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Panty

She was walking. Along an almost silent lane in the city.

 

Work – she had abandoned her work a long time ago, to walk. The sky had just turned a happy black.

 

As she walked, she mulled over two words – ‘legitimate’ and ‘illicit’. The presumption that these words were innate opposites – how totally were individuals expected to acquiesce to this! And yet the illicit held the greatest attraction for all that was legitimate.

 

Once, in an urge to ascertain the meanings of ‘legitimate’ and ‘illicit’, she had wished for a space that was at once one of emptiness and of equilibrium, the kind of space that defied the laws of nature. She had searched for such a space, but never found it.

 

Having walked for hours, when she came to her senses she discovered herself in the lane she was in now. And saw that the place was unfamiliar.

 

The lane was narrow and deserted, with ramshackle houses on either side. The bricks were exposed in the crumbling walls. The windowpanes were broken, and dirty water dripped from the pipes. Sucking out all the life force from this water, a banyan sapling had begun to rear its head. There were three or four antennae on the roof of every house in this lane full of potholes and crevices. Thousands of crows sat on the antennas. So many crows that the city would turn dark if they were all to spread their wings simultaneously.

 

Only a handful of rickshaws rattled by, some pulled by hand, some with pedals. There was the odd passer-by, humming, cigarette tip glowing. A dog whined at the sight of one of them. She was about mid-way down the lane when it was abruptly plunged into impenetrable darkness. A power cut had swooped down like a black panther, gobbling up the lane. Everything was annihilated by the killer paw of darkness.

 

She couldn’t decide what to do. Carry on? Go back? Both options appeared equally futile. She sensed the blindness even within her consciousness.

 

Surprised by her awareness of the extreme silence all round, a strange touch against her lips caused her to jump out of her skin.

 

Someone’s lips descended on hers; on the lips alone. They didn’t touch her anywhere else, the rest of her remained untouched and absolutely free; in the utter darkness an unknown pair of lips kissed hers deeply. A mild pain of being bitten and mauled, the warmth, the saliva, and the fire of an unfamiliar ache spread across her lips as one.

 

A kiss! A kiss! A kiss! She felt the kiss right down to its roots. So this was a kiss? So this was a kiss, when it was detached from the rest of the body? When – completely dissociated from the heart, from the consciousness, from even the obstacle of knowledge – a pair of lips united with another? When it was the coming together only of two pairs of lips? An isolated union?

 

In that darkness, the disembodied lips filled her lips, her tongue and the fleshy cavity of her mouth with the taste of the kiss, and she stood erect, savouring this novel feeling. She was hooked. When the lips left her, ending the kiss, the first sensation that returned was of sound. She heard, in turn, the sound of metal being hammered, of bus wheels rotating, of anklets jingling in a nearby house. The street lamps snapped back on, and the movement of people resumed. A dog howled.

 

She wanted to cry. She stood there for a long time, pressing her fingers to her lips. All this time, she’d thought she knew what a kiss was. Just as she’d thought she knew what love was, what the body was, what art was. When in fact she had known none of these.

 

She resumed her slow walk to the bottom of the lane. And then, as she turned the corner onto the main road, the meaning of ‘illicit’ became clear to her.

 

She had returned to the same lane many times since then, always just as dusk descended. There she would stand still and wait for the lights to go out, for a kiss to swoop down on her.

 

*

 

I would have left. But the plants flourished so beautifully in the rains that I couldn’t bear to part from them. The very evening you told me to leave, I bought a casuarina with slender, shimmering leaves.

 

‘Did you really mean what you said?’ you asked.

 

I looked at the fountain. There was no one else on the veranda of the club. ‘Yes,’ I said.

 

You downed your vodka in a single gulp.

 

‘If that’s what you think,’ you said, ‘then promise me you’ll leave.’

 

I turned my gaze to you.

 

‘You’ll need a week or so to recover from your surgery, you can wait until after that.’

 

‘Yes,’ I said.

 

‘It’s a deal …’ You held out your hand.

 

‘It’s a deal,’ I repeated, extending my hand as well.

 

I found your hand excessively cold. Unable to accept my touch.

 

‘There’s no need to discuss it any further,’ you said.

 

‘Very well,’ I responded.

 

‘Come, let’s go.’ Taking the car keys from the table, you crossed the hall and headed towards the portico. I followed you. There was still quite a crowd in the hall. Many of them waved to us, bidding us good night. ‘Leaving?’ some asked. I nodded, smiling, at the familiar faces. ‘Staying or leaving are actually distinct decisions,’ I said to myself.

