Social Realism Books

Welcome to hell: Review of Leesa Gazi’s ‘Hellfire’

Lovely and Beauty are sisters who have been kept under house arrest for most of their lives by their mother Farida Khanam. If they leave home at all, their mother accompanies them. On Lovely’s 40th birthday morning, without Beauty knowing (since she hasn’t woken up), Farida permits Lovely to explore Dhaka on her own, with the proviso that she returns in the afternoon. There is a voice inside Lovely’s head that pops up now and then to scuttle her ever-tenuous composure. What will happen when — and if — she returns home?

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Cinematic feel

The family seems to be one-time landowners. Traces of zamindari feudalism linger in their household even in the late 2000s, which forms the novel’s present. There’s a timid father figure in the house and there are servants who are subject to regular verbal abuse. As are the sisters, who defy it in their own ways. Religion shapes nearly every character’s personality and emerges especially during moments of friction. There are contemporary contraptions in their Dhaka home, but for all practical purposes it is a jail.

Originally published in 2010 in Bengali, Leesa Gazi’s debut novel has a strong cinematic feel, with all the elements of screenwriting: a problem point that is explored, a set of obstacles driving the conflict, and a resolution. Shabnam Nadiya’s fuss-free translation makes this a thrilling read: the drama ebbs and eddies, proffering passages one wants to savour for their character insight or landscape lyricism, the two often melding in one moment.

Welcome to hell: Review of Leesa Gazi’s ‘Hellfire’

Gazi’s depiction of woman-to-woman emotional violence can be enlightening to experience at a

time when misogyny is often conflated only with men. The foes here are attitudes and institutions: family ties, faith, social hierarchy, as refracted through the dramatis personae. By confronting them, Gazi examines the ways in which her women are cast into the closet called society. Emotional aggression is a legacy that is passed down the generations. Farida moves from being a person hard done by when young to a remorseless instigator when old.

There can be room for people to do the right thing, yet Farida chooses what she does. Gazi puts the sisters too in a similar quandary. The question is, which person will steer in what fashion. Will it bring joy or doom?

Even archetyping requires artistry. Gazi expertly develops Farida, showing us the milieu she was reared in and its values that she prolongs. What goes into the making of a matriarch? How does one humanise her? What are her susceptibilities? Answers to these questions prove Gazi’s skill in creating an atmosphere of menace. But she fails to convince us enough of Farida’s reasons for keeping her daughters under lock and key for decades.

Sliver of surrealism

The sisters have experienced the outside world from inside their rooms. They bristle on the page. Gazi conjures claustrophobia with élan, but it’s hard to maintain that beyond a point. The novel makes ‘reality’ look both familiar and strange — which is often the sign of a fine yarn — and yet, clearly, given the subject at hand, reveals the deficiencies of the realist mode. In a telling sequence, Farida fights off crows hovering over her house terrace. She’s convinced that they bring bad tidings. A sliver of surrealism shines through, amplifying the dark forebodings.

The novel might have stood stronger if Gazi had taken off more freely into the surrealist mode. The novel gets there and stops, which is why by the middle of the book, even though one is hooked, one can probably also guess the denouement. It felt as if Kafka, Atwood, Ian McEwan had all whispered suggestions into Gazi’s ears but she mostly ignored them. Only Kafka’s The Castle seems to have found a foothold in Farida’s house.

The family is the most important unit of examination in much of the subcontinent’s social realist fiction. Across our many languages and dialects, storytellers of each era have updated us on the horrors perpetrated by this institution. All happy families are alike, said Tolstoy, and all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way — which makes the latter the best subject for a storyteller. In that sense, Hellfire bids us a warm welcome to hell.

Hellfire; Leesa Gazi, trs Shabnam Nadiya, Eka, ₹399

The reviewer teaches at Jindal School of Liberal Arts & Humanities.

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Printable version | Jan 15, 2021 9:19:26 PM |

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