Of Amba's angst

Lead review

Of Amba's angst

A recent article in The Guardian, authored by Indonesian novelist-poet-essayist Laksmi Pamuntjak, talks about Indonesia being a 90 % Muslim country where Islam is of the moderate and syncretic kind.

It made sense as I read Pamuntjak’s debut novel-epic, Amba: The Question of Red. Translated by the author from the Bahasa Indonesian to English, the book provides a compelling gateway to this sprawling 7,000-island nation. It is also basically a sweeping tale of passion and separation, disappearance and discovery, spanning decades, set against the backdrop of the fiery 1960s, when Indonesian president Suharto (the general turned dictator) overthrew the benign dictator Sukarno. More precisely, the story’s pivotal point plays out against the background of Suharto’s anti-communist purge from 1965, an event that led to 12,000 alleged communists and communist party sympathisers being banished and detained for years without trial, to the Indonesian island of Buru. Hundreds of prisoners died, many eventually returned to regular life, and some stayed on — falling victim to religious riots. Yet, this genocidal past seems almost forgotten by the country’s present generation — who would surely benefit from Pamuntjak’s Amba — a rich stew of myth, history, literary intellectualism and tragic romance.

At the conclusion of this mildly meandering marathon read, one emerges with a certain understanding of our Asian neighbour, culturally so close to India. The book begins with a prologue set in present times, then moves back to 1956, place, Central Java.

Amba, a feisty 12-year-old ‘cracker-mouthed’ girl, is an intelligent observer and narrator of life at home with a beautiful mother, two beautiful younger twin sisters named Ambika and Ambalika — would you believe it, the Mahabharata come(s) to life — and a teacher-intellectual father whose genes have been passed on to Amba. The girl was ‘not unlovely’, but she did have a sparkling observant brain.

Amba grows older, decides to get a university education, and finds herself facing the prospect of marriage to a fine young man, a college lecturer named Salwani Munir, a predictably pleasant 22-year-old, better known as Salwa. The parents love this prospective son-in-law, while Amba is friendly with him, but in no hurry to marry. However, she is amused and intrigued by the idea of a Salwa in her life, rather like her Mahabharata namesake — Princess Amba who was tossed between a King Salwa (her betrothed) and a Bhishma (her love), ultimately leaving Amba tortured by thoughts of revenge. But this modern Amba has no intention of following the mythical Amba’s trajectory — even if the impossible happens and a Bhishma appears next.

And appear he does, in due course — Dr Bhisma Rashad, the left-leaning ideologue who gets caught up in Indonesia’s nationalist-military vs communist turbulence. Amba and Bhisma have an intense affair. But the inevitable happens — and Bhisma, the suspected communist, disappears from Amba’s life, after leaving a bit of himself. What next?

Obviously though, this ambitious novel plays out as an allegorical reinterpretation of the Mahabharata tale set against the painful happenings in Indonesia’s troubled history from recent times. Along the way, the novelist opens her cards, reveals her thoughts about matters that touch her — socio-political ideologies, duty to family, expectations, religion and more.

Amba’s father called himself a Muslim, but ‘most Javanese are only partly Muslim, meaning they are also faithful to local traditions older than the 14th century’ (when Islam entered through traders). ‘Like most Javanese, Amba’s father held on to traces of Buddhism, Hinduism, and animism...’

Amba impels the Indian reader to read further, try and understand a country so interestingly familiar — colonial connections, ancient Indian links. Interestingly, Indonesia has its own version of the Mahabharata — often mined when children are to be named. But above all, the novel is also a true work of literary excellence and erudition, structure, character delineation, style, language, psychological depth in thought — perfect ingredients. After a prologue in the present, the story dives back into the past through seven ‘books’, then returns to the scenario from the prologue — which features a likeable character, Samuel, a connecting cord between the novel’s time zones.

The language is frequently poetic: after a spell of rain, ‘Leaves and canopies sag under the weight like an army of defeated slaves.’ Local words figure too, sans a glossary. The technique is stunning: a major character comes alive again, through letters discovered in the penal island. And the colour red plays its part in channeling the story its fated way.

The characters are achingly relatable: in 1955, the year of the first general election, Amba’s father realised that ‘there was no space for moderates like him.’ Occasionally, humour is used to temper the tension: ‘Samuel glanced around nervously... everyone on this island was a snitch.’ Amba is an exhaustive, well-researched recapitulation of history told as a tempestuous romance.

Laksmi Pamuntjak
Speaking Tiger
2017, pp 411
Rs. 499

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