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COBALT BLUE, a novel by Sachin Kundalkar

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.


The Cairo Trilogy

Palace Walk (1917-1919)

Palace Walk

We are introduced to Al Sayyid Ahmad Abd Al Jawad, a conservative patriarch and his family-Amina, the subservient wife who doesn’t dare lift her eyes to her husband despite his debaucheries and iron rule that keeps her in house arrest. Fahmy, the law student whose nationalistic fervor makes him stand up against the British and who, when the novel is about to reach its conclusion, breathes his last. Kamal, a courageous young boy with the spunk to make friends with the enemy and who is devoted to his sisters. Yasin, Al Sayyid Ahmad’s first son, whose mother he divorced. Aisha and Khadija, sisters with temperaments and looks that are very different and in contrast to one another. Khadija with her mediocre looks, acerbic tongue and petulant ways. Aisha, with her god-given beauty, impeccable manners and mellow nature. Umm Hanafi, the servant of the Al Jawad household who has been with the family long enough to become an inseparable part of it.

Al Sayyid Ahmad is a devout Muslim whose hypocrisy permits him to set different rules for the women of his household and for the courtesans who add to his bacchanalian revelries characterized by music, wine and promiscuity. During the day, he manages a grocery shop that permits him to flirt every now and then. Seldom does a harsh word or an inappropriate phrase pass his lips when he is with anyone who is not a family member. In him we see something of a split personality: A reticent and short tempered disciplinarian who in his house, will not brook nonsensical or unnecessary talk and outside, a witty and loyal friend whose eloquence with language and passion for life endear everyone who comes into contact with him. Although a thick wall prevents his family from taking part in this lighter side of his personality, they nevertheless greatly revere and love him and just as love of god doesn’t make them less god fearing, love for Al Sayyid Ahmad doesn’t make him less fearful in their eyes.

When Al Sayyid Ahmad leaves on a business trip to Port Said for a day, Amina is torn between her desire to visit the mosque of Al-Husayn, a descendant of prophet Muhammad, and her obedience towards her husband. On the insistence of her children, she eventually succumbs to her desire and decides to visit the shrine with her son, Kamal. On their return from the mosque, a car knocks her over and she is brought back to the house, unconscious. With one arm in a cast, she is afraid that Al Sayyid Ahmad will find out about her secret excursion to the mosque but her children persuade her to cover up the incident with a small lie that she broke her arm in the midst of a household activity. Unable to bear the lie, whose magnitude is magnified to gargantuan proportions by her conscience, she confesses to Al Sayyid Ahmad, telling him everything that happened. At first, Al Sayyid Ahmad doesn’t respond. He at once seems forgiving and large hearted but once Amina recovers, he sends her away, much to the children’s’ grief, to her mother’s house.

Meanwhile, Aisha receives a proposal for marriage and this intensifies Khadija’s jealousy and fears that she will remain a spinster forever. The occasion however, gives Al Sayyid Ahmad a chance to forgive his wife’s grave misconduct and invite her back, though not in so many words and Amina, whose love and respect for her husband only increase due to this sudden act of benevolence, is only very happy to be restored to her children at Palace Walk. Soon, Khadija receives a similar offer from the brother of the man who proposed to Aisha and the two sisters become destined to live under the same roof for the rest of their (which is however not the case owing to a tragedy at the end of Palace of Desire, the second book in the trilogy) lives.

Yasin, who resembles his father the most in having inherited his looks and his interests, suffers from an unquenched lust. Seeing him suffer, his father marries him off to Zaynab, the daughter of a friend. For a while, Yasin savors marital bliss but when his nightly wanderings and spirit of celebration upset his wife, making her pour out her frustrations to him, he is soon disillusioned and confides this to Fahmy, his half-brother. What seems unfair to Yasin is the discrepancy in the treatment accorded to him by his wife, Zaynab and that accorded to his father by Amina, his step-mother.

After Aisha’s marriage, not unintoxicated, he makes a move on Umm Hanafi on the terrace and owing to the latter’s screams, is discovered by Al Sayyid Ahmad before he can fulfill his mission much to his terror and shame. This serves as a catalyst to precipitate the collapse of the already weak molecular structure of his matrimony and soon, Yasin finds himself divorced. Amidst this, Zaynab bears his child in her womb.

Fahmy meanwhile, is crushed by his desire for Maryam, the neighbor’s daughter, with whom he carries on a secret affair consisting of glances and expressions as meaningful and promising to him as intermittent light signals are to a firefly in search of a mate.When the terrace is out of bounds to either of them, Kamal plays the role of a messenger in that he passes on Fahmy’s requests to Maryam and takes back Maryam’s innuendos to the anxious Fahmy. Al Sayyid Ahmad however refuses peremptorily when Fahmy asks for his permission to request her hand in marriage, an action which the former would regret for the rest of his days.

Despite his father’s protests, Fahmy continues to take an active role in protesting against the tyranny of the British rule. Here is the suggestion that Al Sayyid Ahmad is a metaphor to the British occupation of Egypt and Fahmy, just as he couldn’t assert his freedom in his house, couldn’t assert it in his country either and the loss of Maryam is an apt harbinger of the loss of his life.


July 2018
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