August is Women in Translation Month (#WITmonth), so I’ll only review books by women in translation.
A woman steps into an apartment in Kolkata. It’s nighttime, and none of the light switches work. She finds a mirror, but when she touches her hair her reflection does not replicate the gesture. She showers, and as she’s showering she can hear a phone ringing. The next morning, she finds a stained, abandoned pair of women’s leopard-print underwear at the bottom of a wardrobe. And later that day, a menstrual emergency forces her to replace her own underwear with the leopard-print pair. But as she slips it on, she also steps into the previous owner’s life and mind. The rest of the novella switches between the two women, mixing dreams and childhood memories, strange adventures and sexual encounters, thoughts and body parts.
Panty is the sort of book that presents readers with one mystery after the next, inviting us to read it over and over again in order to “solve” it. Why are the chapter numbers not in the correct order, and why are some numbers missing? When are we reading about the underwear’s previous owner, and when are we reading about its current wearer? What does it mean that religion is “a memory of the dream of past lives”? Why did the translator leave a brief note at the beginning calling attention to the South Asian concept of mon, which includes both “heart” and “mind”? What is the relationship, if any, between Panty and the short story included at the end of the book, Sahana, or Samim, about a woman’s complex relationship with a husband who is both a devout Muslim and violently repulsed by the eating of fish?
I myself have now read this book twice–the second time with a pencil and a notebook, noting down, for each chapter, its assigned number and a short summary of its contents (turns out, the numbers the chapters have been assigned don’t seem to have anything to do with chronological order). Towards the end of my second read, though, I realised that I don’t actually need to “solve” it in order to enjoy it. There are definitely things I didn’t get in either of my reads, but both times I still found the experience unique, weird, inspiring, disturbing, beautiful.
It helps that, more than most prose books I’ve read recently, Panty is like a poem, rich in vivid, memorable images. And yet, at the same time, it’s firmly grounded in the sometimes gross but always compelling reality of human bodies: it contains talk of surgeries, and lice, and periods, and horrible accidents, and itchy nipples, and sex of course, though in a fairly broad understanding of the term (there are probably only one or two actual descriptions of intercourse; the rest of the time there are fantasies, distracted phone sex, strange hallucinations, and so on). Often, the novel’s lyricism combines with its obsession with bodies to produce some of its more startling imagery: an impotent man’s limp member is compared to “a rotten, shrivelled jackfruit that had fallen to the ground”; one of the two women prays, in a dream, “for every growing girl to sprout a tender green penis”.
Panty is for readers who are feeling bold and adventurous, who are unafraid of reading something whose meaning is not immediately obvious, who are unafraid of reading about bodies in all their beauty and repulsiveness and fragility, who want to read something unlike anything else they’ve ever read. And it’s only slightly over 100 pages!
And if you read and enjoy Panty, Bandyopadhyay’s new book is coming out in October, also translated by Arunava Sinha. It’s called Abandon, and it looks equally excellent. Also–shoutout to Notchaitea, whose own review of Panty (which is very different from mine in style and content, and which I recommend) persuaded me to read it. In fact, you should check out her whole blog.