When skeletons refuse to stay in the closet
British-Bangladeshi writer Leesa Gazi’s first novel in translation, ‘Hellfire’, tells a thrilling but tragic story of two sisters
One of the many chilling moments in British-Bangladeshi writer Leesa Gazi’s novel, Hellfire, comes a third into the story. The protagonist, Lovely, is sitting in Ramna Park, a public ground in Dhaka, on a bright winter day. People are out sunning themselves, getting their ears cleaned and heads massaged, and a young man is trying to chat up Lovely, who is out on her own, for the first time in her life, to celebrate her 40th birthday. Gazi builds up a mood of unbearable suspense—the reader wants to shove Lovely into the willing arms of her admirer, to urge her to live a little—but her courage keeps dwindling. Seeing the hesitation on her face, the man offers to meet her another day. And then, Gazi interjects in her voice: “In their lives, the same day returned again and again, year after year. If, in their lives, a different kind of day appeared, it was like a meteor, manifesting and disappearing."
These lines must strike a chord with many, forced by the pandemic to stay home for the better part of the last six months. But what Gazi describes here is the unchanging routine Lovely has followed for four decades, and Beauty, her sister, for 37 years. Their mother, Farida Khanum, a redoubtable matriarch, keeps them locked in gilded cages. The sisters lack nothing at home—their own rooms, television sets, a VCR to watch the latest Bollywood movies, a music system to listen to their favourite songs, and indulgent skincare regimes. But they are never allowed to step out by themselves. Either they accompany each other, or their mother joins them, when they venture beyond the threshold of their home.
Gazi’s novel, published in Bengali as Rourob and translated into English by Shabnam Nadiya, moves at the pace of a thriller, unfolding over the course of a day, much of which is mediated for the reader by Lovely’s wandering thoughts. Early on, we learn that she has a man within her head, prodding and provoking her at odd moments. His voice, usually laced with brazen mockery, can adopt a sly, cajoling tone. He is the keeper of Lovely’s most private secrets, truths she is loath to confront herself. If you are sceptical about the potential of such a seemingly superficial literary device, Gazi’s prose will prove you wrong with every turn of the page.
Hellfire derives its edge from its seamless combination of the sinister with the familiar. At no point is Gazi sensational or melodramatic. On the contrary, she describes the daily rituals of life under Farida Khanum’s hawk eyes with anodyne disinterest. The latter’s gratuitous cruelty towards the servants, flashes of rage and tenderness towards her timid husband, and the emotional yo-yo she hurls at her daughters are all part of a script she runs her little empire by. By maintaining this veneer of the ordinary with a dogged precision, Farida Khanum wants to repair the extraordinary cracks that rend her past. All unhappy families, Hellfire reminds us, are alike in their desperation to keep their skeletons well-hidden in the proverbial closet.
In less than 200 pages, Gazi’s novel not only takes the reader into the deepest recesses of a family’s present and past, but also holds up a mirror to a profoundly broken society. Lovely and Beauty are the obvious casualties of patriarchy, albeit one that is manifested in the figure of their mother. But Farida Khanum too—in spite of her steely demeanour—is as much a victim. Her undoing is caused by the power she wields, a hubris that is borne of her misguided sense of always being in control.
For a book with so much verve, Hellfire moves nimbly in translation but there are passages that are stiff and idiomatic (“Lovely and Beauty had sat down with ‘disaster has befallen’ expressions on their face…"). There are occasional grammatical oddities and infelicitous phrasing, but nothing that can take away from the adrenaline rush of Gazi’s thrilling but tragic plot.