Since her debut novel, Shankini (2006), the Indian writer Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay has been exploring female sexuality with an uncompromising and subversive vision.
Since her debut novel, Shankini (2006), the Indian writer Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay has been exploring female sexuality with an uncompromising and subversive vision. The radical nature of her works might have contributed to the fact that they remain largely inaccessible in the West—the only title available in translation outside of India up until now was her novella, Panty (2007), which represented Tilted Axis Press’ publishing debut in 2016. In her own country, however, Bandyopadhyay has published nine novels and over fifty short stories over the last decade, and her work has made her a widely discussed and highly controversial author. Now her third novel, Abandon (2008), has just been published by Tilted Axis in a translation by Arunava Sinha (who revised his own previous translation published in 2013 by HarperCollins India). It is an experimental yet human fiction that challenges our notions of the artistic life, and allows us to better understand the furor surrounding Bandyopadhyay’s work.
At the start of the novel, the female protagonist, Ishwari, and her child, Roo, have recently reunited and search the streets of India for shelter. She yearns to write a novel of her own life, but she is poor, her son suffers from severe malnutrition, and she has few job prospects. Ishwari is an example of a fictional character for whom art is not simply a form of escapism from the dreariness of life. Rather, in the Flaubertian tradition, she seeks to live purely for the sake of her art, to engage in experience that would enrich her novelistic creation. It is perhaps unavoidable to see her as a metafictional stand-in for the author: she admits that she is writing the book we have before us. Abandon thus adverts itself as a fiction, a combination of truth and lies, a form of artifice.
As Flaubert quickly discovered when lust and romantic love kept intruding into his hermitic existence, the manipulation of one’s life to serve one’s art is an impossible project. Life is truculent, capricious, and indomitable for even the most resolute of wills. The novel dramatizes the idea that the creation of art demands of the creator a certain amount of self-absorption, cruelty, and willingness to drop one’s attachments. In the past, Ishwari has abandoned her child, supposedly because motherhood suffocated the muse. She is conflicted between the responsibility toward her child and the responsibility toward her art. Ishwari suggests that the choice is often one between compassion and self-realization: “This narrative will continue to shriek as its characters claw their way between the poles of extreme humanity and extreme art.”
Bandyopadhyay ingeniously expresses this conflict as a fragmentation of the mind, a form of schizophrenia. Ishwari possesses a humane, compassionate self and an artistic, self-involved self both grappling for control in the same mind. The artistic persona is dominant and believes that it has invented the more humane Ishwari as a means of functioning in the world. The “I” of the novel is the artistic Ishwari, the Mr. Hyde of the pair, a character capable of manipulation and deceit. She is something of a Scheherazade, a woman barely surviving through the fluent telling of tales. What is important from this unique rendering of the inner life is that the artistic self is the essential self. The artistic consciousness understands the world first and then tries to accommodate itself to reality: “Only I can hear the buzz of crickets in the air. My authentic self is imprinted in my brain, exposed only to me. The Ishwari that Rantideb knows of, that Sukul and Gourohori Babu know of, is only a story. This is the self which needs to be presented at Radheshyam House . . . A person who can ask herself ‘Why am I what I am?’ and receive an answer is capable of creating a new narrative at every sunset.” The narrator suggests the artist peers through many masks and those masks are doffed and shelved in accordance with the circumstances. The artistic self can be monstrous but it justifies itself by reassuring the mind of both the nobility of its purpose and its own authenticity.
Ishwari is the product of an appalling personal history. She has escaped from an abusive, neglectful family and is, from what we can infer, most likely a victim of rape. Adopted and beloved as a child by her foster mother and father, Ishwari became marginalized for the impurity of her lineage when the couple gave birth to a child of their own flesh and blood. Ishwari writes with characteristic fierceness about her attempts in vain to abort her own child: “The truth is: I did not want to give birth to Roo. Roo’s arrival was unintended. I dislike children. You could say I cannot stand them. I made any number of secret attempts to ensure that the embryo lodged in my womb was not born . . . I inserted my hair into my nostrils to induce violent sneezing so that my stomach muscles could put terrible pressure on my uterus and force the foetus out.”
One of the central themes of the novel is the autonomy of the body and how that autonomy is either preserved or lost—in motherhood or sexual encounters. Though Ishwari knows herself to be a highly sexual creature, she often restrains the expression of her own desire. She shamefacedly admits an uncontrollable outpouring of desire when a handsome neighbor appears on his veranda and smokes a cigarette. But when sex does occur, it is on male terms. Ishwari is always the exploited party and often subservient to male desire. Even with the man who claims to love her, a widowed man who hires her as a companion, she quickly loses her excitement and begins to see the sex as a necessary function of her employment: “Over the past month and a half, Ishwari had savoured this love, this eagerness, with every pore in her body, till her wonder dissipated gradually and she grew accustomed to it.” In this novel, sex loses its quality of transcendence. It is a primal act, an act of raw desire rather than a consummation of love. For Ishwari, control over the body may be sacrificed so that the mind can remain pure, autonomous, and possessed by no one else.
Despite all its modern trappings, Bandyopadhyay’s theme is not that novel—the constraint of a female’s self-realization and imagination by moral conventions is a theme as old as Austen and George Eliot. Their protagonists negotiated those constraints but remained within the confines of their patriarchal societies. The novel differs in that Ishwari cannot abide by those constraints and abandons society altogether because artistic creation has become a matter of spiritual life and death. That is, if she cannot create, she cannot live. Society does not let her create, so she must depart from society. One of the greatest accomplishments of this audacious novel is the metaphorical representation of the artistic self as an individual’s dominant life force. The need to create, Bandyopadhyay suggests, is something like a permanent wound—inextricable, smarting with pain, and only denied for so long.