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“Tourists from the future”: Time-travelling revisited

“Tourists from the future”: Time-travelling revisited

By Harleen Kaur Bagga

Edited by Nidhi Singh, Junior Editor, The Indian Economist

Time is an inextricable part of the universe; from the moment you open your eyes, the clock starts ticking. Excuse the utter morbidness of the statement, but as they say, you can never ignore time. Each day, from one second to another, from one minute to another, years pass away and before you know it, you’re recounting things gone by and wondering where the time went by. But most importantly, on a much more colossal scale, time harbours this immense mass of actions and moments where a seemingly trivial action catapults into a series of such events that have this massive impact on your life or the life of your species (more commonly known as The Butterfly Effect).

Before you go to bed every night, you stare in surprise at the enormous accumulation of what ifs and if onlys and then painfully go over incidents and conversations, altering them along the way, but this time, by the grace of your prepared and armed magnificent brain, you are finally successful in annihilating your enemies in such word-wars that you sigh wistfully, hoping to go back and carry out the good-deed in reality. Time is thus a very integral part of one’s existence. And perhaps, it is this very lack of control over it that has led humans to try to master it in their fiction and furthermore, try to realize it in their physics, the basic premise being change or adventure.

From writing historical fiction, going back in time in order to locate your story, to having actual time-travel, whether intentional or unintentional, desired or undesired, the trope of time-travel has picked up tremendous popularity. From Rip Van Winkle and Ebenezer Scrooge to Hermione Granger to Susannah Simon (The Mediator series) to Doctor Who, time-travelling has very nicely rolled others over and made space for itself. Of course, from H.G. Wells’ novel set within the context of Newtonian physics (travelling to the future), we now have Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris, enchanted by the past. The book Gil (Wilson) is writing in the movie is about this person who owns a  nostalgia shop with the book’s first line saying, “’Out of the Past’ was the name of the store, and its products consisted of memories: what was prosaic and even vulgar to one generation had been transmuted by the mere passing of years to a status at once magical and also camp.

A theme similar to Midnight in Paris has been very well explored in Jack Finney’s The Third Level where Charley, a thirty-one year old New Yorker dreams of living in the past and actually manages to stumble upon the year 1894 on the third level of the Grand Central Station. Unfortunately for Charley, his dream is not really fulfilled in the end and the story ends on quite an ironic note. However, what becomes clear is that people have this tendency of romanticising the past, calling it the Golden Age and wishing to dwell in its safe confines. You have Gatsby who was forever in search of that perfect moment with the love of his life, Daisy Buchanan, after having been separated from her. “His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was . . .” This placing of the past on a pedestal has been critiqued, both in the book as well as Allen’s movie, with an epiphany about the importance of living in and accepting the present.

Time-travel has been defined as moving through various points in time analogous to movement through various points in space. Interestingly, time-travel has always been gendered – the domain of men. Take The Time Traveller’s Wife, Midnight in Paris and About Time, all movies about time-travel, all starring Rachel McAdams. Yet, in not even a single one of them does the female figure travel through time. There has been a similar trend in other time-travelling narratives. For some reason, women are taken to be too emotional to survive the burden that is time-travelling.

However, leaving this aside for the moment, who wouldn’t want to seek adventure in different temporal realms, who wouldn’t want to perhaps ride on dinosaurs (Terra Nova, sort of); or sit beside Shakespeare and have tea with him; or be DaVinci’s muse; or visit the Regency period and participate in the balls and the gossip. Everyone, in their way, has a way of harbouring a fetish for the past and even the future. Newton too thought of time as an ever flowing stream that was constant and immutable. And now, scientists are speculating about the possibilities of time-travel in a positive light. Who knows, maybe, overcoming all temporal paradoxes, one is actually able to experience time and space more excitingly one day.

Harleen  is an Art and Literature enthusiast, currently studying English lit at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi. She lives in a world of hyperbole and Homeric similes and is irrevocably in love with descriptive words. Quite fond of stationery, the smell of old books, and the Harry Potter fandom, she most unfortunately possesses a traitorous mouth and a natural propensity to fall into embarrassing situations. You can reach her at [email protected].

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