Evocative and alluring , Namrata reviews Laksmi Pamuntjak’s Fall Baby (Published by Penguin SEA, 2019)
‘Somewhere in mid-flight, it occurs to me that I’m still at home and without a home; its just that now there are two homes instead of one and that must count for something.’
With lines akin to poetry, Pamuntjak’s latest novel Fall Baby is a compelling read. Interestingly, one of the main protagonists of this novel, Siri, is the illegitimate daughter of Amba and Bhisma, the protagonists of Laksmi Pamuntjak’s award winning first novel, Amba/ The Question of Red.
Laksmi Pamuntjak is a bilingual Indonesian novelist, poet, journalist, essayist and food critic. Her debut novel Amba/The Question of Red won many awards and has been translated into several languages followed by her second novel, The Birdwoman’s Palate which was adapted into a movie. She writes across genres dabbling in a poetry collection, a food guide, collection of short stories on painting and a treatise on violence and the Iliad. Pamuntjak also writes opinion and features articles for various Indonesian publications.
Set in Berlin and Jakarta, Fall Baby tells the story of two women, Srikandi (Siri) and Dara, Siri’s best friend-turned foe. Siri is seeking to create a new life in Berlin, as she struggles to accept her past and move on. This unexpected change has brought in a lot of newer meanings for her along and has redefined life. Siri suddenly finds her understanding of family, motherhood, friendship and relationships challenged here. While on the other hand, she also struggles to accept the harsh realities surrounding her profession as a visual artist which involves art, religion, politics and history.
In one of her interviews with The Jakarta Post, Pamuntjak mentioned briefly how the similarities between her life and the protagonist Siri’s life are many.
“The notion of adoption and what it does to the adoptee, being internally as well as externally divided, and at the same time what it does to the parents who raised and sustained you and the ones who gave you life — why it is so important and why it was a story that I wanted to tell is because I was myself adopted and only knew about the truth of my origins when I was 23, on the eve of my wedding, and I was not told by my adoptive parents whose prerogative it was to tell me, but by my late husband,” Laksmi recalled. “Everybody knew — except for me.”
Dara, on the other hand, is a political activist based in Indonesia who is engaged in a battle against censorship by Islamists. With two female protagonists who are resilient and determined, Pamuntjak leads us to a journey of self-discovery through this book by capturing the magnificence of the sisterhood of women. The characters are immensely powerful and awe-inspiring in their own unique ways, their growth charts in life leaving a reader teary-eyed.
Through the beauty of her narrative, it is difficult to decide which city to fall in love with. The mystical and alluring Berlin or the chic and inviting Jakarta. With her descriptions, Pamuntjak makes those two cities come alive in those pages with their streets and corners clearly leaving an imprint on the reader’s mind.
‘This city is not for you, can’t you see? You’re not made for cold and the cold won’t know what to do with you. You have to turn back and go home. Whatever is there, you have to face. It’s better to fight in a known heart than hide in a stranger’s frost.’
The struggle for existence, the need to thrive and let the dreams survive is so palpable that one cannot help but empathize with the characters and their lives. The longing for a home, for a family and support, is at the core of this story. Siri’s attempts to reconcile with her past are overwhelming and at the same time, they tug your heart tenderly in pain.
Art, for every artist has a different meaning but at the core, it always remains an integral part of their existence. Art needs freedom to thrive and survive. However, when art is censored or pressurized to meet certain requirements, it no longer remains art. The onlooker might not be able to spot the difference but the artist, dies a million deaths trying to recreate an art form which is not born out of free will and desire. Fall Baby, beautifully captures that dilemma of an artist and their struggles.
At 350 pages, it is slightly longer than the average novels but the captivating turn of events ensure you stay engaged in the story till the last page. Fall Baby is deeply moving and extremely absorbing book. Written across themes like adoption, family, motherhood, love and longing – Pamuntjak’s story of Siri and Dara is a poignant tale that leaves you speechless by the end of it. Weaving a complex and intricate web of relationships with art and religion, Pamuntjak delivers a stellar read.
Fall Baby is searing with a quest to know the unknown, to see the unseen and to hear the unsaid. To read it, is to be a part of this quest.
Reviewer’s Bio: Namrata is the editor of Kitaab.
Namrata is a lost wanderer who loves travelling the length and breadth of the world. She lives amidst sepia toned walls, fuchsia curtains, fairy lights and shelves full of books. When not buried between the pages of a book, she loves blowing soap bubbles. A published author she enjoys capturing the magic of life in her words and is always in pursuit of a new country and a new story.