A review of 'Hellfire'
The first two decades of the 21st century have seen the emergence of many female fiction writers in Bangladesh. The stories and novels these writers have written stand out for the fresh perspectives and distinct storytelling techniques they offer.
Leesa Gazi embarked on the literary scene in 2010, with her debut novel Rourob, which presented readers with a unique story deserving attention. Hellfire, an English translation of Rourob, has hit the stands recently. Translated ably by California-based fiction writer and translator Shabnam Nadiya, it is a scintillating novel that will keep you engrossed from beginning to end while you ride the waves of surprise, pity, laughter, empathy, fear, and shock.
Hellfire tells the story of a family of four—two sisters and their parents. Yet it does not read like a trivial story with limited literary and interpretative scope. Quite the contrary, unexpected twists and turns are woven into the narrative in a way that it turns out to be as engaging as a thriller with an ending that will shock you to the core.
The novel begins with Lovely’s expedition to Gausia market on her 40th birthday. The surprising fact is that this is the first time she has stepped outside her home on her own. Docile in nature and obedient to her mother, she carries a teenager’s mind in a 40-year old woman’s body. Once on the streets, she feels like a fish out of water. The voice inside her head, symbolizing her rebellious spirit, provokes her to make the most of this unprecedented opportunity and savour the taste of transgression. She wishfully thinks: “The holy prophet received his revelations from the Creator at forty ... Something special happened at forty, something special was going to happen today.” Although she was permitted to visit Gausia only, she goes on a little adventure into Ramna Park where her naivety leads her to interesting encounters.
From Lovely’s internal monologues we come to know that her mother Farida Khanam is a possessive matriarch, a control freak who always has the final word in any argument and never bows her head to anyone. To her, “It felt humiliating to ask even Allah for something.” Farida, who suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder, imprisons her daughters, controls their every move and abuses them if they don’t conform to her rules—which seem to be as inflexible and inexorable as the laws of nature. Daughters are like her Bonsai plants, confined and pruned; not allowed to grow naturally. Arranging all sorts of homely comforts, she treats them like pet animals and keeps them entirely dependent on her.
We also come to know of Lovely’s younger sister, Beauty, another prisoner of their authoritarian mother. Confinement has shrunk her mind into a narrow alley where fresh air cannot enter. She has turned into a selfish narcissist, a misanthrope who hates everyone but herself. Completely detached from the real struggles of life, the two sisters eventually turn against each other.
In Farida Khanam’s version of the story, the deep secret of this family starts to reveal itself through her internal monologues and flashbacks. A shocking revelation in the very beginning of her marital life set the course of her fate which was beyond her control. So for the rest of her life she has maintained absolute control over herself and the people she thinks to be her “own”. The deeper we look, the more we realize that all the characters portrayed here are victims of circumstances, products of their environment.
As the narrative reaches midpoint, it takes an ominous tone and hints that something really bad is going to happen. A crow circling over Farida’s head can be seen as the symbol of a dark secret chasing and haunting her that she wants to keep out of sight.
Hellfire depicts how family reputation is preserved at the expense of individual freedom, how individual lives are sacrificed like animals to earn social acceptance. It also explores women’s sexuality, especially aspects of sexual repression. It shows how a patriarchal and conservative society suppresses women’s desire and in the absence of a healthy sexual life, how they try to meet their needs. Repression of freedom and sexuality, and confinement can lead a person to insanity. Even though Farida Khanam is a woman, her authoritarian principles reflect patriarchal beliefs and practices, and ultimately serve the institution of patriarchy. With the best of intentions she cripples her children and pushes them to a certain degree of mental illness.
Events in Hellfire are woven impeccably with such technical brilliance that it could present an unusual story very convincingly within a short space. The mastery of storytelling is also demonstrated when, amid tension arising out of an impending catastrophe, light-hearted funny moments appear to give readers necessary comic relief.
After reading the original Bengali novel Rourob, I have felt that the power of this novel lies greatly in its prose which has a life of its own. It grows organically and does not just propel the readers forward, but creates and evokes the most appropriate tone and mood. It is full of idioms, proverbs, poetry, dialects and colloquial expressions which have culture-specific connotations and thus, are difficult to translate. That’s exactly where Shabnam Nadiya has come in.
Nadiya is a promising Bangladeshi-origin fiction writer; currently she is working on her debut novel for which she has won the Steinbeck Fellowship at San Jose State University. Yet her dedication and tremendous skills have also made her the most promising translator from Bangladesh who has contributed substantially to taking the best of contemporary Bangladeshi fiction to an international readership. Apart from Moinul Ahsan Saber’s novel, The Mercenary, which was published in 2016, she also translated Shaheen Akhtar’s novel, Beloved Rongomala in 2018.
In translating Hellfire, Nadiya has done a wonderful job by retaining the original’s style and tone. In her rendition, Hellfire comes alive and feels like a novel originally written in English. As she is a creative writer herself, she has been able to capture the nuances with natural ease. Not only does she do justice to the colloquial words, phrases and expressions, she also captures the sarcastic, the comic, and the tragic tones and nuances used profusely in the original.
Hellfire is entertaining and disquieting at the same time. It attempts to delve deeper into the lives of women and brings to light some hidden corners of their existence. It resonates with the readers on many levels as many women can identify themselves with the characters’ situations and emotions.
Translated into English by a superb translator, this gripping novel is now reaching a wider audience in South Asia. We hope Leesa Gazi’s novel will receive all the love and acclaim that it deserves.
Hellfire by Leesa Gazi
Translated by Shabnam Nadiya
Published by Eka (14 September 2020)
Length: 204 pages
Price: Rs. 399 (Paperback)
Rifat Anjum Pia is Staff Writer, Arts & Letters, Dhaka Tribune