I’m so excited to write about this I don’t know where to start…
I went into London Book Reviews on my lunchbreak to get a copy of Island of Lost girls which has been recommended to me by many people but I just haven’t got around to getting it for some reason. Instead I bought Panty, on a whim, and I’m so glad I did!
Panty is originally written in Bengali by Sangeeta Bandhyopadhyay (SB) and has been translated into English by Arunava Sinha. SB is described as “the woman who reintroduced hardcore sexuality into Bengali literature” so I was both intrigued and bit wary of a mills and boonesque horror awaiting me. Instead, I was met with a no-nonsense portrayal of contemporary Indian society, which explores female sexuality as only one of its themes. Among other things Panty deals with issues of nationhood, religion and questions what it means to be a feminist through a complicated relationship between the protagonist and her lover/boyfriend/partner? (we never find out).
It’s a very short book (121 pages) but it took me a good 4 days to read because each chapter was so different from the other that it took a while for me to digest. Each chapter is connected by but not exactly a continuation of the previous. The erotic, or more correctly, the sensual, is an interwoven part of the other themes explored. In short, if this book were an object it would be a patchwork quilt of emotions sown together with the thread of sensuality and love/lust. So I thought I would highlight some themes that stood out to me from the initial reading:
Fifty Shades and Co. should sit up and take notes. I hated fifty shades because 1. the hype around it was unnecessary and more importantly 2. it was so apologetic about female sexuality and also tried hard to justify – what to me at times was – a non-consensual relationship with a male lead and his ‘mommy issues’. Anastasia’s character despite being the protagonist was cast entirely through the male gaze of a ‘sexy sheepish librarian’ stereotype (although of course women can also want to be sexy librarians etc. etc.). All this and more is why I disagree with people that pulled out the feminist banner for E.L James.
There is none of this wishy-washyness with SB’s bold and cutting writing which presents an unabashed female gaze.  B’s interpretation of sexuality blurs the line between love, lust, the physical and the emotional (as Sinha’s note on the Bengali concept of Mon explains below) and will definitely make you question your comfort zone.
I feel like a lot of talk around feminism has to do with declaring yourself to be a feminist – which is great because even in 2016 this needs to be reiteratedtill we dismantle the patriarchy for both men and women. However, there’s not enough discussion on how hard it is actually to live by the feminist principles we so boldly advocate. Apart from the oft quoted structural barriers there are those social (dare I say ideological?!) barriers that we can impose on our selves, from jobs we do, the things we buy and even to the relationships we seek out.
This is precisely what SB explores through her unnamed female protagonist and her messy relationship. It’s an unconventional and even disappointing love between two people that our protagonist is trying to figure out for herself. You vaguely get the sense that this is an illicit affair with a married or otherwise engaged man. It poses the question, how much of an independent woman are you really if your every move revolves around a relationship that is not even making you happy?
Religion, Otherness and social-inequality
Another short trippy chapter explores religion in contemporary India. Here our protagonist finds herself on a bus surrounded by religious men heading towards an unknown destination. I really connected with this because I worry about the hardline direction that so called ‘hindutva’ is introducing in India. I felt that this particular story highlighted how this increasing hardline trend is pushing out not only ethnic and religious minorities but also women from public spaces.
Panty also explores poverty in the urban metropolitan cities like Kolkatta. Unlike other romantic or self-orientalist versions of India, SB explores problems with its urban poor in a very constructive way. I like the way that she doesn’t go into any flowery language to describe the rich/poor juxtaposition that is rife in metropolitan Indian cities (or anywhere n the world really…). There is no sympathy, rather there is a conversation that is happening through our heroine’s encounters with the street dwellers outside her high rise Kolkatta apartment.
To me, Panty is a great blueprint for the kind of conversations we should be having in coffee shops, in our living rooms, on whatsapp etc. about the state of our feminisms, social-inequality in the urban cities, modern loneliness and much more. Basically, I feel like she is saying I don’t have the answers but here are the right questions, now own it and get on with it!
A bit of context:
Panty, written by Sangeeta Bandhopadhyay in Bengali and had been translated by Arunava Sinha. This particular copy is printed by Tilted Axis Press, a new not-for-profit publisher based in South London. Their mission is to tilt “the axis of world literature from the centre to the margins allowing us to challenge that very division.”I think they’ve got off to a great start! I would really recommend checking out their website, I’ve already pre-ordered their next book! http://www.tiltedaxispress.com/
 Laura Mulvey’s psychoanalytic film theory points out that the female character/body in most narratives are constructed through and for the ‘male gaze’ or the heterosexual man’s pleasure . While this point is valid it doesn’t leave much space for female agency or the possibility of expressing a female sexuality or gaze.
 To name one in a million, the gender pay gap in UK today is 18%, which widens for women with children! https://www.theguardian.com/money/2016/aug/23/gender-pay-gap-average-18-per-cent-less-uk-women