I entered the apartment at eleven at night, unlocking three padlocks in succession. The flat took up the entire first floor of a tall apartment building. I paused for a few moments after entering, trying to make out my surroundings in the light coming in from the passage outside. I found the switchboard near my left hand. Stepping forward, I turned on all the switches. One after the other. And not a single light came on. But I could tell that a fan had started whirring overhead. Once my eyes had adjusted to the darkness, I found myself standing at one end of a hall. The main road below me had begun to quieten down. The light from the street lamps filtered into the dark hall through large windows, creating an unfocused chiaroscuro that came to my aid. Advancing in this hazy glow, I realised that there were doors running down both sides of the hall. On a whim I turned towards an open door on the left.
The room I entered was a large bedroom, with an ensuite. This time, too, I succeeded in locating the switchboard. I swiftly flicked all the switches on. Still not a single light came on. But this time, too, the ceiling fan began to rotate. I tried to understand the layout of the room. It wasn’t empty like the hall; rather, it was crowded with furniture. I found myself standing before a mirror stretching across the wall. The reflection didn’t seem to be mine, exactly, but of another, shadowy figure. I touched my hair. Eerily, the reflection did not. I paid no attention. Setting my bag down on the floor, I returned to the hall.
Closing the main door, fumbling at the switchboard until I succeeded in turning the fan off, I went back to the bedroom. I was very tired. The train had arrived seven hours later than scheduled. I’d had to scramble for a taxi to get to the flat and collect the key. He’d been waiting for me here since the afternoon. On calling the station and learning that the train was running late, he’d gone back home for a while, then returned to the flat later in the day. Handing me the key, he expressed his regret that all the restaurants in his club were closed at this late hour; otherwise, he would have taken me to dinner. Thanking him, I told him that I had bought myself a slice of cake at the station. He seemed relieved to hear this, and dropped me off at the gate of the high-rise.
Even in the darkness, I could sense another door on the opposite side of the hall. I went forward and opened it. A cold, moist wind instantly swept into the room. The taxi driver had told me it had drizzled all day.
I stepped out onto the balcony. There were several tall buildings in front of me. Fourteen storeys, sixteen, eighteen, twenty-one–going up would be no problem, but if the building caught fire you’d be trapped, unable to climb down. I hurriedly retreated into the room. All I needed was a shower. Fumbling for the towel in my bag, I pulled it out and went into the bathroom. My eyes gradually adjusted to the darkness. I undressed in the light from the street lamps and turned the shower on. A phone began to ring somewhere close by. It kept ringing, no one answered.
Wringing my hair dry, I returned to the room wrapped in the towel and lay down on the bed, feeling the fresh, soft bedclothes against my body. I was cold but I didn’t have the strength even to switch the fan off or shut the balcony door. I remained in bed. I remained awake.
Awake, I saw dawn break. I saw colours. The bedclothes were a light blue. The pillow was a light blue. Three of the walls were off-white, while the fourth was a somewhat incongruous brown. As the darkness lifted, the wardrobe, the couch, the mirror–all became visible one by one. An ancient, radiant sunlight fell on my bed now. Which meant there was no rain any more. The towel had come loose long ago. As I lay there, the sun rose on my nakedness. By the time I got out of bed, the day was well advanced. I checked out the kitchen. There were plenty of pots and pans. It was equipped with a cooking range, a toaster, a mixer…everything. In the dining space was a functioning fridge. I considered exploring the rest of the flat, but a moment later the desire had vanished.
After a shower, I went down into the street. Kolkata! I spent the whole day roaming this unknown city, in taxis, on foot, on the metro. I watched a movie then had dinner at a restaurant, and by the time I got back to the flat it was eleven o’clock. Unlocking the three padlocks one after the other, I entered the unlit interior. Then, allowing my eyes to adjust to the darkness, I slumped on to the dark bed and lay on it the same way I had the previous night. Once again I remained awake. The next morning I opened my bag. I took out the few clothes I possessed and arranged them in the wardrobe. The wardrobe was completely empty except for a single hanger. It would be useful to hang up my trousers, I thought. And in that moment, I caught sight of the crumpled panty.
I picked it up. Imported. Soft. Leopard print. At once I wanted to know who the owner was. Many years ago I had found a blue bangle in a bedside drawer in a hotel room. When I took it in my hand, it seemed to be dripping blue water. That day, too, I’d felt an urge to find out who the owner was.
The panty gave off the smell of moist earth. I saw a white stain on it, like mould. A stain like this in a woman’s panty could mean only one thing.
I wondered what to do with the panty. Strangely, I felt a pang of regret at the thought of throwing it away. The panty seemed to offer itself as a second presence in this solitary place. A feeling of companionship.
I didn’t throw it away. I tossed it on to one of the lower shelves in the wardrobe. Then I went to the bathroom and washed my hands with soap. I took my documents out of my bag, filed them away, and decided to take care of the phone call before anything else.
‘When can I meet you? I’ll need your letter.’ ‘The letter is ready. You can take it today.’
As I dressed after a shower, I chided myself for not remembering about the lights today either. I left the flat again and went down into the streets. After a couple of meetings, I ate a light meal at a restaurant. I bought a loose gown to wear at home. The nakedness of the past two days would finally come to an end.
