Sunday, February 12, 2017

Reviewing Laksmi Pamuntjak's Amba: In TNIE Today

Read it here on the website of The New Indian Express' magazine section, or see below.


Novels that are based on the epics are a trend that, if you ask me, should have long seen a natural demise of readers, and importantly, writers’ interest. While stories that imagine newer possibilities for old-as-time characters are an effective tool to eke out lesser explored nuances and to assign ambitions and –isms to known versions of the parables, they have reached a point of overdone-ness. A brownie left in the oven five minutes too long. Still probably great with afternoon tea, but you know, you wish you had taken it out sooner.

Laksmi Pamuntjak’s debut novel Amba: The Question of Red is almost one such book. It retells the story of Amba, who, in the Mahabharata, loved Bhisma but could not marry him. The weight of that Amba’s destiny and the inevitable repercussions of her circumstances is a baggage Pamuntjak’s Amba struggles to comprehend, and mend. The devastation of her stories and her loves plays out in the backdrop of a little known (in this country at least) history of Indonesia’s incarceration of some 12,000 Communists, without due trial in the prison camps of Buru Island during the Suharto dictatorship in the 1960s-70s. Introduction to this side of the story of what they say is the world’s largest Muslim nation is what makes Amba an interesting read. Reading it in India, fed as we are all of our lives with stories of the epics, the epics that we share with Indonesia, is equally enjoyable, for it allows the reader to relate to the characters more easily, even while being able to pay attention to the subtle differences in the narratives of how the familiar stories are told here and there.

The story oscillates between the childhood, the affairs of her youth and the present widowhood of Amba, respectively placed in rural Java, then Europe and then the Buru Island. The beautiful Amba is set to marry Salwa, as ideal a match as her family could have hoped for. On a volunteering trip she meets and has a brief affair with Bhisma, a doctor who leans firmly left. The relationship is not meant to last. Amba is then seen marrying a scholar. Cut to the present in the novel when she is a widow journeying to Buru and thereabouts, accompanied by a young Samuel, trying to piece together as much of Bhisma’s life as she can, through meetings with his friends and acquaintances, through the unsent letters he wrote to her, through the unsavoury history of Buru and its people.

Written in Indonesian and translated into English by the author herself, there are several parts that hint at what the novel could have been, if only…If the novel is riddled with anachronistic writing in some places, then elsewhere, there are metaphors so poorly thought of (“…gawked at each other’s nipples, marveling at how they could become so hard when poked, like cooked mung beans.”), that they ruin any measure of smooth sailing in the storytelling that has been achieved until then. Amba is a valuable novel for the tales of the incarceration that it researches into. Read alongside the life of Amba, it allows the reader stray peeks into what the jacket promises it is – a devastating novel of love and redemption, empathy and forgiveness – but stops quite a measure short of being all that.

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