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  Books   17 Jan 2021  Book REVIEW | What happens to women in a matriarchy, and other secrets

Book REVIEW | What happens to women in a matriarchy, and other secrets

Published : Jan 17, 2021, 8:03 am IST
Updated : Dec 19, 2021, 3:01 pm IST

Mouthwatering descriptions of food have become a requisite for such novels but Gazi adds a twist to her descriptions

Cover page of Hellfire by Leesa Gazi
 Cover page of Hellfire by Leesa Gazi

Leesa Gazi knows how to spin a yarn. In her debut novel, translated so effectively from Bangla by Shabnam Nadiya, Ms Gazi has us riveted to a poignantly powerful tale of the bizarrely controlled life that the main protagonist “Lovely” and her sister “Beauty” have led, while recounting the events of a singularly important day in Lovely’s life. She does this at the pace of a suspense-filled thriller while incorporating moments of poetic description and drawing vivid pictures of humdrum everyday life in a middleclass household in Dhaka.

While this is her first novel, Ms Gazi is a scriptwriter, actor and filmmaker. Among the work she has done is her contribution to the award winning documentary film on the lives of rape survivors in the aftermath of the Bangladesh Liberation War, Rising Silence.


Perhaps her work in the visual arts contributed to Ms Gazi’s ability to draw such clear pictures for her readers while telling the story of two sisters and their mother who, trapped by blind adherence to the perceived demands of convention, creates an unreal dystopia for her daughters to navigate with only her by their side. In this story, of a sort of life imprisonment imposed on the daughters by the mother, Ms Gazi’s comfort with the visual and her ability to recount this in words is brought out in all the minutiae of detail that she deftly puts together to help her readers into this surreal, yet at times strikingly ordinary, world. For instance, when Lovely entered Ramna Park she, “… leaned back her head and lifted her face to the sky. A leaf dropped onto her face like a falling star on a dark night. She unzipped her bag with care and placed the leaf inside. Who knew what kind of tree it belonged to. She didn’t know anything about plants or trees. It would be good if she knew what tree this came from.”


The author adroitly moves the reader back and forth between Lovely’s surreal perception of the world on the day being described to the more prosaic voice of the background narrative, in a seamless manner. That this is brought about so effectively in the translation is also a tribute to the excellent and sensitive translation by Shabnam Nadiya.

Mouthwatering descriptions of food have become a requisite for such novels but Gazi adds a twist to her descriptions. Among the various allegorical characterisations, food is also used to gently underline the lack of rights in the lives of the girls with the sameness of the hilsa pulao for special occasions, almost bringing forth a disgust of this traditionally gourmet dish, while the humble peanuts bought in a park carry the delicious flavour of liberation.


As the novel moves towards unearthing secrets and the “man inside” Lovely’s head exhorts her to break out, Gazi keeps up the tempo of anxiety for the reader with descriptions such as, “And here was this crow, cawing endlessly. In the afternoon as undisturbed as a still lake, the crow’s hoarse call seemed to emerge from another world, existing only to send her a warning.” As the day darkens, so does the “man” in Lovely’s head become more cautious, exchanging places with the exterior Lovely, drawing us towards a startling and tragic denouement.

This disturbing thriller with its cautionary tale against authoritarian behaviour and uncritical obeisance to convention, shows us how excessive control contains the seeds of its own collapse by not allowing people to grow in a natural manner. And all of this is done by tautly and elegantly juxtaposing the mundane and the poetic, the surreal and the real.


Nayantara Roy is a lawyer practising in Delhi

Tags: book review, nayantara roy, leesa gazi hellfire (english)