This book review is part of #TSBCReadsIndia, a reading challenge wherein one reads a book from each State and Union Territory of India. Presenting the second of 36 books to be read — the book from Maharashtra — in this literary journey across India.
Cobalt Blue by Sachin Kundalkar (Hardback, 228 pages, 2013, Hamish Hamilton) is probably the only book I have ever bought without reading either the author or book blurb, or even a sample page or two.
I didn’t really need to after I saw who had translated this book from the original Marathi into English — Jerry Pinto. I was immediately intrigued as till then I had only read Pinto’s original writing in English and hadn’t known that he did translations !
And so a copy of Cobalt Blue was bought with the intention of reading it soon. But that didn’t happen and the book lay in my to-be-read-pile of books for nearly 2 years, and would probably still be there if not for #TSBCReadsIndia. While shortlisting the book for Maharashtra, I remembered Cobalt Blue and after a quick look at it found that it fit the two basic criteria that I had set for a book to qualify for this reading challenge — (i) it was a translation, and (ii) it was recent.
Perfect. I got down to reading it immediately. 🙂
Cobalt Blue is the story of Tanay and Anuja, a brother and sister, who fall in love with the same man, a paying guest (PG) at their house. The book unfolds through their narratives, first Tanay’s and then Anuja’s, which help’s the reader to build a perspective and understand the complete picture.
The Joshis — Baba (the father), Aai (the mother), and their children Aseem, Tanay and Anuja — are a traditional, typical, middle class family. We never get to know the names of Baba (an office-goer) or Aai (a housewife). Aseem also works in an office, while Tanay and Anuja are college-goers. The three siblings are quite different from one another — Aseem is the straight-laced favoured older son, Tanay is a quiet, sensitive and artistically inclined young man, and Anuja is an outdoors person who loves treks and hikes and is on her way to becoming an environmental activist. Though the city that Cobalt Blue is based in is not mentioned, from the many references made one can infer that it is Pune.
It is into this household that the PG, who is studying art, comes to stay. He is an enigmatic person with no last name and no family to talk to or about. Though the PG has a name we don’t know what it is as neither Tanay nor Anuja refer to it. Their initial fascination for the PG first develops into a keen sense of self-awareness…
[Tanay] I became aware of the mediocrity, the ordinariness of my secure and comfortable life. (pp.11-12)
… and then love for the PG.
[Anuja] By the end of the holidays, I knew I was in love with him. It wasn’t just a body thing. I’m not a halfway person. Either I love or I detest. Him, I loved. I loved his quietness, his underrated way with words, his independence, his ability to respect your space. (pp.153-154)
Tanay dreams of future with the PG, their common likes and dislikes, their future house, the colours they’ll paint the walls with, the people they’ll have over, the life they’ll lead… As for Anuja, she’s just happy being with him, being close to him, learning guitar from him…
And then suddenly, one day, the PG just leaves without telling anybody. Except Anuja, who leaves with him. The senior Joshis are furious, and Tanay devastated.
I don’t know how you managed it: an intense relationship with me, an attraction with Anuja, and then to leave with her? To live somewhere else? (p.23)
As Tanay grapples with loss of love and a sense of betrayal, he realises that no one around him would understand what he is going through. His family doesn’t know that he is gay and that he loved the PG; instead, they put his moroseness down to Anuja having eloped.
I have no tears now. Why should I? No one around me would understand. But memory surges back, hot and fresh. (pp105-106)
And then, 6 months after she left, Anuja returns to the Joshi household after the PG leaves her without any warning. She suffers a breakdown and is taken to a psychiatrist for treatment and now it’s Anuja’s turn to grieve for the loss of her love and cope with it.
Most of the good memories I have of him are from the time before I left home with him. What happened to our time together? (p. 202)
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
I finished Cobalt Blue in one reading; it was that compelling a read. Like any good book, it says a lot of things and leaves many things unsaid. Let’s take the Joshi family, for instance, and their sense of propriety. Anuja drives a bike, goes on treks and hikes with a mixed group and yet she cannot visit the PG in his room in the house she lives in. On the other hand, the parents see nothing wrong about Tanay spending all his time at the PG’s room, sleeping there and going away with him on some weekends.
What is left unsaid is any opinion on the PG, though the book revolves around him. As a reader we get to read and see him through Tanay’s and Anuja’s perspectives, but questions about him do come up. Who was he? Was he a commitment-phobe? A cheat? A bisexual? A man who didn’t want to be fettered by society? A man who couldn’t say no to either Tanay or Anuja? Who was the PG? He remains an enigmatic character throughout and I was no better at understanding him when I finished reading the book.
The biggest strength of the book is the varying styles used for Tanay’s and Anuja’s narratives. Both narratives are not linear, especially Tanay, and that’s where the similarity ends. Tanay’s narrative is an inward dialogue where he speaks, questions, reminisces, and grieves about the PG, all the while addressing him in the second person, “You”.
You came as a paying guest. You gave my parents the rent. You gave me so much more. Then you slipped away. (p.4)
In sharp contrast is Anuja’s narrative. Written in a form of diary entries, it is an outpouring of incidents, thoughts and some insights. The PG is addressed in the third person with detachment.
Now I no longer feel like weeping over him. I just want to meet him once, to ask him why. (p.205)
One can attempt to this difference in the two narrative styles to how we view and understand homosexuality and heterosexuality. Tanay’s inward dialogue is comparable to the secrecy he has maintained about his sexuality with his family. On the other hand, Anuja is treated like an errant child and sent to an aunt’s house to ‘recover’. She is encouraged to talk about and write out her feelings and what happened by the psychiatrist. In contrast, nobody in the Joshi household, even Anuja, are able to see that Tanay is grieving too.
The two different narratives also make Cobalt Blue an unusual book, not to mention a brilliant book as well, with a translation that doesn’t feel like one. I have always maintained that the best of Indian literature is written in the various regional languages of the country. Cobalt Blue underscores that belief of mine.
A must read and one that you should read like now.
- Do start reading Cobalt Blue with the Translator’s Note (pp.225-228), which for some strange reason is given at the end of the book.
- If you need more details on #TSBCReadsIndia, please head to the TSBC blog, or you could leave a comment here which I’ll be very happy to answer.
- If you want to know more about The Sunday Book Club then you can read more about it on my blog here or head over to the TSBC Blog.