The suburbs of Dhaka, Bangladesh, it is Lovely’s birthday and she is heading to the markets, it is the first time she has been allowed to go outside the house unaccompanied, Lovely is forty years old today.
So opens the wonderful ‘Hellfire’ by Lessa Gazi, stunningly translated from the Bengali by Shabnam Nadiya. Forty years pretty much confined to her home, outings always with her elder sister Beauty or her mother Farida Khanam.
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 today.
The scene is set in the first few pages that “something special” is going to happen today. ‘Hellfire’ is a novel that explores a single day in the life of a single family in Bangladesh, the rituals, the food, and of course the fact that Farida Khanam, and her passive husband Mukhles shaheb, keep their two daughters under tight lock and key.
Their lives had changed drastically after they were caught sneaking to the rooftop when they were fourteen. That was when the Monipuripara house was built. Until that house went up, the two sisters spent their days in harsh imprisonment. If husband and wife went out together, they locked the girls in with the older maidservant. But neither of the parents really felt comfortable with that. Sometimes they would get halfway to their destination and come back. Sometimes they would go but spend the whole time feeling uneasy. Farida Khanam staked everything she had on building the Monipuripara house, and, even before it was complete, she moved them in.
As the story unfolds, of Lovely’s day in Dhaka, we learn more about the forced “imprisonment” and the “man inside her head”, whose voices guide her on her journey.
(‘Apumoni, listen carefully to what I say. Do you want to go home now?’)
(‘Even if you leave right now, you can’t be sure that you’ll be out of danger. You’ll reach home by two, for sure, but it doesn’t seem like you’ll be able to provide a suitable explanation about what you’ve been up to all this time. You didn’t even get much shopping done. But if you’re late getting back, then you’re done for – doomed. So what I say is, you’re in trouble anyway, whether you’re one hour late or three hours. What’s the point of worrying so much? You’ve come out by yourself this one time in your life. Just take in some air, chill, chat with people, then go home. There’s no harm if you don’t go back at all.’)
This is a novel revealing and depicting the women of the household, they are the primary players, with the men, bit players, sickly, resigned, or impassive, excluding the man inside Lovely’s head. Lovely’s older sister Beauty, and her motivations, her desire to keep Lovely underneath her in the pecking order, or her bitter relationship with her mother and father is also explored, through the rituals of being locked up not knowing when they’ll be allowed out of their rooms.
‘How long does she keep you locked up?’
‘It depends. Sometimes it’s just two or three hours, but sometimes it’s like two or three days. Amma opens the door and brings in food, she stays and chats, asks what we want for lunch or dinner. Sometimes she sits and watches television with us, then she locks the door and leaves. At some point, we figure out that our doors are no longer locked, that we can come out of our rooms and everything is fine. We’ve grown used to it. Today when I get home, she’ll probably lock us up for a month. When Amma locks us, she locks both of us up. It’s good though; we don’t have to do any household chores during those times. We don’t have to do the ironing. We just eat, chill out and watch TV. If anyone comes to visit our home when we’re locked up, Amma unlocks our doors. We go out normally, and then go back to our rooms when the guests leave. We don’t get many visitors anyway. And anyway, both of us do a lot of skin and hair care during those times. We rub eggs and henna in our hair. And we rub turmeric paste on our arms and legs. It brightens our complexion. Amma has the maid get everything ready for us. Generally, I’m not that into beauty care. I don’t enjoy it, and I’m lazy. But when I’m locked up, I do it.’
Lovely eventually goes home, and then the day begins again, this time from the mother Farida Khanam’s (also referred to as Amma) perspective. It is from then that the backstory unfolds. We learn of Farida Khanam’s marriage, her fears, relationships and reasoning behind locking her daughters away. Early in the novel she comes across as simply a domineering character who snaps at the hired help, always complaining about cleanliness, timeliness or cooking, but as her backstory unfolds, a sprinkling of compassion and understanding comes into play. We also learn of why she gave permission for Lovely to go out without a chaperone, and numerous other family issues that are, of course, kept behind closed doors.
When Farida had left the bustling home of her parents in the village to build her own family and household with her husband, she wasn’t sad at all. She hadn’t been one of those girls who were mad about weddings; neither was she the kind who played with dolls from the age of ten, as proxies for their own children and households. But her tie to what was hers, her blind devotion to what belonged to her, had always superseded everything else. My house, my siblings, my parents – this concept of mine was dangerously alive in her. What could be more ‘mine’ than her own husband and her own household? The day she first set foot in her husband’s house, ‘my husband’ and ‘my household’ easily became closer to her than ‘my father’s home’ or ‘my brothers and sisters’. Everything else could be cast aside when compared to husband and home.
A single day in the life of a dysfunctional family, where the characters of Lovely, Beauty and Farida Khanam are revealed in all their ugliness and splendor. A very enjoyable read from a country I haven’t visited often enough in my reading journeys. Translator Shabnam Nadiya has translated Moinul Ahsan Saber’s novel ‘The Mercenary’ for Bengal Lights Books 2016 and Seagull Books 2018 and her work here, splattering the novel with real Bengali names for food, or terms of endearment, allows the reader to feel a part of the Dhaka family life.
Subtle references to the Holy Prophet and “something special” happening on a fortieth birthday are sown throughout, with symbols of impending doom, black crows, or potential escapes, a man wearing a “red-muffler”, all add up to a haunting but gripping read. Highly recommended.