Archive for the ‘Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’ Category

The Yogini

August 5, 2019

“I am no one, fate is everything,” Homi, the central character in Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’s The Yogini (translated by Arunava Sinha), tells us in a three-page prologue, ‘Returned to her senses for the first time’, opening Bandyopadhyay’s latest novel with the unsettling intensity typical of her previous works, Panty and Abandon:

“There is no such thing as free will here. No fundamental independence.”

Yet The Yogini initially strikes a different note despite falling in between the two previous translations from Tilted Axis Press in its original publication. The women in both Panty and Abandon begin with nothing, struggling for survival in difficult circumstances. Homi, on the other hand, has everything – a postgraduate degree in English, a job in the media, and a loving husband, Lalit. In fact the novel settles into something almost conventional, even going as far as to include a Jane Austenesque portrait of Homi’s mother, who complains of her other daughter, Homi’s half-sister, “She goes abroad on shopping sprees at the drop of a hat, but everything she buys is for herself,” and, when her husband falls seriously ill, worries that he will return home an invalid:

“The thing is, Lalit, I need my afternoon nap. How can I have a cripple disturbing me?”

Tensions also exist within Homi and Lalit’s relationship as Lalit accuses her of a more subtle form of selfishness, an emotional withholding:

“People like you only want to take, Khuku, you don’t know how to give.”

Only later does Homi realise what Lalit means when he ends a phone call abruptly after telling her he is staying with his family:

“…it occurred to Homi that the way he had treated her just them was exactly how she had treated him for the last year and a half.”

What prevents the first half of the novel being simply social satire is the appearance of a mysterious figure seen only by Homi:

“He looked fearsome, his matted locks and beard framing his face like a spider. His eyes blazed and his body gave off a mild stench.”

The hermit identifies himself as Homi’s ‘fate’, and Homi finds herself both repulsed and attracted, feelings which Bandyopadhyay characterises sexually. After their first meeting her body feels “violated” but later, when she is making love to Lalit, “she shocked herself with the realisation that she had subconsciously been seeking something else – a much larger head, one with matted locks and a necklace of beads round its neck.” Later still she finds her “body caught fire at his touch.” The idea of fate quickly becomes the dominant theme of the novel – Bandyopadhyay has said in interview, “Our real battle is with predilection and destiny.” It influences Homi’s view of herself and her behaviour, acting with Lalit “like a marionette” and “like a solider under orders.”

“She realised that the word ‘fate’ was gathering in her heart like unshed tears, gnawing away at her.”

The novel, and Homi’s, turning point occurs when she seeks out a palmist, who describes her as “someone whose life is influenced by no one else”;

“You consider no one close or distant, good or evil. You love no one, but nor do you respect or hate them.”

From this point on Homi’s life begins to change, at first gradually but later dramatically. Bandyopadhyay slowly dismantles the trappings of the conventional novel as Homi experiences what can only be described as a spiritual crisis which will lead us to an ending far from the romcom echoes of the opening.

Reading The Yogini I was unexpectedly reminded of the 19th century Scottish novel, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. This was not only because it, too, is very much concerned with fate (or predestination) versus free will, but because it also contains a character, Gil-Martin, who may be a supernatural manifestation or a delusion – something Homi considers when she first sees the hermit (“Homi had classified the previous night’s frightening incident as largely imagined.”) However, where Gil-Martin seems intent only on damning Wringham, it is feasible that the hermit is saving Homi. Though she seems to have lost everything by the end of the novel, she inadvertently admitted to Lalit in the opening pages that, “I don’t want this kind of life.”

‘Yogini’ is, of course, a female noun and cannot be applied to the hermit, real or imagined. It could refer to Bibirani, a spiritual teacher whom Homi meets towards the end of the novel, but it may be intended to describe Homi herself. It would, perhaps, explain why the hermit calls her ‘Empress’, and allows us to reinterpret her journey as one towards enlightenment where she is able to give herself to fate entirely:

“She had thought her fate was stalking her, but now she wondered whether it wasn’t the other way round.”

