The first thing that drew me to this novel was the fact that the author is a reader of Paul Auster- having read nearly everything Auster has written, I’ve often contemplated how an Indian novel with an Austeresque theme would turn out; and incidentally, the novel is set in Pune-a city I lived in for many years before moving to the States-furthering my interest in the book.
Then the plot- a brother and sister falling in love with the same man- is as daring as it is bizarre; daring not because it is a novel about homosexuality set in a culture that’s predominantly homophobic but because it offers a fresh perspective, a window into the life of an otherwise traditional Maharashtrian family profoundly altered by coincidence [a recurring theme in all of Auster’s works].
The book is divided into two parts; the first [and more interesting] part is Tanay’s story, his account of loving the paying guest who remains nameless till the end. The second is Anuja’s story; her cathartic recollections of the mysterious painter who eventually breaks her heart, as he does, her brother’s.
Sometimes, a common memory is resurrected in both parts, serving to corroborate the characters’ recollections-for instance, both Tanay and Anuja remember an early memory of the paying guest offering change for the Auto; a quotidian event that the author makes significant by having his characters remember it. Another incident involves the painter waving a bra at the girl’s hostel opposite- it’s only when reading Anuja’s story do we learn that the bra is hers; more than risqué humor, I think the author was trying to reinforce the painter’s image as someone who is above prudish conventions, who isn’t embarrassed by acting in a way that’s usually embarrassing for others.
The author’s genius, in my opinion, is in his portrayal of the grief of one sibling versus the grief of the other; while both brother and sister are heartbroken, Tanay’s seems to be the greater injury; this because his suffering is surreptitious- also, the author appears to suggest that societal disapproval in his case, the queerness of it, would be more pronounced compared to the disapproval his sister met with. Another masterstroke by the author is in keeping the sister ignorant of not just her brother’s sexuality, but also the fact that he is her rival. When Anuja assumes that Tanay is depressed because of his concern for her, the author goes to show how easily we take feelings for granted; that her brother was grieving not for her but for her lover was inconceivable to Anuja.
Like Auster’s stories, Cobalt Blue preserves its mysteriousness, leaving me with many questions- strictly speaking, the painter can be seen as cheating on the siblings but given his bohemian nature, his refusal to be stereotyped on the basis of caste as portrayed in the beginning of the novel, I think it’s safe to assume he was, in his mind, free of guilt. In fact it seemed inevitable that he should leave, that he should possess the will to escape the contempt that familiarity breeds. The title of the novel itself is encountered first through Tanay: “yesterday, when a cobalt blue smudge of the wall ended up in my hand, I wiped it on my trousers without thinking”-the novel also ends with the words “deep-blue water” into which Anuja takes a dive.
Thanks to Jerry Pinto’s excellent translation from the Marathi, Cobalt Blue is an accessible, unique novel by an author I look forward to reading in the years to come.