Excerpts: Amba: The Question of Red by Laksmi Pamuntjak


The Third Man

When a woman wavers between two men—the one she didn’t get and the one who didn’t get her—she usually encounters a third. This is how the third man came into Amba Kinanti’s life and how his story should be told.


For Amba it started with dreams both foul and fair.

In the days following Bhisma’s disappearance, her heart sick with sorrow, Amba started having vivid dreams. Maudlin, abusive nightmares with baby-burning witches and gods with deformed cocks. Nostalgic images of Kadipura, of her parents and her sisters and her corner on the porch where they took their tea in the afternoons, the lakeside where her father and she often sat, her father opening The Mahabharata.

Once, Bhisma and Salwa appeared together in her dream, as the book dictated. But instead of taking up arms and hacking at each other, they were sitting down under a vast banyan tree, the way warriors always do, talking about great revolutions and ideas that would transform the world. Meanwhile, she was peering at them from behind another tree, eavesdropping. She could hear every word. The Amba of this dream looked sad, disheveled, and old, and her purpose was vindictive: to aim her arrow at Salwa’s heart. She would wait for the right time and kill Salwa first and then herself, and then the gods could have a field day blaming one another for the loss of a very important thread in their celestial narrative. She, Amba, would be the noble princess who exited the world so that Bhisma, the ultimate warrior-healer, the man who saved lives, would prevail. Because he must. She was going to take Salwa with her to end his suffering in the world, his and Bhisma’s, from everything that she had done.

Suddenly, in the dream, she saw Bhisma lean toward Salwa, the man who was supposed to be his rival, his fiercest foe, and say, ‘She doesn’t know it yet, but I must leave her. I must leave so she will have a future.’

The horror of that dream had woken her. The horror of how in the dream Amba, on hearing those words, had changed her aim in a sick split instant, and the desolate sound of Bhisma’s groan before his body hit the earth.

Some nightmares were grimmer. In one she saw her father dashing through the dust in a smoky battlefield, amid the ringing sound of gunfire and the swish of arrows, soldiers screaming and falling around him. He had in his trembling hands an open page from The Mahabharata, something he seemed to want to get rid of but couldn’t. Soon a naked woman who looked like Rinjani, a perfection of limbs and breasts, appeared. She began to devour soldiers, both dead and alive.

In another, Bhisma and Salwa appeared in her room, their faces dewy and transformed by lust. They offered to take turns fucking her. ‘Why not?’ they said when she protested. ‘Won’t it be fun?’


After the chaos at Untarto’s funeral and Amba’s sick moment of realization that Bhisma was not with her in the courtyard, she swallowed her fear and frantically began looking for him.

The streets had almost emptied. No one wanted to be part of more trouble. Yet she went around anyway, asking each person she saw if they knew, or had seen, Dr. Rashad, describing his appearance. Each time she was met with a shaken head, a blank stare.

There came a point—it might have been half an hour later, she couldn’t say—when she gave up and started to run in the direction of Rien’s house. Halfway there she found a becak that stopped for her. Something in the driver’s frightened eyes suggested he was glad for her company, and the two of them talked about everything and nothing to keep fear at    bay.  When she got to Rien’s, she asked her whether she could borrow a spare shirt. As she described the events of the past hours, Rien’s face paled. ‘I had no idea you were so involved with CGMI,’ she said quietly. Hugging Rien good-bye, Amba didn’t have the heart to say she could never return because she didn’t want to bring danger to her friend’s doorstep. Instead she kissed her on the cheek, thanked her for everything, and quickly left. Somewhere between Rien’s house and her aunt and uncle’s she threw her red top into a random bush beside the road. At the house, she couldn’t look her aunt in the eye when she said, ‘Sorry, all night I was at Rien’s working on an assignment, and the phone wasn’t working.’ Then she locked herself in the room and cried herself to sleep.

The next morning Amba took a becak to Bumi Tarung. The artist’s compound was deathly quiet. She was met by one of the painters, who had not said a word when she had arrived with Bhisma. He remembered her and introduced himself as Tarigan. He told her Isa and some other CGMI members had been arrested in the night, and the others had gone into hiding. He had elected to stay behind to man the fort. He was sympathetic enough, but he had no news of Bhisma’s whereabouts. Amba felt her last hope seeping away. She asked to go to the bathroom, and there she spilled the entire contents of her stomach into the sink. As she left, she vowed to the hapless artist that she would not stop looking for Bhisma. As in ancient books, there are  words one utters that will become sacred.


Salwa was the last person in Amba’s mind. When his message arrived in the mail saying he couldn’t make it to Yogyakarta, a familiar relief washed over her. ‘Beloved, I can’t come. Several people in my office have been arrested, and I have to shoulder their workload. Please bear with me.’


For days after Bhisma’s disappearance, Yogyakarta seemed like a city unspooled. The people rejoiced at the overthrow of the Communists, doors were flung wide, and joyous ululations filled the streets. The Special Forces rolled into the city with their tanks, and jeeps, and trucks, and their happy songs, and the requisite veni-vidi-vici swagger. Thousands gathered to listen to the Red Beret commander, Colonel Sarwo Edhie Wibowo, who addressed the crowds in full combat gear. The Red Berets had rounded up hundreds of the enemy in one night, and there was no doubt in the people’s minds that those murderous Communist rebels with their inane September 30th Movement and those sniveling People’s Youth scoundrels and their kind were annihilated once and for all.

Astounding how similar the face of freedom can be to the face of fascism.


