Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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Translated Novel ‘Hellfire’ Explores Entrenched Oppressions in Rigidified Social Mores

Book name: Hellfire

Author: Leesa Gazi, Translated by Shabnam Nadiya

Published by: Eka/Westland Publications

Genre: Literary Fiction, Translation

Book summary:

The holy Prophet received his revelations from the Creator at forty. Which meant that even in the eyes of Allah, ‘forty’ held some special meaning. Something special happened at forty, something special was going to happen.

For the sisters Lovely and Beauty, home is a cage. Their mother Farida Khanam never lets them out of her hawk-eyed gaze.

Leesa Gazi’s Hellfire opens with Lovely’s first ever solo expedition to Gausia Market on her fortieth birthday. There will be many firsts for her today, but she mustn’t forget the curfew Farida Khanam has ordained. As Lovely roams the streets of Dhaka, her mother’s carefully constructed world begins to unravel. The twisted but working arrangements of a fragile household begin to assume a macabre quality as the day progresses.

Told in stark, taut prose, this grisly tale of a family born of a dark secret is one of the most scintillating debuts in contemporary Bengali literature.

About the Author:

Leesa Gazi is a British Bangladeshi writer, playwright, theatre director and actor. She is also the Joint artistic Director of a London based arts company, Komola Collective. Hellfire is the English translation of her debut Bengali novel Rourob (2010)

About the Translator:

Shabnam Nadiya is a California based Bangladeshi writer and translator. Her translations have won a host of literary awards.

*My Review:

That book cover is a good teaser for the crackling and layered narrative that awaits the reader. Translated from the Bengali by Shabnam Nadiya, Hellfire by Leesa Gazi, a British Bangladeshi author is a taut unfolding of events over the course of a few hours in a single day and the suppressed emotions and thoughts of characters that has built up the situation that the characters find themselves in.

Placed for the most part in a house that is claustrophobic in more ways than one (the physical structure of the house, the repressed emotions and ties between family members, the absolute control over who does what and what is portrayed) the narrative gives some air to readers and characters with an interplay of plot points: memories of visits to the house by a relative and the rare jaunts of the main protagonists outside the house. The two daughters of the house have grouses against their situation in the house but are not able to do anything about it.

But what would be the reason for the matriarch of a family to control the movements of her two daughters who are approaching middle age? Why aren’t there visitors to the house? What does the enforced isolation lead to? What happens when one daughter is allowed to spend the day outside on her own? What does a 40-year-old woman who has never been allowed to go out on her own do with the freedom she has been granted for a few hours? What are the temptations before her and what boundaries is she going to push? It is these threads tied up in tangled knots, woven in intricate patterns by the author skillfully that make the reader turn the pages with her vivid writing and descriptions of the mood in the air.

This for me is not just a story of a family and the ties that are entangled beyond repair but a powerful narrative that explores the way in which social appearances and personal decisions carved in stone can lead to devastating consequences. Told through the story of a family, it is a telling commentary on how toxic relationships are enforced by individuals due to the fear of societal pressure. The male characters and their place in the narrative right from the male voice inside the head of a protagonist to the sidelined father of the two women, the young male cousin who would visit the home a long time ago are minimal but what happens around them and because of their actions is a subtle hand at how patriarchy is not about unbridled male power but how the shadow of men and what is expected for them can affect the lives of people (and indirectly society)

The manner in which the author hints towards certain positions and what the possible reasons for those stands without explicitly telling it so is a delight that most readers who pick this book will relish. The mood of the narrative and the feel that readers can sense from the writing speaks much of the quality of the translation. Will definitely recommend this for readers who love to be taken along by the flow of the writing and the plot unraveling itself.

*Thank you Westland Publications for the review copy. All opinions are my own.

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