 

The word ‘decision’ immediately reminded me of a particular conversation we’d had, a long one, over tea at your friend’s house. Your friend said, ‘This has happened to me many times, you know. I can’t see what lies ahead. Everything seems to be shrouded in mist. Should I advance or retreat? Or perhaps I’m standing at a fork in the road. Two or more paths lie ahead. But I can’t decide which one to choose.’

 

You said, ‘Your soul will tell you which road to take. You will hear your soul direct you.’

 

‘But very often it isn’t clear,’ your friend said. ‘Personal experience isn’t always enough to predict the outcome of a decision. The soul has nothing to help it proceed. So it’s confused. What then? How will you decide? Tell me.’

 

‘You have to know yourself inside out,’ you told your friend. ‘You have to understand what it is you really want. Actually, all our decisions have been taken before our life even begins. We only come to know of each decision when we accept it. We discover that a given decision has in fact been taken already, long before we were even aware of it.’

 

Your friend’s wife put down her cup of tea. Looking at you eagerly, she said, ‘Explain.’

 

‘That’s not so easy,’ you said. ‘Probably impossible. All I can do is give you an example. Let’s say I’m out driving one day and I run someone over. The decision about what to do with the injured man has already been taken, before my life even began. All that’s left to me at that moment is to stand at the confluence of time and feel a mild throbbing in my brain. That’s where all the decisions are gathered, waiting to emerge with the flow of events.’

 

I was sitting beside you in the passenger seat, thinking of that day. As we crossed Elgin Road, you said, ‘Take the medicine at night.’

 

I sighed. ‘No, I won’t take any more medicine.’ ‘Don’t call me and cry when the pain gets worse.’ ‘No, I won’t cry.’
‘I’ll put all the phones on silent when I go to bed tonight. I’ve put up with enough disturbance these past months. No more.’

 

‘Just give me a couple of days, then I’ll leave.’

 

You braked. ‘What are you talking about? I told you you can go after the surgery.’

 

‘I’m not going to have the surgery.’

 

You looked about for the bottle of water. I didn’t help you. Unable to locate the bottle, you started the car again. After you dropped me off, you waited a couple of moments before speeding away.

 

Once inside the flat, I lay down without changing my clothes. I told myself that I would have to find a place very soon. I would have to pack all my things and get ready for the move. I’d accumulated so many belongings over the past year and a half. Just needless baggage, I told myself. I should have kept in mind that I might have to leave at any moment. The biggest question was: Would I find a flat to rent in Kolkata within the time I needed? Would I be able to get a space of my own?

 

I went out on to the balcony very early the next morning. There was a cool breeze. The city appeared tranquil. I ran my gaze over all the plants on my balcony, studying them. I had so many in my collection now. Some hanging, some in their special pots. Here was someone out for a morning stroll. The city would be awake in another half hour – hundreds of people and vehicles would emerge onto the roads. The noise would build. Clothes washed in the morning would be black by the afternoon, even before they had fully dried. Layers of dust would settle on the plants, rendering them unrecognisable within a matter of days.

 

But it was the monsoon now and the plants on my balcony were free from any grime. In fact, they were flourishing. Now, at this moment, they seemed so happy to be close to me. All nodding and smiling in the cool breeze.

 

Was I upset? Was I upset at the thought of having to leave these plants? Would I find a house in the next two days with space for them, these glowing plants that had been reborn in the rains? If not, would I abandon them, leaving them to die for lack of water after the rains ended? Or should I tell the durwan to take them away? All they needed to stay alive was a little water at the end of each day, nothing more.

 

How many things could I possibly pack into the next two days? Look for a flat, pack up my belongings, make arrangements for the plants … Would I be able to get it all done?

 

The white kochupata plant was dying. I had revived it with great effort. Five of its leaves were now fully open, with another one halfway there. If this sixth leaf managed to unfold, I’d know for sure that the plant was completely healthy. Would it happen within the next two days?

 

The vendor had said that blue flowers would bloom all year round on the hanging vine. Were year-round flowers just a dream? Would I have to leave before the flowers bloomed? Impossible!

 

No, I couldn’t leave in two days. I wouldn’t. The phone rang in the hall. Who else could it be so early in the morning but you? Who else do I know in this city, anyway? I turned to answer the phone, walking towards it slowly.

 

‘It’s absolutely no use being angry with you. It’s stupid,’ you said. You laughed. You didn’t sleep at all last night, did you? Instead, you thought of me, didn’t you? You wanted to call, you didn’t want to call. You battled with yourself – I could tell.

 

‘What are you trying to say?’ I asked. I laughed. I hadn’t slept last night either. Instead, I’d thought of you. I’d wanted to leave, but I had to change my decision for the sake of the plants. For the sake of the plants.

 

‘Have you taken your medicine?’

 

‘Yes. I think I have a fever, my eyes are smarting. My whole body aches.’

