Panty By Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay

Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay is a Kolkata-based Bengali author, columnist and film critic with nine novels and over fifty short stories to her name. Any google search will spit out at least a dozen reoccurrences of the phrase: “credited with reintroducing hardcore sexuality to Bengali literature”. If you’ve already read Panty, you might be a little confused about what’s hardcore about it. I was. And then I read her account of the reception this discomfiting novella received in her own country back in 2006:
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“I succumbed to a provocation in writing Panty, and it was undoubtedly a serious mistake. For this novel not only maligned me, it also played havoc with my son’s school-life and destroyed the reputation that my publisher Ananda Publishers had acquired over the years.

It made me face numerous questions, it brought me into disgrace. Nor was it particularly pleasant for Arunava, who translated the novel into English.”

I was far too used to rolling my eyes out at Fifty Shades of Grey and the huge disservice it has done to conversations on female sexuality and / or decent writing to even begin to imagine how Panty might be controversial. Bandyopadhyay’s frank account of the stigma of writing highbrow, not-particularly-hardcore erotica in India has opened my eyes. Author: Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay

Female sexuality is only one aspect of Panty, but acknowledging it alone seems to have created a storm. Now that I think about it, there aren’t many Western novellas that start with the protagonist getting her period. (We seem to be still at the stage where “icky” girl bodily functions can’t even be mentioned in a novel’s title. See the recent re-branding for the UK market of Kopano Matlwa’s beautiful South African novel “Period Pain”).

Panty’s unnamed narrator finds herself in a bind when she checks into a dark, deserted Kolkata apartment and needs a change of underwear. She has travelled alone and with no baggage other than the emotional variety. She finds a leopard-print panty in the closet and puts it on, thus slipping into the life and desires of this woman who may or may not have been her current lover’s ex.

There are moments of intense voyeurism and fantasy, but not of the titillating variety. Instead, there is a complex blend of sexuality and women’s agency, social issues and meditations on a failed relationship – whether with her lover or her country or both.

The chapter numbers are scrambled, matching the feverish tone of the narration. The protagonist is alone and waiting for an unspecified procedure in the big empty apartment among the sprawl of Kolkata. She is haunted by the specter of a relationship with a man (inferred to be an affair). She watches a homeless family with young children who sleeps on the pavement in front of her high rise building. She becomes fascinated with their little girl. In a passage that resonated profoundly with me, she rides a bus full of religious men heading towards an unknown destination.

“The blood in her veins had been quickened by the fact that she was the sole representative of her faith on this bus—much more so than by her being the sole woman. Was her religion then a stronger and more primal factor than her womanhood?”

Some of the strands of the story worked better for me than others and, inevitable for any experience as personal as reading, your reading experience might differ greatly. However, it will not be difficult to agree on Arunava Sinha’s translation, which is consistent and engaging. Perhaps the most interesting item in my personal “This worked” column for this book is the concept of mōn in the novella’s intro as explained by Sinha. The language is fluid and tender, hitting all the right notes of Bandyopadhyay’s bold voice.

Panty by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay. Translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha

Published by Tilted Axis Press / 122 pages

Sofia Fara is an International Fiction Blogger and novelist.

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Panty By Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay