This book has two sections. Its narrators, Tanay and Anuja, are brother and sister, and here they present their thoughts and experiences about the events that occurred in their family over a certain period. One day a paying guest arrives. He is unlike anyone else they have known and through him they observe new ways of behaviour and interaction. Each one establishes, unknown to others in the family, a separate and very intense relationship with him. In the sense of navigating the inner world of an adolescent in the first person, Cobalt Blue may be considered a high-quality ‘coming-of-age’ novel. It also explores the discovery, resulting confusion, and bravado of homosexuality in a hostile environment.
Set in modern times, this book shows us a traditional family and the impact of a changing world. People are reading management books, studying information technology, wanting to settle in the United States. Their city is the cultural capital of the State; it has great colleges. To use the word poli instead of chapatti tells people something about their ancestors. The municipal ward’s commissioner is a bigamist; heterosexual live-in relationships are permitted, and if people aren’t precisely proud of these things, at least they know about them.
One of the most striking aspects of this book is the way the family is presented. Despite being a single, tightly-knit and fairly loving unit, each of its members has a life as separate and removed from the others as if there are walls around them. The eldest sibling, Aseem, is a peripheral character. Easy compliance with family norms apart, he is detached and has his own life plans.
The two narrators are different in interesting ways. Tanay has learned what men do not do: they don’t use face powder; they don’t need mirrors in the rooms where they might change their clothes; on trips they can go behind a tree. The paying guest has made him aware of the mediocrity, the ordinariness of his secure and comfortable life.
Anuja, on the other hand, reminisces, “When I was young, I did not have a doll’s house or any long-legged foreign dolls. I knew vaguely that my friends had dolls and that they dressed them up and played house for hours on end without getting bored.” She rides a motorcycle with her boyfriend sitting behind. Her idea of fun is a strenuous trek to a fort. In a relationship, she is the one to propose, she is the one to betray.
The flow is seamless. When the narrative switches, the two voices are impressively distinct. Tanay rambles back and forth, while Anuja’s diary is crisp and ready for publication. He calls the paying guest’s quarters the ‘tower room’, while to her it is the ‘upstairs room’. It is difficult to evaluate how well the book has been translated, however, without comparing the two versions. We have an Irani hotel and soon after that, an Udipi restaurant. While ‘hotel’ is a usage accepted in Marathi, it’s debatable whether either word is an adequate idiomatic representation in English. Words like kunku and shepu bhaji have been left un-translated (and placidly, self-assuredly un-italicised). And yet, the word Aho with which a traditional Maharashtrian wife would address her husband, or Aika with which she might call his attention, are absent. Perhaps “if you’d care to listen” can be considered adequate to convey the respectful, possessive, bashful nuances inherent in these words carry.
This book could be read in one sitting, over the course of one enjoyable day. However, the impact of its characters and what we learn from them would last quite a while longer.