 

‘I’m calling the doctor right away …’
‘No, let it be … I’ll be fine.’
‘Are you mad? Haven’t you heard about this viral fever going round? Listen, let’s take a break after your surgery. We could go to the jungle … or the hills? It’s been a long time.’

‘For how long?’
‘A month, say?’
‘So long?’
‘Why not?’
‘What about my plants?’
‘What? I can’t hear you properly, the line’s bad …’ ‘All right, I’ll put the plants out in the passage. I’ll tell the durwan to water them every day.’ ‘What?’

 

‘Nothing.’

 

‘Listen, you wouldn’t have said what you said yesterday if that wasn’t how you really felt. But I’m not angry now. What’s the use of being angry with you, anyway? I can’t live without you, after all. It’s not possible any more.’

 

‘Actually, the decisions about whether to go or not to go, to live without someone or not to live without someone, have all been made long ago, at a time when we weren’t even aware that they existed. Only when confronted with a given situation do we get to find out what the decision was …’

 

‘What the hell are you talking about, woman? Try to get some sleep now. I’ll ask the doctor to drop by later, okay?’

 

‘You’re not angry, are you? Angry enough to go away?’

 

‘Don’t worry. The plants alone are enough to keep me here. And anyway, how far can anger really drive you? Yes, you might get angry, but you still stay on …’

 

One overcast dawn she stood before a mass of water. A sprawling, mysterious, complex body of water. A row of trees where the water ended. A capricious sky overhead. Geese flying over a rusting crane, half-submerged near the water’s edge. She tried to absorb this entire scene into her senses, fervently – and without applying rationality. Absolutely without rationality.

 

She noticed some sort of disturbance in the distance, in the water at the far side. Narrowing her eyes, she tried to ascertain the cause of the ripples.

 

After a few moments she could make out someone in the water, swimming in her general direction. Actually towards her?

 

The body was mostly concealed, though. She could see only two sturdy arms, rising and falling. The same movement was repeated in quick succession, rhythmically, as though the man was in the grip of an acute compulsion. His arms glistened in the sunlight, his muscles flashed.

 

She felt strangely aroused, a forbidden warmth spreading to the hidden parts of her body, a sensation more primal than the numerous experiences of her past.

 

The concealed body drew nearer, surfacing in stages.

 

She shut her eyes.
When she shut her eyes, did she fall asleep?
Did she imagine the whole thing?
The man emerged from the water and the eternal, unquestioning game between man and woman instantly began anew, creating two opposing but complementary forces. Which, if generated with integrity, would eventually leave behind on the grass the principles of pure sexuality, principles in which you had tried to educate her, but which she had been prevented from understanding – prevented by fear, and nothing else.

 

*

 

She had stayed up all night. Hadn’t she also stayed up all day? Waiting. Waiting to write the rest. In fact, she hadn’t written anything for months. She’d done nothing but practise walking. Walking far, far away, and then returning, still on foot, from that far, far away.

 

With great effort, she’d managed to get hold of a bag. From then on, she’d started to gather paper while she walked. She gathered paper, and put it in her bag. She walked. In this way, she’d managed to write – but only a single line. She would be able to sleep as soon as she had written the second line. Sleep during the day, sleep at night. But even after all her walking, she hadn’t found her second line.

 

So was this solitary line the only thing she would ever write? Was this one line all the blood that would ever flow from the wounds?

 

She continued walking. When her bag was full of paper, she went to the riverbank. Perhaps the sun was setting then. She emptied her bag into the water. She tried to tell herself that she loved this water, that this star was her favourite, that this wandering death was the outcome of her ambition. This disease, this defencelessness – that this was actually what enabled her to live, to survive.

 

And she tried to tell herself that not writing could achieve more than writing could. The wounded pride of the solitary line she had written touched her. For on one side of this line lay one eternity, while on the other side lay eternal time. In the process of writing the line, she had introduced a deathlike silence into it. The line had died despite all its possibilities. The possibility of creating something from out of creation. The possibility of life emerging from life.

 

‘Weep,’ the river had told her. And the moment you did, you thought of him. You thought of how long it had been since you last saw him. A long time. The way things happen after a break-up. ‘Maybe we’ll meet again after we die,’ you had said.

 

Believing that she had found her final or second line, she postponed her tears and began to run. And realised this was how it was, this was the poet’s life. The poet’s manuscript was made up of all these suppressed tears. The failure of tears. The poet did not weep for herself, nor for others. The poet wept only for poetry.

 

What use was writing? None at all. The world had seen so much of it, but no one had found it to be of any practical use. Or, no one bothered to make use of it. They’d simply read the words, then forgotten them.

