I put down Sachin Kundalkar’s Cobalt Blue a couple of days ago and the characters continue to haunt me. Kundalkar has so vividly painted them into my mind that they seem to have made a home for themselves in there. Over the next couple of days, I have found myself reaching out for the book, re-reading paragraphs at random and with every read I feel like I have opened a whole new world. I have been musing at the simplicity and the beauty of the story, and have concluded that no review could ever do justice to this gem of a book!
Cobalt Blue was originally written and published in Marathi by Sachin Kundalkar when he was only 22 years old (his age is of no importance until I put down the book and realised that the author wrote this brilliant book when he was my age!). For almost ten years the book remained a treasure to only those who spoke Marathi, till Jerry Pinto, at Shanta Gokhale’s request translated it into English. A lot is lost in translation, a fact that is acknowledged by Pinto in his afterword. However, Pinto took extra care to retain the essence of the novel, which is something that those who are not fluent in Marathi would appreciate. Teresa Lavender Fagan, translator, says, “A translator must absorb the essence of a work, feel the author’s soul and do what she can to minimize what must necessarily be lost. The paradox of translation: the desire to replicate a work in one’s own language while knowing it can never truly be done.” And this is what has been achieved by Jerry Pinto in Cobalt Blue. He has beautifully translated the book while retaining its essence and not reminding us that it is a translated work.
What makes this book mesmerising is its simplicity in telling us a tale of a man who existence impacts a seemingly peaceful family in ways more than one. Through the pages of the book, we are given a peek into the minds of Tanay and Anuja, a brother and sister, who happen to fall in love with this same man, an artist who lodges in a room at their home in Pune.
In the first half of the book, we see Tanay addressing the missing young man. It is almost as if he is having a conversation with him, in his mind. “That you are not here when something we’ve both wanted happens is no new thing to me,” he starts. He describes his loneliness, even while being surrounded by his family. He describes in many words how much he yearns to be with him. We catch him wondering as to how did he not see that a relationship had been blooming between his sister and his lover, almost reflecting our thoughts. Tanay’s narrative is nothing short of heartbreaking. He recollects various memories and relives them in his mind. As we watch him fall in love, the anger and pain of heartbreak courses through our veins. It is through Tanay that we get to know the tenant, with his artistic sensibilities and casual indifference. Just like Tanay, we are confused. Did he not love Tanay? Was it all meaningless to him?
It is in the second half of the novel that we are able to fill in the blanks. At the behest of the therapist, Anuja’s starts maintaining a diary. “Today I told Dr. Khanwilkar that I have seemed to have made only bad decisions,” she writes. She doesn’t hold back her feelings. We see the same set of events that formed the first half, being explained through a different perspective. While reading Tanay’s perspective, I thought of Anuja as the villain— the nefarious temptress who snatched the love of her brother’s life, even though, in various instances, he describes his sister as someone he respects. However, when we start reading her diary, we begin to think differently.
Neither Tanay nor Anuja follows a sequential order in describing the events of their life since the entry of the tenant. They move from the present to the past, almost in a frenzy, as the memories come to them. Tanay is repetitive in his narrative. He reiterates the same points, talks about the same memories as if he is unable to let go. Anuja’s narrative has a kind of therapeutic power, probably because it finally gives us the clarity we have been craving for, or maybe because we believe that as she pens down her thoughts, she too is healing.
“He”, as the tenant is referred to throughout the book, is somewhat of a silent presence, only alive in the memories of the siblings. Anuja’s memories don’t give us the insight into him that Tanay’s does, which makes us wonder if his relationship with Anuja was one-sided. Not once through the course of the novel is his name mentioned, because it is unimportant. The story isn’t about him. In fact, it is not even about his relationship with the siblings, but rather the effect that it has on them. It is about the family that is left not-the-same-anymore by his radical, free-spirited attitude. He “might have been born the day he came to stay with us,” Anuja says, “for he never talked about his past”. From the little we know about him, we can gather that he yearns companionship silently, but has no use for it, which is probably why he never felt the need for goodbyes. His fascination with cobalt blue, much like most painters who have had their blue phases— literally and metaphorically—is what lends the book its name. The colour is a reminder to the siblings, of his presence in their lives.
To me, it is the parts where the narrative overlaps and common memories surface that hold the book together and makes it a painfully beautiful read. It is those parts, as Pinto suggests in his afterword, that makes you think that maybe if they had taken a moment to talk to each other, the story would have ended differently. Kundalkar poignantly compares and contrasts the grief of the two siblings. Tanay licks his wounds in silence, because of the clandestine nature of his affair. It is through his experiences that Kundalkar explores the emotional isolation that comes with being gay in India. Anuja’s grief is somewhat of a public affair, with the whole family and a therapist trying to help her find her footing again. It is Anuja’s ignorance about her brother’s sexuality and the assumption that his foul mood is a result of his concern for her that the genius lies. It reminds us that someone who has known you your whole life could often be looking right through you.
Interestingly, we don’t feel anger towards the painter, probably because we realise that given his bohemian nature, and his refusal to be stereotyped on the basis of caste he was free of guilt in his mind. In fact, as we get to know the man, through the memories of the siblings, it seems more clear that his leaving was inevitable. If they really understood him, they probably knew that he would have been unable to escape the contempt that familiarity breeds. But, love isn’t always so rational.
The entire novel tends to battle between a sense of domestic milieu and a claustrophobic sense of confinement. Anuja best describes this in her narrative when she says, “Our house was big enough for middle-class dreams, but not for privacy.” Both siblings seem to be battling between the obligation to be a part of their family and the need to be their independent self through the course of the novel. Sachin brings the allure of music and painting and the realisation that they are not really a part of the family. This understanding and the grief of having lost the love of their lives makes it easier for both to pursue a life away from home, even if it brought loneliness.
Through the course of the novel, my sympathies lie with Tanay, probably for the most obvious reasons. Anuja’s heartbreak was in no way any less painful, but her parents take her back and help her recover. Her heartbreak is acknowledged by the world. Tanay, on the other hand, withdraws from the family. His behaviour is labelled as the reaction of concern to Anuja’s actions. The Joshis did not know, or perhaps chose not to know, what went on between their son and the paying guest. He is alone in his suffering.