Book Review

Amba: The Question of Red by Laksmi Pamuntjak

-- Isha Aggarwal

Publisher: Speaking Tiger

Genre: Fiction

Extent: 407pp

Price: Rs 499

--Isha Aggarwal

Set against the backdrop of one of the bloodiest incidents of Indonesia’s history, Amba: The Question of Red is a tale of love, separation, desire and longing of one of the most misunderstood characters of the Hindu mythology, Amba, from the Mahabharata. Taking on a momentous task, the author recounts the story of Amba, who more often than not is defined by ‘her burning desire for revenge’, challenges her fate and ‘ends the battle of all battles’ by killing Bhisma in the Mahabharata. Pamuntjak’s Amba, instead of rebuffing Bhisma, falls in love with him and the revenge is that of a scorned lover.

Growing up in a small town in Central Java, Amba, ‘the free-willed bird’, challenges her destiny, writes poetry, gets enrolled in a university, follows her heart and chalks her own path. Trying to claim back her story from ‘the great burden and history’ of her namesake in the Mahabharata, she ends up following the trajectory of her namesake.

Amba is betrothed to Salwani Munir, ‘respectful to a fault’ and whose love is patient and undemanding. She meets Dr Bhisma Rashad, who ‘offers her sensual pleasures and a world of ideas’. Unlike Salwa, Bhisma takes her whole, ‘like the sun in the mouth’. An intense love affair of two weeks ends in separation when Dr Bhisma, a Communist sympathizer, disappears from the demonstration in Yogyakarta.

Forty years later she receives news of Bhisma’s death and learns the truth of her lover’s disappearance. Like thousands of others, he had been locked away on an island in Buru. Traversing islands, spanning decades, Amba not only retraces the footsteps of her lover but also chronicles the forgotten history of the island: incarceration of 12,000 alleged communists without trial in 1965-66 by General Suharto in the prison camps of Buru islands.

Breaking the silence, Pamuntajak’s novel evokes the suffering of the prisoners who had been written off, wiped clean from the nation’s memory, through her beautiful prose. ‘Because they fed us, and they fed us well. We were like beggars invited to a feast. And after all that fat and coconut cream they stuffed into us in the six days it took us to get to that island, our questions died in our bellies. That’s what they intended. They wanted us overfed and subdued. Because fat meant safe, because fat meant we couldn’t fight.’

This multi-voiced narrative loses Amba somewhere along the way. Amba, who ‘had no patience for the obsession with physical beauty’, challenges societal conventions and goes to university instead of marrying, travels alone to Kediri to work as a translator, and ends up spending her entire life shuffling between men. A woman who refuses to accept patriarchal diktats, she ties her destiny with one man or another, seeks fulfilment only in her relationships with men. Full of self-doubt and jealousy, she bears a resemblance to the women she rebuffed while growing up.   

Amba: The Question of Red falls short of becoming either an epic romance or an ambitious re-telling of the Mahabharata. Introducing a huge cast of characters – Samuel, the Wise Man of Weapo, Zulfikar, Srikandi, the narrative loses its focus and digresses from its path. However, the importance of the work lies in breaking the silence and portraying the violent past of the nation that has remained in shadows for too long.