That this remains only one possible interpretation suggests the pleasurable complexity of this wonderful author.

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Abandon

October 19, 2017

Abandon is the second of Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’s novels to be translated into English by Arunava Sinha following Panty last year. Once again Bandyopadhyay seeks to explore the experience of Indian women with a rawness and honesty which is only matched by the skill and awareness with which she constructs the novel. It tells the story of a mother and child, Ishwari and Roo, seeking first refuge and then survival while on the run from Roo’s father’s family. Ishwari, having given Roo up as a young child, finds herself unable to live without seeing him:

“Countless days and nights without Roo in them haunted her like an unforgiving famine… Ishwari had become insane with need for her son.”

Despite this she is also aware that Roo will make her life more difficult:

“Why did you come away with me like this? All I wanted was a glimpse of you. Why did you run away with me without telling anyone? There is no room for me to live with you anywhere in your first city, or my second city, or this third city.”

The novel carefully balances her love for her son with the frustrations of trying to care for him without any support and very little money. Luckily they are taken in by a boarding house thanks to the kindness of the caretaker, Gourohori Babu, who lets them stay in an attic room. Babu will be the first of a handful of characters who will show Ishawari kindness, though perhaps the only one who does not hope to receive something in return. At first Ishwari is only guaranteed one night’s shelter, but she manages to convince the owner of the hotel to let her stay longer. She is also able to find employment, but struggles to keep it as Roo falls ill. Her second job lasts only five days:

“On the fifth day of work… Roo fell severely ill. For three out of the five days Roo had been locked in the room from nine in the morning to seven in the evening…. Gourohori stayed by his side on the fifth day – that night Roo began to burn with a high fever.”

The novel, then, tells of the struggle for survival of a lone mother and child in a society with no safety net – but Bandyopadhyay has a greater ambition than simply to move us by describing Ashwari’sand Roo’s suiffering. Early in the novel she introduces a symbiosis between author and character:

“My famished love showers blessings on him [Roo] and my feelings are reflected on my face. I can see my expression in a non-existent mirror. A mirror that reflects Ishwari back at me all the time, an Ishawari continually slipping off her point of equilibrium. To make room for a narrative combining me, Ishwari, this novel and Roo, the mirror lets me hear Ishwari answer Roo as she winds up the car window.”

Bandyopadhyay reflects this relationship in the narrative’s drift between first and third person. The relationship itself is complex: partly it is created as she imaginatively inhabits her character, but also more literally she is, in part, her character. This is true of all writers but it strikes me that Bandyopadhyay is pre-empting the assumption that women’s writing, particularly when outside ‘Western’ literature and dealing with poverty, is autobiographical. At times she identifies points where their stories cross over:

“I abandoned domestic life, left my child to arrive at a distant land to write a novel.”

It is noticeable that this frequently happens when she draws attention to her art, and the novel takes on a self-conscious aspect from the first page:

“The taxi begins to move, and with our desperate attempts to seek shelter for the night, a novel begins.”

“One day,” she says later, “this novel will stop joy in its tracks and throttle it.” It is a “predatory novel.” Bandyopadhyay is not simply adding a post-modern gloss to her work; she is making clear that the novel is not simply an emotional outpouring. She is also identifying a danger within the genre in which she is writing (novels which describe the suffering of the poor) by alluding to the pleasure readers may get from indulging in the misery of others:

“…to the reader of this novel, I’m sure, all kinds of humiliation faced by humans, by the hungry, by the afflicted, by the beggar, by the injured are effective. The more meticulous the description of this humiliation by the writer or poet or painter, the more successful they are, the more triumphant their art. The more the reader is bruised and upset after entering the novel, the more she considers the reading of it profitable.”

Bandyopadhyay will continue to bruise the reader throughout, and all these aspects will contribute to a powerful ending which affirms in way the reader may not like or expect. It is exactly this, however, that marks Bandyopadhyay out as a novelist of great craft and skill as well emotional depth and honesty.

Panty

August 16, 2016

panty

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.”

WITmonth

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.