Another book review for TBF and I’ve been in awe of this one way too much to pen down my thoughts. The book I’m talking about is Amba : The Question of Red by Lakshmi Pamuntjak.
They say that a name often decides the destiny of a person. Hence, we should be very careful with the names we endow our children with. This is the story of Amba, an Indonesian woman who sets out to fight the fate her name has predestined for her. When Salwa enters her life, she receives the first jolt but it’s when she meets Bhishma, she knows that taking their names in the same sentence would be enough to tempt fate. Will she be able to defy the stars and rewrite history with the names? Or will Amba face the same destiny as her daunting namesake?
For those of who are unaware or a little forgetful of history, let me help by fitting in a small history lesson here. Amba and her twin sisters, Ambika and Ambalika were abducted by Bhishma, the grand patriarch of Hastinapur who wanted to wed them in his family. However, Amba was already pledged to Salwa, another king who attacked Bhisma’s army when he heard of the abduction. Unfortunately, he was no match for a warrior as great as Bhishma and his army was bloodied and killed. In the meantime, Amba realised that she had fallen for this mighty warrior but knowing her constraints as a betrothed woman, she pleaded Bhisma to send her back to Salwa. Bhisma too had fallen for Amba and respectfully returned her to Salwa, who hurt in ego and flesh, turned her away, citing the evident love for Bhisma on her face. She ran back to Bhisma and pleaded him to marry her but what she was unaware of was his vow of celibacy. He had taken up a vow to remain celibate to placate the insecurities of the woman his father wanted to marry. He turned her away with a heavy heart and she left, vowing revenge. When after a long penance, she was born again as Srikandi or Shikhandi, she was the one who was ultimately responsible for bringing an end to Bhisma.
This is a retelling of this very triangle of the epic Mahabharata and the author starts off with the back story and with a very apt question: Why wasn’t Amba glorified instead of being remembered as a woman spurned? Why wasn’t her skill, to bring down a warrior so great as Bhisma not accounted for and she only remembered for her revenge?
The story is set in the Buru Islands, a remote, third largest island of the Maluku archipelago, disconnected from the mainland Indonesia. A woman called Amba is looking for her husband and is attacked for trying to hug a grave. When questioned, the woman, Mukuburung, explains that she was hugging her husband’s grave. Amba, stunned by her husband’s infidelity goes into shock until she finally meets __ who hands her over tubes of letters from her husband, Bhishma. It’s through those letters that Amba finally understands why she was left at the crossroads alone and what really happened to Bhisma.
It was a book that had me hooked from the first page. Lakshmi Pamuntjak has a way with words that I haven’t seen in a long, long time. The little nuances of each character, setting, the details, flashbacks and characterisations and honey dripping language have given me a hangover! I thought Memoirs of a Geisha was stupendous and it would be ages before I read something that would make me reel under the aftereffects of the words and characters but this one was a notch above that one. I know. I can’t believe it either! The character of Amba was strong, bold and tumultuous and every now and then, I could feel like I was reading about myself.
The backdrop of Amba’s story is set in the time when Indonesia was suffering from a civil unrest and Buru Islands was a penal colong where communist supporters and prisoners of war were kept and killed. Although the unrest is an important part of the story, you won’t find it overburdening the plot. Sometimes, the story is littered with narration about the same but it is justified since not everyone knows about it. It may drag at times because it mostly banks on Indonesian culture and as an outsider it’s difficult to grasp the language turns, euphemisms and metaphors but once you get the hang of it, it just melts on your tongue. The suspense unravels slowly and gradually without rushing through the words and I wouldn’t have liked it any other way.
There is a strong streak of beautiful literature references and that’s the main strong point of the story. I absolutely loved how Amba banked on her own opinions and views, defying the more acceptable act of women falling into a pattern of unquestioned agreement. I’m deliberately avoiding the characters of Bhisma and Salwa because it’s their characters that define the course of the plot. I can’t talk about them without giving away huge spoilers!
ALL IN ALL, A GLORIOUS, DELICIOUS 5 STAR READ!! It’s literature like this that makes my soul sing! It’s the very reason I love to read. If you are looking for your next read and even of you aren’t, pick this one up!
Disclaimer : I received the review copy of the book from Speaking Tiger Publishing in exchange for an honest review.
Until next time!