Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay - Exposing our darkest desires and deepest fears when it comes to love, the effect of Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’s ferocious storytelling is deliciously anarchic and deeply unsettling

Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, Panty, Trans. by Arunava Sinha, Penguin Books India, 2014.

'Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay (has) both fascinated and shocked readers of Bengali fiction' - Indian Express.

Darkly glamorous and fiercely erotic heroines take the centre stage in these two novellas. In Panty, when a mysterious young woman arrives in Calcutta and moves into a guesthouse, she finds in an otherwise empty wardrobe a soft and silky panty in leopard-skin print. She thinks the woman who wore it must have possessed a wild sexual nature. A sensation of companionship envelops her; the sexual lives of the two women begin to mingle and blur.
In Hypnosis, another young woman—a TV journalist on perpetual night duty—has an unconsummated but passionate affair with a famous musician that leaves her shattered. In a nightmarish sequence of events that follow, she allows herself to be hypnotized and drugged to aid her search for love. 
Exposing our darkest desires and deepest fears when it comes to love, the effect of Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’s ferocious storytelling is deliciously anarchic and deeply unsettling.

The title novella came out in 2006 in the puja issue of Desh, the Bengali literary magazine. The buzz was that it made rea­ders gasp—especially the patriarchy that formed the core of the Bengali literati. The 31-year-old Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay had reintroduced hardcore sexuality to Bengali literature. Given Bengali sensibilities, there was every cha­nce that the novella would be branded a gimmick and, for a while, it was. But now, Bengalis are making and watching films like Obhishopto Nightie (Cursed Nightie), and the form Bandyopadhyay introduced is largely accepted. English rea­ders had no access to the stories till Arunava Sinha translated Panty and Hypnosis.
Where English is concerned, erotica and sex-starved women are less rare. How­ever, Bandyopadhyay’s stories have a manic energy, knickers with leopard spots and all. Illona Kuhu Mitra, for exa­mple, the lush heroine of the first story, is never described, except through her lon­gings for sex. Kuhu, her middle name, is the shrill scream of the koel in early spr­ing, a scream described by classical Ind­ian poets as a call for mating. Kuhu dre­ams, but isn’t sure what a dream is, or what reality is made of. Like Bandyopadhyay, she is a journalist, can’t bear working during the day and prefers to work at night when no one is about, driving back in early morning, on the edge of danger. Megh, a musician, comes into her life in between her musings about the past and the present and her trysts with hypnotherapy. But is what happens bet­ween him and her real, or part of a dream?
Panty, too, flits between dream and rea­lity—with the discovery of a pair of leopard spot-printed panties in an otherwise deserted apartment. The nameless heroine is taking refuge there before an unnamed surgery. Her thoughts weave between physicality and the starving  pavement-dwellers on the street below.
Kolkata, not Calcutta, is the world these women inhabit, interspersed with conversations with maids and brief encounters with irate relatives or ex-husbands in clubs—the stuff that comprises bourgeois Bengali household lives. The mundane offset by flashes of intensity, the internal burning that expresses itself in outbreaks of sex like flash fires or buildings on fire. Both stories have outbreaks of arson in multi-storeyed buildings—the Stephen Court conflagration in one and the destruction of a six-storey building and the death of a child in the other.
The novellas breathe no longings of the Fifty Shades of Grey type and Bandyo­padhyay does not venture into Anais Nin territory either. Her world is hard and down to earth, it has no space for mincing uses of four-letter anatomical slangs. Sinha’s translation captures this. Of the two stories, Panty is the more complica­ted, since it flits back and forth between different states of consciousness. In its final stages, the chapter numbering also jumps like an insane digital clock with no apparent logic of sequence. - Anjana Basu

