British-Bangladeshi novelist Tahmima Anam’s debut A Golden Age (2007) tracks the early stirrings of revolution in East Bengal from the 1950s to the climax of Bangladesh’s war for independence in 1971. It is told from the perspective of a young widow separated from her children. In his 2008 New York Times review the academic Michael Gorra doubts Anam’s commitment to historical accuracy. He finds its discussions of sex too frank for the time period in which it is set; its author too entangled in the mind of her protagonist and ‘her own omniscient narrative voice’. Laden with sexist assumptions of how Bangladeshi women ought to be depicted in literature, pretensions about women’s roles in political histories, and prescriptions for how women should write, Gorra’s review is a revelatory case study in how women’s literature, both at large and from Bangladesh in particular, has been received over the past decade. ‘If a writer can’t be trusted about small things,’ Gorra asks, ‘can we trust her about large ones?’
It is precisely the small things, told in plainspoken prose, that give insight into larger issues of sexuality, faith and freedom in Hellfire, the debut novel by fellow British-Bangladeshi author Leesa Gazi, newly translated from the Bengali by Shabnam Nadiya. A playwright, filmmaker and cultural organizer, Gazi wrote Hellfire while adapting Anam’s A Golden Age from English to Bengali for the stage. She drew from her advocacy work with Bangladeshi survivors of wartime rape (who are known as birongona in Bangladesh) to reflect on how women are confined and constricted, their agency stultified, and their fates predestined. Hellfire’s brisk pacing hews closely to the textures of a psychological thriller (a vestige, perhaps, of its original format as a weekly serialized story presented on the website arts.bdnews24). It is also stylistically innovative, flitting between multiple temporalities and perspectives without the separation of chapters – a formal demonstration of how, as secrets get buried and memories repressed, gendered traumas are cycled through generations.
Hellfire opens on the morning of 16 November 2007 in Dhaka. Lovely, who lives with her sister Beauty – under the tight watch of their mother Farida Khanam and the passive indifference of their father Mukhles – has for the first time in her life been allowed to leave the house alone. She embarks on a trip to the market and much of the novel details her journey there and back home. This is made strange by two curious details: Lovely has just turned 40, and, she is preoccupied with an intrusive, insistent male voice that resides in her mind, encouraging her to betray Farida Khanam’s strict rules. Even though Lovely and Beauty are well into adulthood, their lives are marked by an arrested development: their mother has kept them totally physically and socially isolated from the outside world.
‘There is a collective effort in our homes and communities to curtail the power of imagination of women,’ Gazi commented in a 2020 interview with Huffpost. ‘To snip their wings, to keep them within four walls, to make them feel ashamed, doubtful for their own aspirations.’ Accordingly, Gazi has written a claustrophobic novel, one that lingers in the interiority of Lovely and Farida Khanam’s thoughts and memories and observes from an omniscient distance how patriarchy pervades women’s psyches, instilling uncertainty where confidence should sit. Gazi consciously underwrites her male characters as passive figures, evoking what she notes in the same interview as the ‘ghastly face’ of patriarchy – its sinister workings on the subconscious, its inescapability. Having been forbidden from venturing out beyond her home, or interacting with strangers since she was a teenager, Lovely constantly doubts her ability to complete quotidian tasks. Momentarily unable to locate the items she has purchased from the market on the ride home, she admonishes herself heavily: ‘This was why – this was why her mother never allowed her to go anywhere by herself. She would be allowed to go out alone if she was capable.’ Some 70 pages later, the reader becomes privy to the inner monologue of Farida Khanam, who is also referred to in the text as Farida Begum, both adages intended for married women of a certain age in Bangladesh, just as Lovely leaves the house: ‘That very moment, a sense of dread permeated Farida Begum’s heart. She had no doubt that she had just made the biggest mistake of her entire life.’