 

She too had asked herself when writing each new word, ‘What have you just written? The words have vanished behind the tree.’ Besieged with doubt, she stopped writing.

 

Then night fell. And the worms in her head began to wriggle. Trying to crawl out through her eyes and ears and nose and mouth. The look in her eyes changed. There was a toxic vapour in her breath; she heard obscene words muttered, uttered some herself. And writhed on the floor. Eventually, she quietened down, twisting her scarf as she watched the whirling fan. Like a hangman, she practised making a noose.

 

Then someone pushed her back to writing. Trembling, she wrote. Writing, she slept. This is release, she thought.

 

This newspaper at the start of the day. Every page that touched her sleep-hazed skin bore pictures of burnt bodies. She felt miserable, distracted. Grief flowed easily through her slack limbs.

 

All these children had burnt to death at a school in Tamil Nadu. They had held one another as they burned. As though that had helped, somehow, to mitigate the agony. As though they were telling us that if we ever got the chance to burn to death as a collective, we too should hold one another.

 

At first it was rumoured that several teachers had died along with the children. But with the passage of time it was revealed that no, none of them had died. They had managed to escape in time. Eighty children had died, all aged seven or eight. Many more were in the state general hospital, expected to die very soon.

 

A photograph in an English-language daily brought her to her knees. A Tamil father was weeping, holding in his arms a blackened piece of wood. It was his child … No, this was too much so early in the morning.

 

Quickly folding the papers, she threw them into the bedroom. She switched on the microwave to make herself some tea. She wanted to escape from the news. Instead, she found herself trapped, helpless, in the time between the beginning of the fire and its being put out – the time in which those eighty, ninety, one hundred children had burned to death – and stood stock still, picturing the flames licking at her own skin, flesh and bone marrow, while the water for the tea boiled away into steam.

 

Then she went to have a shower to allay her agony and wept, heaving, in a terrible rage.

 

The phone rang. She stepped out of the shower, wrapped herself in a towel and went to answer it. She explained that she’d just been in the shower. Yes, she had been naked. Yes, she had soaped herself. Yes, she would soap herself again with you in mind and, fingering herself, say exactly three times – ‘I’m yours, I’m yours, I’m yours.’ She would need ten minutes more to get dressed. You could leave now, and in the meantime she would finish showering, get dressed, then come downstairs to wait for you. Yes, you were coming over to take her out shopping, for all the things to turn the flat into a home. A house, a householder, a home. That’s what you wanted. ‘Make yourself at home.’

 

She went back to finish her shower. Afterwards, she put on the clothes she’d set out. Combed her hair. Sprayed herself with perfume. Went downstairs. You picked her up.

 

She was out the whole day, buying all manner of things. The two of you had dinner, then she returned to the flat. Unlocked the padlocks one by one and went straight into the bedroom.

 

When she switched on the light, the morning’s newspapers were there on the bed. The photographs on each front page seemed to come alive when they saw her. Shrinking back, she burned in those flames, the fire that rages at the circumference of life, engulfing the escape route.

 

The phone was ringing. It was you, calling to tell her to ‘go to sleep’. She answered, ‘I had a son, he was six. One day there was a fire in our high-rise. On an afternoon when I was far away, lying beneath a man I barely knew. My son was alone with the live-in maid – his father was also far away. When the girl became aware of the fire she fled, leaving the boy behind. He called me on my mobile and told me what was happening. The floor beneath his feet had become very hot, he said. The flames had come into the room through the windows, shattering the glass. 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?” Then I heard an explosion. That was all. There was no other sound after that, only the crackling of the flames …’

 

You said nothing. She was the one to break the silence. ‘I ran away. I escaped to the centre, inside the fire that rages at the circumference of life.’

 

***

Cover Image: Soraya Gilanni Viljoen [www.this-ness.com] is an Art Director and Illustrator working across a wide range of fields. She also set designs for film, TV, commercials and fashion.



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay has published nine novels and over fifty short stories since her controversial debut Shankini. Also a newspaper columnist and film critic, Sangeeta has recently moved from Kolkata to London. This piece is an excerpt from her novel Panty, published in June by Tilted Axis Press. Tilted Axis will publish her novel Abandon, also translated by Arunava Sinha, in 2017.

Arunava Sinha translates classic, modern and contemporary Bengali fiction and nonfiction into English. Thirty of his translations have been published so far. Twice the winner of the Crossword translation award, for Sankar’s Chowringhee (2007) and Anita Agnihotri’s Seventeen (2011), respectively, and the winner of the Muse India translation award (2013) for Buddhadeva Bose’s When The Time Is Right, he has also been shortlisted for The Independent Foreign Fiction prize (2009) for his translation of Chowringhee.