I had a lot of eyes staring at the cover of this book as I was reading it, and me being me, I could not care less. That is all there is to it in our society I think. A word or a picture that titillates to get people to stare and perhaps even pass judgment. “Panty” also did that in a quiet way and I knew I would get the stares as I would remove it from my bag in public and read it with great delight and joy. To me the book was all about shedding inhibitions and being the person you are – or rather trying to find who you are.
“Panty” by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay is a collection of two novellas – Hypnosis and Panty and each of them is all about love, longing and sexual desire that runs deeper than we know or care to admit. The two novellas shook me for a long time after I finished the book. It was not like the way I felt when I finished reading “Abandon” by the same author, but it was bittersweet and I loved the feeling that came over me. I cannot explain it but I will try – the feeling of melancholy, of utter hopelessness and yet so much hope and positivity lined with it. That is what great books do to you.
Hypnosis is about a woman trying to reach into her past, to confront her doomed love affair with a well-known musician by undergoing hypnosis. In Panty, we meet a woman who has moved into a guest house and finds a panty there – it is soft and silky in leopard-skin print (this is the cover of the book – though it is not soft or silky as I would have liked it to be). She starts imagining the life of the woman who must have worn it and suddenly their lives intermingle and reality blurs from fiction.
Bandyopadhyay’s voice is bold. It is unique. It is also raw. It is also a whole lot of other adjectives that people might use for it, but for me it was just honest. It comes from a place that does not believe in hiding. The writing makes you keep turning the pages for sure, but it also makes you pause and think about life in general and also about it – when it falls in love, when it is lusting for a body and when it wants to be consumed, no matter what. I think the book stops being about gender and just is about human experiences.
Arunava Sinha’s translation only makes it possible for readers in English to experience this rich and almost lush piece of Bengali literature. It is for such translations and more, that publishers should take more efforts in bringing this to readers the world over. “Panty” is a book which should be read without fear of being judged or being made fun of. It is most beautiful and stupendous work of Indian literature I have come across in recent times. - The Hungry Reader

The panty, in the title of this collection of two novellas by Bengali writer Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, translated into English by Arunava Sinha, is a discarded leopard-skin print undergarment, silky and sensuous, most probably imported, but musty and stained. It is discovered by the unnamed protagonist of Panty, the second novella, inside a wardrobe in the empty apartment in Kolkata she checks into after arriving in the city late one evening.
The purpose of her visit, it appears, is to nurse in solitude a disease that is killing her gradually. It is a malady as much of the body as of the spirit. In the course of her angst-ridden interior monologue, we also learn that the house she is living in belongs to her lover, who is unwilling to acknowledge the truth of their relationship in public, though happy to be a distant caregiver, a gatekeeper between life and death.
When she puts on the panty one night, forced by circumstances, she finds herself slipping into its previous owner’s psyche, and being particularly possessed by her wild sexuality. The panty, she discovers, belonged to a woman who once loved the same man she is now attached to—and was destroyed by him. What follows is the kind of nightmare one usually encounters in French novels of a certain vintage, by Alain Robbe-Grillet for instance, where every certainty has an equal and opposite uncertainty. It becomes banal, even redundant, for the reader to worry about truth and untruth, real and surreal, love and lust, for none of these can exist in isolation.
When it was first published in 2006, Panty created a stir for its strikingly candid exploration of female sexuality, though it is far from unique in the history of Bengali literature. Taslima Nasreen, and the late Mallika Sengupta, Bandyopadhyay’s well-known contemporaries, wrote about desire and pleasure in a boldly realist mode. The women in their stories and poems are unafraid to confess their longings, act out their fantasies, and admit their attraction to men (or to women, as the case may be) with whom any attempt at forming a relationship is bound to be doomed—and perhaps impossible to resist for that reason.

But if Nasreen is almost always self-consciously ironic, even acerbic, when writing about the cruelties of love, Bandyopadhyay allows the emotional energy of her prose to attain a feverish pitch at times. In Bengali, her style has a near-hysterical, even melodramatic, quality that may often seem gratuitously shocking. In Sinha’s elegant translation, however, the stories are shorn of their excesses—well, almost—and transformed into sharp vignettes of poetic observations on life and love, though mostly on their unpleasant aspects.
Panty: Translated by Arunava Sinha, Hamish Hamilton260 pages499
In Hypnosis, certainly the stronger of the two novellas, Ilona Kuhu Mitra is a lonely woman who has ended her marriage to a wealthy Marwari after realizing she had chosen him only for mercenary reasons. A media professional, Ilona works night shifts, lives next door to her overprotective brother and sister-in-law, and drives around the vast empty nocturnal streets of Kolkata in her car. She also smokes a good deal, and occasionally discusses her sex life, or the lack of it, with her friends over a few beers. The monotony of this secure, upper-middle-class existence is shaken when she runs into celebrity musician Meghdoot Roy at her office one day and embarks on—or so it would seem—an affair that has her seeking help from a Tibetan hypnotherapist.
Like film-maker Alain Resnais’ cult classic, Last Year At Marienbad, based on a screenplay by Robbe-Grillet, Hypnosis is an ode to uncertainty. “In real terms”, the refrain in Bandyopadhyay’s story goes, “there was never anyone named Meghdoot in Ilona Kuhu Mitra’s life”. And yet, this claim is insistently opposed by episodes of intimacy between the two, confounding the reader as much as poor Ilona. There is, even in the end, no assurance of what exactly transpires in the plot, though we are made aware of the many traumas—past, present and future—that riddle Ilona’s life. It is only by putting together these fragments of information, much as we would with the pieces of a half-remembered dream, that we can begin to anticipate the shape of the narrative Bandyopadhyay withholds from us.
If there is a keen satisfaction in putting together this jigsaw puzzle, there is also a perverse pleasure in being reminded of the indignities that love forces upon us, the impediments we impose in our own paths of fulfilment, and the knowledge “that there were always two participants in a love affair—one strong and the other weak”. - Somak Ghoshal

