Twice in the course of Leesa Gazi’s Hellfire, the novel’s protagonist, Lovely, recalls a proverb that her mother often repeated to her and her younger sister, Beauty, when they were younger: “An ant grows wings when it’s time to die.” The first time is while thinking back to the time she started a romantic relationship with her cousin, Riaz, one of the very few outsiders who had been allowed to enter their family home. The second is when she’s sitting on a public bench in Dhaka’s Ramna Park, talking to a stranger, hours past the unshakeable curfew that had been set for her.
Where did she summon the nerve to commit such a grave act of transgression she asks herself. But then again, it’s her fortieth birthday and she’s been allowed out of the house alone for the first time in her life.
The English translation of Gazi’s Rourob, originally published in Bengali in 2010, is bound to feel particularly resonant in a year lived under the devastating cloud of a pandemic, with many of us forced to remain isolated in the confines of our homes. Gazi’s novel however, is concerned with a form of suffocation far more pervasive and longstanding than that caused by a mere virus. Even in a pandemic after all, some are less free than others.
Morning to nightfall
Lovely and Beauty, who is three years younger, have been kept practically imprisoned in their home their entire lives, ever since their mother, the formidable and domineering Farida Khanam, caught them disobeying her orders and going up to the terrace of their house as young girls.
They are never allowed to step out alone; the few times they go out is with each other or under the watchful eye of their mother, who runs the household with unquestioned authority, and a claustrophobic degree of control – over her family, the servants, and the daily rhythms of life. Her husband, a quiet man, offers neither resistance nor enthusiastic support, leading an “almost non-existent, anesthetised life”.
Within this impenetrable kingdom, the sisters have no responsibilities, no jobs, no romance – and no freedom. Life continues, every day the same as the one before, every breath drawn by Farida Khanam dedicated to ensuring that “everything worked as perfectly, as consistently, as the laws of nature”. Until one day, on Lovely’s 40th birthday, in a rare lapse, she allows her eldest daughter to go out on her own.
The events of Hellfire take place over the course of that single day – a thrilling, unsettling, and wildly satisfying descent into the macabre, from a bright morning full of possibilities to nightfall in a house shrouded in secrets. As Lovely sheds the rules imposed on her, the novel takes the reader along through a rollercoaster of excitement, concern, fear and joy, every interaction charged with a frisson of possibility.
Gazi, a filmmaker and actor, is masterful in her ability to create tension, only to diffuse it ever so slightly before building it up again. By the time Lovely decides to not return in time for her birthday lunch – every year the same meal of hilsa polao, eggplant in yoghurt, and spicy duck curry; a luxury that invokes revulsion in the sisters due to its relentless repetition – it feels inevitable that something terrible is going to happen. Gazi plays skilfully with this sense of foreboding, keeping the reader on edge about when and what that will be.
Shabnam Nadiya’s translation is fleet-footed, precise, and often leads to imaginative imagery. Young girls giggling silently have “laughter bubbling through their bodies like boiling water”. When a woman decides to hold her head up too high, “higher than was necessary, her ribs curved like sickle moons”. There’s only an occasional odd sentence (“their mental state oozed into the very house”) .
The horrors of the home have always been fertile grounds for fiction, allowing writers to strip down the pretence, performance, and politeness of human interactions to the messy, naked complexities of the family unit. Hellfire is interested in exploring not only what happens when a woman refuses to follow the rules set down for her, but also what goes into the making of an oppressor like Farida Khanum, who claims to act out of the best interests of her family.
An enjoyable Gothicness
In Farida Khanum’s world, tenderness leads to disaster. Weighed down by a dark secret, and determined to hide it, she becomes “inflexible as steel, sharp as knives.” Her devotion to her family above all else ends up taking the form of absolute ownership over them. “Farida found most things in the world disgusting,” Gazi writes, “she let none of that touch either of her girls.”
The relationship between Farida and her daughters is an abusive one, from constant gaslighting to casual threats of violence, but the most sharply observed is the sense of righteous hurt felt by the matriarch at any pusbhack to her strictures. “What hadn’t she done for her daughters? She was sacrificing her life to make sure that her daughters enjoyed all creature comforts. Could this girl betray her so atrociously?”
Even as the novel offers insights into Farida Khanam’s past, presenting her as just another tool in a patriarchal setup, she remains a largely inscrutable figure, much like the character of Lovely herself. This takes nothing away from the novel, however.
Blending elements of a thriller with a tragedy, Hellfire often reads like a work meant for the theatre. Yet Gazi retains complete control over the pace and plot, and rejects any heavy-handedness in favour of a careful balance between the surreal and the ordinary, imbuing the minutiae of domestic life with a slowly mounting sense of disquiet and malevolence.
Hellfire possesses an enjoyable Gothicness, strongly evocative of the fiction pioneered by Shirley Jackson. Immediately after finishing the novel, I re-read the opening scene of Jackson’s We’ve Always Lived In The Castle, delightedly contrasting Merricat’s trip into her small American town with Lovely’s wanderings into the streets of Dhaka.
Jackson, who shared a tumultuous relationship with her own mother and chafed against the gender roles expected of her, wrote with chilling flair, decades ago, about the claustrophobia of home, complex, bitter family relationships, patriarchal undertones, and about confinement and isolation, all tinged with an unsettling undercurrent of events and thoughts.
In an essay about her oeuvre in The Atlantic, author and essayist Heather Havrilesky wrote: “When confronted by an unexpectedly hostile world, Jackson’s female protagonists experience a climactic rush of bafflement and betrayal that inevitably spills over into a more private realm of second-guessing, self-doubt, and paranoia.”
Lovely too goes through a rush of these emotions as the immutability of her life starts to dissolve, but also finds unbridled joy, and eventually, a steely calm. Having tasted freedom, having made decisions for herself, how can she go back to living in the exact same way?
A couple of days after reading Hellfire, I looked up Farida Khanam’s favourite proverb. Ants grow wings before they swarm in search of a new nest, to form a new colony. Some die, but the queen does not. She survives, transformed.
Hellfire, Leesa Gazi, translated from the Bengali by Shabnam Nadiya, Westland/Eka.