Amba foregrounds the Mahabharata, a cultural heritage shared by India and Indonesia.
In per capita terms, few national literatures have travelled as little as that of Indonesia. Until recently, Pramoedya Anantya Toer was the only Indonesian writer with an international following; and even his foreign readership largely consisted of writers and critics. It is only in the past two years that an Indonesian writer has risen to global fame, in the form of Eka Kurniawan, author of the magical realist novels Beauty is a Wound and Man Tiger.
Literature, and novels in particular, are key agents of cultural transmission; and the failure of Indonesian fiction to travel has contributed to a broader ignorance about the world’s fourth-most-populous country, one that is described reductively as “the world’s largest Muslim nation”, with little acknowledgement of its social and cultural and diversity.
In India, this ignorance is near-total, despite our deep cultural links with Indonesia. Amba: the Question of Red, Laksmi Pamuntjak’s first novel, would appear at first glance to be perfectly suited to the Indian reader who wishes to discover Indonesia through fiction. It has geographical sweep: the settings range from Yogyakarta, the cultural heartland of the Javanese, to Buru in the Maluku or Spice Islands. It is both an epic romance and a meditation on modern Indonesian history: in particular, the mass purge of Communists undertaken by General Suharto in 1965-66, a massacre of over 500,000 people that has been written out of Indonesian history and is virtually unknown to the world. And it foregrounds our shared cultural heritage, in the form of the Mahabharata.
The Indonesian version of the Mahabharata differs, in many respects, from the Indian one. In varying forms, both feature the tragic story of the princess Amba, who is kidnapped by Bhishma in order to be wed to his half-brother Vichitryavirya. When she asserts her right to be returned to the king Salva, her betrothed, Bhishma releases her; but Salva, arguing that she is Bhishma’s by conquest, rejects her.
Pamuntjak’s Amba reads this story as a love triangle; Amba, as she sees it, fell in love with Bhishma, and her eventual murder of him (as the male warrior Sikhandin in the Indian version and as Arjuna’s wife Srikandi in the Indonesian) is the revenge of a spurned lover. Her Amba is also a love triangle, the three characters named after their Mahabharata forebears.
The title character is a student of English at Universitas Gajah Mada in Yogyakarta, in the mid-1960s; she is engaged to Salwa, whom her mother regards as an ideal son-in-law. On a trip to Kediri in east Java to volunteer at a hospital she meets Bhisma, a charismatic doctor, returned from Leipzig, and with Communist sympathies. They have a brief and intense love affair — conducted in less than two weeks — but, at a demonstration in Yogyakarta, they lose sight of each other, and are sundered forever.
Amba goes on to marry a visiting German-American scholar, Adalhard Eilers. Forty years later, widowed, she receives an e-mail from Salwa, informing her that Bhisma is dead. She learns that, like 12,000 other Communists and sympathisers, he had been interned in 1966 on Buru, and never returned to Java.
Amba moves between the 1960s and the 2000s; between Amba’s childhood and her time with Salwa, Bhisma and Adalhard, and her attempts, aided by Samuel, a younger man, to discover everything she can about Bhisma’s life and fate on Buru. Third-person narration is interpersed with epistolary, most notably in the form of an entire section comprising Bhisma’s letters to Amba from Buru; letters that did not reach her in his lifetime.
In literary terms, Amba fails to deliver on the potential of its premise, either as an epic romance or as a reading of the Mahabharata. It has been translated by the author from the Indonesian into an English that is treacly, often anachronistic, and filled with toe-curling epigrams of this sort: “Sadness demanded a big heart. And hers wasn’t that big.” The novel’s compelling heart, Amba’s move from a traditional rural childhood to intellectual and political awakening in Yogyakarta and Kediri, as embodied by the competing charms of Salwa and Bhisma, is padded out with the entirely unnecessary story of Samuel, rendering the narrative baggy and unfocused. And there is little more to the book’s use of the Mahabharata than the names of the characters.
Its achievement and its value lie instead in its evocation of a criminally neglected episode: the violent destruction of the Indonesian Communist party which claimed a membership of over 3 million. Amba’s warm and nuanced portrayal of young revolutionaries in 1960s Indonesia and its unflinching account of the purge and the internment camp on Buru, are an important and long-overdue reckoning with a period of history that many would rather forget or ignore altogether.
Amba: The Question of Red; Laksmi Pamuntjak, translated from the Indonesian by the author, Speaking Tiger, Rs. 499.
Keshava Guha is a writer based in Bengaluru.
from today's Sunday Magazine