A revolution is brewing — women are writing about sex, openly and exultantly. Bishakha De Sarkar and Dola Mitra report
Telling all: Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay caused quite a tizzy in Bengali society
Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay on being an author who could not avoid writing about sex
“I slipped on the panty. What I did not know was that I actually slipped on a woman. I actually slipped on her womanhood. I slipped on her sexuality, her love,” writes Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay in Panty. Translated into English from Bengali by Arunava Sinha, the book combines two of her previously published novellas, Panty and Hypnosis in a brand new avatar. Her stories, which have offended people in the past are now included in the canon of contemporary Bengali literature.
Bandyopadhyay speaks about her perception of sexual aesthetics and gender politics. Excerpts from the interview:
How difficult was it for you, as an author of erotica, to present fantasies strictly as fantasies?
I believe in the power of fantasy, but there is no such thing as ‘strictly fantasy’ because we are driven by our desires and desires are purely mirrored in our fantasies. Fantasies have tales to tell, which fortunately or unfortunately largely connect to mainstream life. We need the support of reality even for the strangest level of fantasy. When I write about fantasy, I focus on the pain of not experiencing it. Therefore, for a writer, fantasy resembles naive-realism. I don’t even consider myself to be an author of erotica. I am just an author who could not avoid writing about sex.
How did you deal with the criticism that Panty received?
Panty was published in Sharadiya Desh, one of the most prestigious Bengali magazines, in 2006. Even during those days the story was shocking for open-minded Bengali readers who were supposed to have had a lot of exposure to world literature. I faced huge criticism. People said to name a novel Panty was nothing but a gimmick. That graphic description of sex was a cheap way to sell books. But I paid no heed. I was only 31 and was too engrossed in writing about new ideas at the time.
Do you compare your works with contemporary Bengali fiction?
I started getting positive reviews a few years after my initial books — Sankhini and Panty — were published. People began looking at my books as one of the important postmodern novels in Bengali literature. I found out that comparative literature and women studies department of a university uses Panty as a reference of contemporary Bengali literature and young students are reading it and talking about it.
How much does your own sexuality come into play when you write a story?

My sexuality is insignificant in my writings. But I have my own philosophy on sex. I have my own understanding of sexual aesthetics, gender politics, love, and relationships. These ideas influence me when I write.
What do you make of the impact of Fifty Shades of Grey ?
The metaphysical part of Fifty Shades of Grey and Panty might be similar as both belong to the erotica genre, but I think they cannot be compared. To me, the former is more like a modern fairytale, with bits of 21st century western complexity and with BDSM. But our Indian society is far from accepting Fifty Shades of Grey as real. It has only been a few decades since our women have started experiencing freedom from patriarchal ways, so when it comes to sexual freedom, they are still not as tired as women from the western world. - ARUNIMA MAZUMDAR


Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, Abandon, Harper Perennial, 2013.
A powerful novel about an artist mother and her child. I ran away from home and from the shackles of society, family and attachments. I just wanted I to live my life, write my novel, follow my passions. I didn't know that my five-year-old boy had followed me out, but with that realization, Ishwari emerged from within me: a mother, a woman with responsibilities, a woman who was ready to suppress her dreams to protect her son. My son - a child I do not want. Ishwari and Roo wandered the streets at night, looking for a place to stay. A kind old caretaker gave them an empty room on the terrace of a guest house. Ishwari found a job as caregiver to the handsome gentleman who lived next door, while Roo - her weak, invalid son - was locked up all day in the room on the roof. 'And I struggle to find my place in this dark novel. I yearn for passion and despair - for that is what makes good literature - while Ishwari seeks a life of joy for herself and her son. Pulsating with raw energy, Abandon gives voice to the perpetual conflict between life and art.