‘But all stories are made up’ I offered. ‘All telling is retelling, and therefore it is fiction. Everybody knows that.’ – The Question of Red
This month we are celebrating Asia-Pacific heritage and I’d like to highlight a feminist retelling of the Mahabharata that takes us through some troubled times in the 1960s in the small islands of Buru in Indonesia.
This is the story of Amba, who feels burdened by her name. After all, her namesake, Amba in the Mahabharata led a terribly painful life. She was the eldest daughter of King Kashi who was set to marry King Salwa, when she was abducted by Bhisma. She either suffers from Stockholm Syndrome or finds true love, and she ends up falling for Bhisma. She didn’t know though that Bhisma had taken a bow of celibacy and decides to send her back to Salwa. King Salwa, in typical victim-shaming, rejects her since she has already lived with another man. So, Amba is abandoned, shamed and thirsty for revenge.
Our Amba wants none of that. She doesn’t even want to wed. She wants to go to university and become a writer. Her father, who had nurtured her and encouraged her to be independent, has other plans. She is to wed a young teacher with an aspiring future. What is his name? You guessed, it’s Salwa! So, you already know that there will be a Bhisma and a love triangle. All of this happens against the backdrop of the 1950s and 1960s and the communist persecution (or genocide) that will seal Amba’s tragic destiny.
In the present era, Amba goes back to Buru and try to make sense of what happened in the shadows in the late 1960s that changed her life. She tries to find Bhisma. But Buru is not sympathetic to her cause and will bring about its own suffering.
So, The Question of Red, has a little bit of everything to appeal to a very diverse range of readers. It has mystery, a love triangle, historical fiction and a very strong female lead. It’s a feminist retelling of the famous myth but very much set in our times.
Usually, readers are either plot-driven or character driven. This story has both. It has a plot with enough twists to keep you guessing, and real, multifaceted characters. They are complex and troubled. I was particularly fond of the main character, Amba. I could relate to her self-doubt, insecurity and naïvité when it comes to love.
However, it is not a beautiful read. Maybe it is in Indonesian, but the author’s translation into English of her own work is clumsy. I don’t know if the author was aiming for a conversational tone and a simple style and got carried on. The sentences are either too short and fragmented or run-ons. They are sometimes simple and conversational and sometimes poetic. It feels amateurish.
Nevertheless, it is a story worth being told that makes for an interesting and entertaining read.