The Question of Red, by Laksmi Pamuntjak

30290554I don’t know why parents name their children after tragic figures from history, literature, or religion. As Amba, the protagonist of Laksmi Pamuntjak’s The Question of Red, tells us early in the novel, Indonesian parents usually avoid those names. And yet, her parents decided to name her after a twice-scorned, much wronged woman from the Mahabharata. They even named their twin daughters after Amba after the original Amba’s twin sisters. Amba vows when she’s young that she will not follow in her namesake’s footsteps. One might think that this would be simple enough. After all, what are the odds that history will repeat? This is the kind of question that fiction likes to answer with a resounding: of course history will get a chance to repeat.

Amba has a somewhat charmed upbringing. Her intelligence and odd outlook on life make her her father’s favored confidante. She has a more fractious relationship with her mother, which only gets worse when Amba gets old and her mother finds her a potential husband with a name straight out of the Mahabharata. Amba is headed straight into her namesake’s story. So, she delays. She puts off her fiancé and heads to Yogyakarta to get a degree in English. While she always wanted an education and the independence that comes with it, she’s also take the time to figure out what she wants to do. Salwa isn’t the right man for her, even though he’s wealthy and king. He isn’t passionate about Amba and Amba wants passion. Her situation gets even more precarious when she takes a translation job at a hospital and runs smack into her kryptonite: a man named Bhisma.

Political prisoners at a concentration camp on Buru, c. 1978. (Image via Engage Media)

The Question of Red is a love story that plays out against the political violence of the 1960s and 70s in Indonesia. While Salwa represents the safe route, Bhisma’s political ideals and his friendships with communists are increasingly dangerous. We know from the prologue and opening chapters that Bhisma ends up in one of Muhammad Suharto‘s concentration camps for communists and other enemies on the island of Buru. Amba tells her story (with documents to fill in some gaps later), guiding us through her decisions and tragedies from the early 1960s up to her visit to Buru to find out what happened to Bhisma after he was sent there.

Because of Amba, Salwa, and Bhisma’s names, I thought about free will and predestination a lot as I read The Question of Red. One might have thought that knowing the original story would count as a warning. All the latter-day Amba has to do is not what the first Amba did. But then, there’s a reason we have a cliché that tells us, “the heart wants what the heart wants.” The connection between Amba and Bhisma is irresistible. It seems that they have no choice but to pursue their love. Unfortunately, their obligations, their cultures, and their religions make things untenably complicated. Reading the book, I had my heart in my mouth until the very end, waiting to see if this Amba would have a happy ending or not. Would free will win this time? Or would fate step in? I’m not going to say; you’ll have to read it and find out for yourself.


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