April 19, 2021

KITAAB

Connecting Asian writers with global readers

Excerpts: Amba: The Question of Red by Laksmi Pamuntjak

3 min read

amba

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.

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