I met him in the veranda of his club at eight that night. He was poring over a Bengali book, marking up certain passages and scribbling notes in the margins. He also had a Bengali-to-English dictionary by his side. ‘So you can read Bengali?’, I asked. He nodded, smiling. ‘I read it very well.’ After accepting the letter from him and sharing some soup and bread rolls, I left him, returning to the flat late at night and unlocking the three padlocks again. I was lying in bed when I felt a certain familiar discomfort, and when I went into the bathroom I discovered that it was just as I had suspected–quietly, my period had started. And my panty was soaked with blood. I had no sanitary napkins. What was I to do, now, at midnight? I didn’t have a second pair of panties. I should have thought to pick up a few more things when I was buying the gown. Unless I changed the panty I was wearing, even sitting down would prove impossible, let alone sleeping in the bed. Going by my body’s usual routine, the bleeding would intensify in two or three hours. How would I stem this flow of blood? Would any of the shops still be open? If only I could at least get hold of some sanitary napkins…
When I went out to the balcony, wondering what to do, I discovered that there was in fact a pharmacy still open, called Park Medicine, just across the road.
Other than the occasional car speeding by, the roads were deserted. The streets were now under the control of dogs. So many dogs?
Slipping the black trousers back on with a sense of revulsion, I took the lift down and got the durwan to open the gate. I’ll only be a minute, I told him. I’m just going to buy some medicine. The first thing I did after getting the sanitary napkins was enter the toilet. With only the glow of the streetlamps to see by, I could still tell that my panty was a mess. Would any shop selling undergarments open before ten o’clock tomorrow morning? How would I tolerate this pair all night? I couldn’t bear the thought of having to set fresh sanitary napkins inside the blood-soaked panty. I had to buy a bulb tomorrow and get some light in the bathroom at least. In the morning I’d noticed that there were no bulbs in any of the sockets. Why had the bulbs all been removed? I tried to hold all of this in my mind as I stood there, drops of blood trickling down my thighs into the darkness.
I stood beneath the shower, miserable, while the cold water pounced on me. And then I remembered the black-and-yellow panty I’d found in the wardrobe. It was a panty worn by someone else, and mouldy to boot–I simply couldn’t use it, could I? Who knew whom it belonged to and how long it had lain there that way? A woman who wears a leopard-print panty must be quite wild. At least when it comes to sex. The question was, how wild? Wilder than me, or less so? As these thoughts ran through my mind, I wasn’t even aware of having taken off my blood-soaked panty and begun to wring and knead it clean beneath the tap. I stood in bewilderment for some time when I realised what I was doing; eventually I washed it thoroughly and spread it out to dry on the towel rod. I persuaded myself that I had no option now but to put on the other panty. I wasn’t going to come in direct contact with the mould, I rationalised. The sanitary napkin would form a layer in between.
Towelling myself dry, I returned to the bedroom and groped for the panty in the dark. I found it, picked up the sanitary napkin I’d laid out on the bed, then paused for a moment before fitting it inside the panty.
I slipped into the panty.
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. I had entered her life, though I didn’t know it. I even slipped into her defeat and her withdrawal. I slipped into her nation, too, in that moment. Trite thoughts about her world passed through my mind. How fine the material was, I reflected. Soft. A perfect fit. As though tailored especially for me. After putting it on, I was no longer repulsed. I lay down, spreading my hair out on the pillow. Although I do not admit that I fell asleep, it is undeniable that I was woken up by a series of sounds in the room.
They were making out. Kissing. Fucking wildly. They were panting, but could not stop. Hours seemed to pass this way. They remained engaged in their sex–till I passed out.
I had not understood them that first night. 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 on the wall. The one which was painted dark brown. Both of them were on that wall whose colour did not match the rest–naked, having sex, delirious, tearful.
Gradually I realised that they appeared on the days when I wore that particular panty. The leopard-print panty. I heard the woman say, ‘If only the past, present and future would pass while we two were conjoined, if only time would just waste away…’ When I heard this desire articulated, I felt as though the big, bigger, biggest expectations whirling restlessly within my vagina had died. So I could not be in pursuit of life any more. A disease had been born within me. My road was gradually coming to an end…
The days passed without form or shape. When one day ended, I couldn’t remember quite how I’d spent it–in what meaningful activities, and in what meaningless ones. Before midnight, I would forget all that had happened throughout that entire day.
I never did get round to buying a bulb.
I didn’t even get round to buying a panty.
At times I found the two of them unbearable. I wished they would put an end to it… but they didn’t. Their lovemaking went on and on. In desperation I would pull off the panty and fling it out onto the balcony. Then they would disappear at once.
In the mornings I made tea in the small kitchen. As I sipped my tea, I would feel the pangs starting up again. Strolling out to the balcony, I would pick up the panty and put it back in the wardrobe. The panty definitely smelled of me by then. Of me. How strange!
Translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha
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. Tilted Axis will publish her novel Abandon, also translated by Arunava Sinha, in 2017.
Arunava Sinha has translated over thirty books from Bengali. Winner of the Crossword translation award, for both Sankar’s Chowringhee and Anita Agnihotri’s Seventeen, and of the Muse India translation award for Buddhadeva Bose’s When The Time Is Right, his translation of Chowringhee was also shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
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