This book, a joint effort between Marathi author Sachin Kundalkar and translator Jerry Pinto, is an absolute surprise. I really could not put it down, which is saying a lot considering I have a toddler, a half-day job and two pets (not counting the husband in this!) and managed to finish it in a day. Two stories in one, told by siblings who are in love with the same man, a paying guest at their house whose name we never discover. Tanay, the brother & Anuja, the sister. I must say I was expecting to be partial to the love story from the feminine angle but that was not the case. The heartbreak felt by an Indian homosexual man is captured so beautifully, keeping the love story as the driving force while smoothly sidelining the social stigma associated with the subject as a mere hindrance.
Tanay: Such colors, such colors. When you breathe out, I see red and yellow flashes in front of my eyes. When we’re in the bath together, surrounded by a surfeit of steam, it’s a misty blue. When the sun is shining and we look at each other from a distance, and we smile, it’s white, a shining white. If I’m talking to someone and mention you, my face changes, it’s a dark blue. Dark brown when I call out to you; peaceful green when you call out to me.
Doesn’t that just take your breath away, that sort of desire for another?
Then there’s his voice on the matter of acceptance:
“What do two men who decide to live together do? Men like you and me? Those who don’t want children? Those who don’t have the old to look after or the young to raise? No one would visit us because we’d be living together as social outcasts. For most of the day, we would do what we liked.”
That’s the Indian thing right, patriarchy dictates that men shoulder the responsibility of their parents. Can we ever imagine a future where gay or lesbian couples are accepted and given the token responsibilities of dealing with in-laws and children and all the other hoop-la that goes hand-in-hand with the marriage deal? With so many still hiding in closets, it seems like we have such a long way to go.
The thing is, I realized something about myself. As open minded as I believe myself to be, I was still surprised at the junctures where Tanay describes his intimacy and insecurity with his partner. Why was I expecting gay love to be a different sensation from straight love? Isn’t love, love? Just because they have big struggles, should we expect them not to care about the small ones? For instance when he’s angry with his partner and thinks- “I hate the kind of person who keeps his options open until the last moment. It makes me angry. “; that basic irritation that grows so unreasonably into resentment is a trademark of every relationship.
When the book switched to Anuja, I did not share the same depth of attachment to her. The writing voice shifts and is less descriptive and poetic to portray a more pragmatic personality. She returns after having her heart broken by him and starts writing as a form of release. Her words show her transition out of depression, flitting between the past and present smoothly. Her journey is more about finding a way to un-muddle her life and pick a path for the future. As a girl in a conservative family, she has to manage a different set of expectations- to be demure, domestic and obedient.
Anuja: Once you start living together and you see the same person day in and day out, you begin to wonder: was it for this I struggled and toiled? Did he feel that way? If he didn’t, then why did he put his mattress on the floor?
We only see the paying guest from their eyes. Even though both of them see and love him differently, there are a set of common mannerisms and habits that tie the two stories together. How he sleeps on the floor when he is upset, sings to avoid conversation, paints both of them and of course the smear of cobalt blue that both Tanay and Anuja associate with him. And there-in lies the author’s magic.
My favorite aspect of this book is the author’s attempt to challenge the Indian man and woman stereotype. Anuja is bright, fearless and decisive. Although she makes bad decisions, there is a resolve within her to take control of her life. In Tanay we see a docile individual who yearns to define himself through his relationships. Perhaps that is why he is left more lost after his lover leaves with Anuja. This reversal of the expected emotional strength of both the sexes is admirable, whether it was intended or not.
I’m going to close with another quote by Tanay. Kundalkar makes a powerful statement in the most subtle manner. For all that I harp on about how hard a woman’s life is in today’s world, this opened me up to the reality that being a man isn’t any easier when there is so much to bear.
“From then on, right up to this day, I fear that I walk funny, in other words, that I walk like a woman. When I find myself walking at my own pace, I almost immediately slow down. And I learned what men do not do. They do not wet their dry lips by running their tongues over them. They don’t trot after their mothers into the kitchen. They don’t use face powder. They don’t sit on a motorbike behind a woman. They don’t need mirrors in the rooms where they might change their clothes. On trips, they can go behind a tree. They don’t even need an enclosed space to take a dump; they can do it in the open. They shouldn’t be afraid of other people seeing their bodies. If there’s only one bathroom, they can bathe in the open. When caned in class, they do not cry. They do not buy tamarind from the lady who sells it on the road and they certainly do not sit by her side and eat it.”