Farida Khanam’s own mother had been a ‘formidable woman’ who stressed, above all, the necessity of endurance and the inseparability of fate and faith. Religion is thus less a set of practices than it is a lifeline: the promise of eventual escape from the confines of a material existence. In the world Gazi creates, husbands are merely silent witnesses, and children are reflections and extensions of the self, whose morality must be guarded. The many gradations with which Gazi renders Farida Khanam’s desires and inner turmoil – as daughter, wife, and mother – humanises her domineering behaviour toward her daughters. Yet, Gazi never excuses Farida Khanam’s cruelty. Collapsing and alternating between Lovely and Farida Khanam’s perspectives, Gazi suggests that a woman’s desire to exceed the bounds of gendered roles remains an eternal struggle.
Gazi and Nadiya pay minute attention to the body as living record, they catalogue both psychic and physical tolls. Wracked with anxiety and constantly fretting over the well-being of her daughters – ‘well-being’ being synonymous with chastity – Farida Khanam is buoyed solely by her dogged adherence to the rituals of her Islamic faith, which acts as a compass even as her external realities begin to crumble. Farida Khanam’s ‘middle-aged body… so heavy when she woke’ struggles to get out of bed for her early morning prayers. When observing Lovely’s return from the market, her ‘entire body pushed up on her toes’, she finally exhales, having ‘pledged all her happiness in her prayer’. Such language intimates that to exist as a woman in the stifling conditions of a male-dominated society – even as a woman perpetuating its oppressions – requires small, daily feats of mental endurance, some of which are guided by faith. Balancing such details are equally vivid descriptions of Lovely’s sexual stirrings over the years. As a teenager, secretly indulging in pornographic novels for the first time, Lovely loses herself in the ‘unfamiliar rapture’ of the ‘lines tracing the language of the body’. Decades later, upon returning home after her first solo sojourn to the market, she feels ‘an uncontainable wilfulness spread through her body from inside out’.
At its best, Hellfire explores the divisions between interior and exterior, and between self and other, in passages where the precision of language compliments the tense staccato of the plot, all building toward a suspenseful climax. To read the novel in translation as a native Bengali speaker, diasporic identity notwithstanding, is to recognise familiar colloquialisms, left by Nadiya in the original Bengali, that reflect the characters’ Muslim-Bangladeshi sensibility – the folding of hands in prayer (monajat), the rituals of prayer (rakat, salam). Haramjadi to indicate a misbehaving daughter, or a description of Mukhles as being ‘as easy as milk and rice’, a literal translation of the Bengali colloquialism doodbhat. These phrases may be puzzling to those unfamiliar with Arabic or Bangla, which seems to speak to the author-translator duo’s commitment to establishing the insularity of the characters’ environment and mental landscape. This is a gamble that ultimately pays off, as the novel evocatively induces a heightened awareness of the reader’s own ability to inhabit the minds of the novel’s main characters.
It has been ten years since Hellfire’s initial publication. What marks it as germane for an expanded audience in translation is the dynamism with which Gazi melds social critique with intimate personal histories. She condenses time, space, and character to allow readers to gauge for themselves the subtle effects of intergenerational violence. Hellfire functions forcefully as a critique of patriarchal norms in Bangladesh because it so eschews didactic moralising in favour of evocatively and allusively suggesting the potential hazards patriarchy’s effects on men and women through the tight focus on one single family, their habits and their peculiarities.
Gazi homes in on detail because she recognises that quotidian activities – going to the market, preparing a meal – all vibrate with the force of larger power structures. After Lovely returns from her brief sojourn alone in the outside world, she and her family members eat dinner as planned, and each retire to their rooms afterward as usual, but with the slightest measure of difference, all ‘hunched a little lower as they stood up from their chairs’ as an ‘unbearable pressure on their shoulders did its best to push them to the ground’. Describing the uncomfortable aura that has fallen upon the family, Gazi writes that their ‘mental state oozed itself into the very house’, a metaphor that not only underscores the macabre tone of the novel, but also points to Gazi’s sensitivity to the finer details of language and the interior lives of her characters. Attuned to these minor notes in both individuals and the traditions they uphold, for better or for worse, Gazi acknowledges that what is often barely perceptible can still be ever-present, and eventually, all-consuming.