Panty by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay

2nd Jun 2016

Panty  by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay
A woman moves into a Kolkata apartment. She's alone and has brought no luggage. She's waiting for a surgery that may or may not go ahead, and often in pain.

On her first night in the city she finds a discarded pair of leopard print panties in the wardrobe, stained by their former owner, and begins to fantasise about this other woman, imagining a life that begins to overlap with her own.

Translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha, this is a disorienting, sensual yet sad and lonely novella. Its story has to be pieced together, and I’m still not sure whether the non-sequential chapter numbers are clues as to the order of events or a sign of character disintegration. Both seem possible.

The woman is from an unspecified elsewhere and unaccustomed to Kolkata. She watches a homeless family who live on her street as if they are a TV soap.

She seems to have nobody, except possibly the man whose apartment she is staying in, but whether he was real and if so who he was I was never able to pin down.

I picked it up. Imported. Soft. Leopard print. At once I wanted to know who the owner was. Many years ago I had found a blue bangle in a bedside drawer in a hotel room. When I took it in my hand it seemed to be dripping blue water. That day, too, I'd felt an urge to find out who the owner was.From another writer this might be a slow, thoughtful, cold tale. But Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay fills it with life, with disarming frankness about the woman’s body, her thoughts about sex, her longings and her reservations.

For such a short novella it truly packs a punch, leaving me feeling discomfited but moved. It is at times erotic, sometimes explicit, but it is too shadowy and obscured to be just that.

There is a background of complex social issues, from poverty to religion to Kashmir and terrorism, but these are just part of a life that is at this moment overwhelmed by something more private, though whether that is the surgery or something else is again never quite made clear.

“You said nothing. She was the one to break the silence. ‘I ran away. I escaped to the centre, inside the fire that rages at the circumference of life.’ ”

If you like stories with a clear beginning, middle and end, with no ambiguity, this is not for you. But if you are open to obfuscation, to outright bafflement even, it’s certainly worth giving this celebrated Bengali writer a try.

In this new edition from brand new publisher Tilted Axis Press, Panty is packaged with a short story by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, “Sahana, or Shamin”, which is uncomfortable in a very different way.

Again, a woman is at its centre, a woman struggling to be her true self while facing down centuries of religious rules and traditions. It is the most honest acknowledgment I have read of that personal conflict.