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.