An unnamed woman enters a flat she has fled to (without clothes or belongings). We do not know why she is there or where she has come from. She asks the man who owns the flat (her lover?), “How long am I allowed to stay in this flat?” He comes and goes, dropping her off, phoning. She has no plans, though surgery, which she may or may not have, is mentioned. On her first night she finds a “crumpled panty”:
“Imported. Soft. Leopard print. At once I wanted to know who the owner was.”
Later, without clothes of her own to change into, she wears it:
“What I did not know was that I had actually stepped into a woman.
I slipped into her womanhood.
Her sexuality, her love.
I slipped into her desire, her sinful adultery, her humiliation and sorrow, her shame and loathing.”
This is not a novel, however, about a transformative piece of clothing, instead it is about the many facets of womanhood, a theme reflected in the novel’s unusual style. A series of disconnected chapters – those disconnections emphasised by seemingly random chapter numbers – tell the woman’s story, some clearly referring to the same character, but others allowing for the possibility that this is about more than one woman. Even the manner of their telling changes: opening in the first person, the second and third person are also freely used. The reader is often cast in the role of lover via the use of ‘you’ though the woman may be ‘I’ or ‘she’:
“She fell silent. You said, ‘Hello? Hello?’ a couple of times then hung up.”
“Your breath against my face was impossibly heavy. My whole body throbbed.”
This prevents the novel being about one woman’s experience (though it may be) and reflects instead the experience of women. The novel’s exploration of sexuality created problems for both Bandyopadhyay and her translator Arunva Sinha in their native India. It demonstrates the sexual exploitation of women in a dream of childhood when the woman is shown pornographic pictures by a man:
“The man had pursued her ever since clutching the book with the green cover.”
Later, when a similar scene is re-enacted by dogs – “Chasing for pure sex. Only sex. Nothing else.” – the woman feels only desire. Her desire, however, is shown to be in conflict with her role as mother in a horrifying story she tells of her son burning to death “on an afternoon when I was far away, lying beneath a man I barely knew.” Trapped in the house, he phones her:
“He was coughing, choking. But I could still hear the hurt in his voice as he asked, ‘Why did you go away, Maa, why did you leave me?’”
This perhaps explains her flight, and the attention she pays to a homeless family she observes from her balcony, often taking the child food:
“At such times I long to take her away, to teach her to read and write. To give her a full meal. To give her brushes and paints.”
In the bedroom of the flat, one wall is painted dark brown, but beneath the paint the woman can see a couple making love:
“I had opened my eyes at the sounds of passion and felt afraid – who were these people in the bedroom! But they weren’t in the room – they were in the wall. The one which was painted dark brown.”
Later we learn this was painted by the owner of the leopard skin panty – the woman whose suicide is described at one point? – raising the possibility that some of the previous chapters are hers, or that it doesn’t, in fact, matter:
“I couldn’t picture myself at your side. Instead, I found her taking my place… Then I couldn’t tell whether it was I who said it or she, ‘We will be married one day…’”
Panty is a fascinating novel: like a jigsaw the reader must piece it together, but I suspect every reader’s, and every reading’s, finished picture will be different.