Africa confirms Isabella’s piece of information.) I laugh, not knowing the right answer, and Isabella says, “Who’s the genius who dreams up this nonsense?”

In our world, we are surrounded by lies. And, worse, bad faith.

Is science the answer? Not if scientists don’t recognize that they, too, are telling a story—trying to find their truths by setting up situations. The same mixture of fiction and fact.

Which brings me to my wife, Vaani. She is a psychologist and lives in the world of experiments.

Let me now describe a situation.

Vaani and I have a child—her name is Piya. Last year, I grew concerned about the lies Piya was telling. She was eight at that time. I complained to Vaani about her. We were in the car, driving down to New Jersey, to the IKEA store in Paramus because we needed new lamps for our home. Piya was in the back, and, though she was asleep, I felt I needed to lower my voice.

Vaani said, “You are needlessly worried. Among children, lying is a sign of cognitive development.”

It irritated me that she was speaking in a loud, normal voice. I glanced back at Piya. I wanted to say that till only recently Piya’s lies were so undisguised that I had seen them as signs of her innocence. Dad, do you have any more chocolate? I didn’t eat the chocolate that was on the table. But now I felt there was in her lies a quality of deception that involved more calculation, even manipulation. On the other hand, I had also observed that Piya operated in a strict moral economy. If we had planned something, say, going out for ice cream on Saturday night, and then had to change the plan and move the outing to Sunday night, she took this badly. You lied, Mom, you always lie. I kept quiet, looking at the scene outside. We were passing a row of car dealerships, shiny cars in the parking lots lining the highway, tight clusters of red, white, and blue balloons holding afloat signs announcing July 4 sales.

Perhaps Vaani felt that she had been abrupt. She said with a smile, “Let’s play a game.”

She said, “A psychologist was trying to find out what reduces lying among children. She read out two stories to the kids whose behavior had been studied and who were going to be questioned about how they had behaved. One story was ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf.’ The boy and the sheep get eaten because of his repeated lies? (I nodded.) The other story was ‘George Washington and the Cherry Tree.’ You know what happens in that one, right? (I nodded again.) Okay, so tell me, which story reduced lying more?”

I knew the question was a trap. The first story was the one that my own mother had told me in my childhood. In fact, not too many months ago, I had found myself narrating it to little Piya too. It was a frightening story, the wolf eats you up, but I felt that this tale would scare her away from her lies.

I suspected I was giving Vaani the wrong answer.

I said, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”

“Well, you are not alone in thinking that. Most people make that guess. But they are wrong.”

Vaani said that most kids lied more after listening to ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf.’ They were afraid of being caught having done any wrong, and were lying to cover up whatever they thought or knew had been a transgression.

“ ‘George Washington and the Cherry Tree’ works differently. It cut down lying among boys by 75 percent and by 50 percent among girls. Do you know why?”

“Because George Washington was the president?”

“No. The test got the same results when the psychologist replaced Washington with a nondescript character.”

Vaani explained that the fable about the boy and the wolf teaches the lesson that lying begets punishment. But this isn’t news for the children. They already know that. In the second story, after the boy George confesses to his father that he used his new hatchet to strike down the prized cherry tree, the father says, “Son, I’m glad that you cut down the cherry tree after all. Hearing you tell the truth is better than if I had a thousand cherry trees.”

Telling the truth had made the parent happy. That is what the child chooses after hearing that story. She doesn’t lie because she wants to make you happy.

I remember looking back again at Piya, asleep in the back seat. I had done her wrong by telling her the story about the boy and the wolf.

Excerpted with permission from A Time Outside This Time, Amitava Kumar, Aleph Book Company. Read more about the book here and buy it here.

 

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