But not everybody was caught up in the hum of history. Some, like Amba, felt they had to leave behind their history altogether. There was, for one, the agonizing pretense of good humor she had to assume for her aunt and uncle. Day in, day out. After about a week, she decided she couldn’t stand it anymore. She had to leave Yogyakarta and make a new beginning elsewhere. Salwa had written that he was coming in late October. To escape him, and to escape her family, one of whom could appear at any time, she couldn’t stay with her aunt and uncle much longer. Besides, she felt vulnerable there. So many things could go wrong. Someone at Untarto’s memorial might have pegged her for CGMI and ratted to the authorities. Bhisma might have been arrested and tortured for the names of comrades and supporters. Even now the authorities could be looking for her.

She could hurt Salwa and her family in so many ways.

Someone at Bumi Tarung, for instance, might have confirmed that she was at the compound not a week ago, there with CGMI affiliate Dr. Bhisma Rashad. Could this lead investigators to her family in Kadipura? Would they hurt them? What if they went after Salwa in Surabaya, or found him on his way back to Yogyakarta, and took him in for questioning? Should she risk traveling to Kediri on the off chance that Bhisma might have returned there? Could she risk a visit to his parents’ house in Menteng, in case he was there?

Crippled by anxiety, she held out for a few more days, hoping Bhisma would find her and make good on his promise to take her away, to start their future together. The minute she left the house, it would be harder for Bhisma to find her. But on the seventh day of hellish indecision, the goddess of fortune seemed finally to shine her light upon her. Her aunt and uncle announced that they had to go to Solo on a pressing family matter.

‘We might be gone a week. Will you be all right living here with only the maid?’

‘Of  course,  of  course,’  she  had  said.  ‘I’ll  have  Rien  keep me company if I get too scared. Or I can stay at her house occasionally.’

But she knew she must leave, and not only the shelter of her relatives’ house. She must, somehow, leave Yogyakarta as well. Disappear into the anonymity of Jakarta, find work, start again. She knew jobs didn’t magically surface when you needed them, and Jakarta would be even more competitive than Yogyakarta. It would be less friendly, less welcoming, less easy to bend and boss around. She had not finished her degree—in reality she had no credentials whatsoever—yet there was no other way, she had to wear the courage of her own conviction and survive on her own. Not that she had nothing. She had saved a little of the monthly allowance her parents sent her, and there was the translation fee she received from the hospital in Kediri. Enough to manage for several weeks, and those weeks, she told herself, can be as short or as long as you make them.

Within two hours of her aunt and uncle leaving the house, she, too, was gone. She didn’t leave a note. She found herself a small room in a boarding house in another area of town. The owner’s wife, with one look, must have recognized the desolation in her eyes. She told Amba that she ran a business, a small but popular canteen, and she needed help with the cooking. If Amba could cook, she could have the room in exchange.

Amba, who could work magic in the kitchen, quickly became an asset. She knew her savings would not last long, so it certainly helped not having to pay rent.

Chopping onions and grinding spices left plenty of time for thinking, and her thoughts were soon overtaken by the problem of what she should do about her studies. How could she throw away what she had achieved so far? She had to complete a degree. Without qualifications how could she hope to get a reasonable job? She had no idea if it was possible to transfer from one university to another, but she was determined to get some kind of accreditation, proof of the classes she had successfully completed. Then, she thought, she could transfer to a university in Jakarta. She had to find someone on campus to help make this happen. Suddenly even the word Jakarta frightened her. It was a city she knew little about, a place she wasn’t even sure was all that safe. But when Bhisma had said he’d take her there the name absorbed traces of Bhisma’s hope for their future, and that had been enough.

Now it was the city of impossible dreams.


Excerpted from ‘Amba: The Question of Red’ written by Laksmi Pamuntjak , published by Speaking Tiger, New Delhi, 2016.


Named after a tragic figure in Indonesia’s and India’s shared mythology, Amba spends her lifetime trying to invent a story she can call her own. When she meets two suitors who fit perfectly into her namesake’s myth, Amba cannot help but feel that fate is teasing her. Salwa, respectful to a fault, pledges to honour and protect her, no matter what. Bhisma, a sophisticated European-trained doctor, offers her sensual pleasures and a world of ideas.

In this devastating novel of love and redemption, empathy and forgiveness, Amba, Bhisma and Salwa attempt to undo the ancient legend of the Mahabharata—that timeless allegory of war within a family—with tragic consequences, as the story moves from rural Java to Europe and to the prison camps of Buru Island, where approximately 12,000 alleged communists were incarcerated without trial during the Suharto dictatorship. Through its memorable cast of characters—each of them a metaphor for the vast diversity that is Indonesia—the novel asks us not to see history in terms of ‘black’ and ‘white’, ‘good’ and ‘evil’, but highlights, instead, the grey zones of human existence and the human spirit. It also shows us ways in which men and women often attain their highest humanity at the point of destruction.

About the Author:

laksmiLaksmi Pamuntjak is a bilingual Indonesian novelist, poet, essayist, journalist, and an award-winning food writer. Amba: The Question of Red, her bestselling first novel, won Germany’s LiBeraturpreis 2016 and was named #1 on Germany’s Fall 2015 Weltempfaenger list of the best works of fiction translated into German from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Arab world. The novel was also shortlisted for the Khatulistiwa Literary Award 2012 and appeared on the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’s Top 8 list of the best books of the Frankfurt Book Fair 2015.

Pamuntjak was the Indonesian representative for Poetry Parnassus at the 2012 London Olympics. Her bestselling second novel, Aruna and Her Palate, will be published in the US and Germany in 2017. Her latest publication is There Are Tears In Things: Collected Poems and Prose (2001-2016). She works as an art and food consultant, writes opinion articles on culture and politics for the Guardian, and divides her time between Berlin and Jakarta.