Translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha. Illustration by Soraya Gilanni Viljoen.
If, confined by three or four days of constant, torrential rain, someone were to discover Jack Kerouac beneath the pillow, Milan Kundera and Sylvia Plath on a chair in the veranda, the poet Jibanananda Das on the water-filter, and Salvador Dali and James Joyce when chasing a rat into the larder, and if, on top of all this, that someone were to be a Bengali writer, especially a woman writer, would the awakening of her reckless impulse to write a novel like Panty not seem as natural as the stormy winds that accompany rain?
It was probably just such a thing that happened to me in 2004. Even if this is not entirely true, it certainly created a provocation, although I was not aware of the provocation at the time. Yes, I choose the word ‘provocation’ deliberately, for the word ‘inspiration’ is not applicable in this case. Whatever it is that inspiration might enable, it does not teach you to take a huge risk, to leap into the unknown without thinking of the consequences. Inspiration is a civilised thing. Whereas provocation clearly wants me to plunge into a ravine.
So 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. Although he has never told me this, I know for a fact that he has also had to face criticism and censure. All of which makes me conclude that the treasure trove of Bengali literature, already replete with many gems, would not have been particularly diminished had I not written this novel, but maybe my life would have been more peaceful.
But I was driven at the time by an obsession to create something new in terms of content and form. A woman cornered or pushed into voluntary exile in the process of analysing all the vulnerabilities in her life gradually realises that her life is neither a woman’s nor a man’s, even as her circular journey takes her towards independence from mere feelings, and, gradually, into a freedom where being in love with someone is the only thing that seeks an identity, while there is no identity crisis involved in the other struggles of life, in sensuality, in an awareness of the divine, or in death. It was to write this truth that I began to seek a minimalist form.
At this point just one particular image kept returning to me – that of a young woman arriving at a rundown apartment to stay for a few days, and discovering a tiger-print panty. This image provoked me to write about her, but it was mute, unable to express itself. Subsequently it occurred to me that it’s because we don’t understand life fully that we have to resort to surrealism. This world, this universe, our suffering and our agony – none of it is beyond the reach of explanation. But we can seldom travel the distance.
It also dawned on me later that I wrote Panty while caught in a passion for symbolic writing, in order to recover from the fatigue of the linear narrative of a hundred thousand words about a familiar world which I had completed a few months earlier. To tell the truth, I now handed myself a rejection of that earlier novel. But I think that even though I wrote the novel, I shouldn’t have chosen this particular title. Because, to the majority of Bengali readers, a novel about gender politics, power, sexuality, sexualism, and the intensity and the sensations of sex, written while forsaking sexual political correctness, is nothing but pornography.
I don’t get it. People don’t read books out loud. Why are they so troubled by hardcore sex within the covers of a book? Why this discomfort? And if it’s written by a woman, everyone is shocked. Instead of wondering why she has written what she has, the predominant source of wonder in the soul is: ‘My god, so much sex? That means she knows all this. How could she have known? From practice, obviously. If she’s had so much sex she must be a whore.’
And so, a simple equation. She writes sex, she must be a whore. In a man, however, it’s a sign of genius. All these sexual realisations have come from the company of many women. And why should he not have that company? A woman will obviously go up to a talented male writer uninvited, right? What if he’s not an established writer? Even so. How is that possible? Because there’s something called adventure that a male is entitled to, after all. Men have always been judged for their qualities and women, by their character. Of course, this is not widely applicable to Western society anymore. This is our regional truth.
Panty was a form of automated writing. A declaration of war against writing thousands of pages of chewable pulp. I do not know whether it was successful. There’s no doubt that the book was read. People were disappointed after getting nothing in the novel to justify their secret reading of it. Strangers would ring me. ‘What next? Condom?’ These things still pursue me. I survive these days basically by concealing the writer in me. That one image is destroyed by two hundred forms of humiliation.