In Leesa Gazi's novel Hellfire, a controlling mother's hold on her daughters takes a dark, twisted turn
Leesa Gazi's Rourob — the story of a controlling mother Farida, and her hold over her spinster daughters, Lovely and Beauty — was first published a decade ago in Bangladesh.
Novelist, playwright, actor and scriptwriter Leesa Gazi’s characters can always be found somewhere in her surroundings. Rather than stemming entirely from imagination, the eccentric people in her stories germinate from her momentary glimpses at the idiosyncrasies and the awkwardness of those around her. Hellfire, or the original Bengali novel Rourob, is no different.
Gazi first published Rourob — the story of a controlling mother, Farida Khanam, and her hold over her two spinster daughters, Lovely and Beauty — in Bangaldesh over a decade ago. Such is Farida Khanam’s tight grip on her children that at 40, Lovely has never married, has no children, no career, no money and no friends.
Instead, on her 40th birthday, all she gets is the gift of one day — a few hours of adventure when her mother allows her to go to the Gausia Market all by herself, without her sister or the servant boy. Perhaps she is getting old and feeble, Lovely thinks.
What follows in the novel is a day in the lives of the three women which takes a drastically dark turn as Lovely reckons with her independence, to prove to Farida that she is a grown-up who can take care of herself.
Gazi says, “I clearly remember meeting the mirror image of my three characters Lovely, Beauty and their mother Farida Khanam in their milieu.” The elder was in her mid-30s, sporting a red dot on her forehead which was clearly drawn with lipstick and a bit smudged: “She looked like the Bollywood star Rekha in her early movies. The younger sister appeared tip-top, fashionable, with a hint of a smile at the corner of her lips. Both of them hardly spoke.”
“The mother was jovial, sweet, talking nonstop about her two daughters who were right there,” Gazi continues, “They nodded faithfully about everything their mother was saying about them. I sensed discomfort. And that was all. Later I heard that the sisters didn’t finish their studies and they never married.”
The award-winning documentary filmmaker carried this encounter with her for a long time before finally sitting down to write the story. For Gazi, it was the process of translating author Tahmima Anam’s debut novel, A Golden Age, into Bengali that inspired confidence in her to write and research for Rourob. And having been on the other side of things, it was another exciting prospect altogether to have the Bengali work translated by Shabnam Nadiya into English.
The 2020 translation, a product of numerous conversations and creative exchanges between the two writers, captures the patriarchy of Farida Khanam’s parenting that transcends into something ugly and menacing, in a narrative that swerves sharply from being morbid, to satirical and in parts, even comical.
As closeted as Lovely and Beauty’s existence appears to be, it is startling to observe in Hellfire that while the elder one rebels internally against her mother’s control, the younger gives in to this damaging dominance as long as all her demands within this controlled setting, like getting a VCR or a hair dryer or a fashionable make-up set, are met.
A Golden Age has also been one of the influences behind Rourob, Gazi notes, because in Aman’s novel, one of the central characters, Rehana is a mother who unexpectedly and secretly finds love during a war and “defies society's glare and judgement to embrace it with all her heart. But she ends up sacrificing this love to save her son.”
In a similar vein, “Farida Khanam, the matriarch in Rourob, constructs her life on a lie to keep up the façade she needs to put up for her society, her environment, and her family. In doing so, she herself begins to believe her false narrative too.” For at the heart of Farida Khanam’s domineering presence over her daughters’ lives lurks a secret which presses heavily on the ageing mother.
So, the mother of Hellfire is a far cry from the typical construct of the maternal figure glorified in south Asian societies as “all-tolerant, all-offering souls” who are seldom seen as human beings with lives of their own.
“I think it is a part of a male-dominated society to paint a mother figure like this to make her believe that motherhood is the whole purpose of her existence, that it makes her 'holy'.”
And what happens when a woman realises that she cannot fulfill this ultimate role? The author opines that this woman can become resentful to such an extent that she does not even know the source of this bitterness. “Her life seems meaningless to her, and it hugely impacts her mental health, something which is hardly ever addressed or dealt within a family structure.”
“Just as her family requires her to uphold their honour, she also demands exactly the same from her daughters. In the process, she unleashes a reign of terror on them and consequently dark secrets, and abusive relationships are born.”
Such a woman, oppressed by her family and her society’s expectations would exert her influence on her children’s lives, as a matter of course. If she had two sons, for instance, Gazi notes, she would change her parenting tactics but at their core, these too would be inordinately controlling.
“I can see her arranging their marriages much earlier, manipulating them to live with her under the same roof, and then creating oppressive routines for the daughters-in-law: setting boundaries and standards so high that they never breathe freely.”
Gazi has been juggling two ideas for novels, in the meantime script-writing for plays like Aleya Twist, a Bengali interpretation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, and Six Seasons. In writing for these diverse formats, she says, her purpose has always been to tell a story that captures the imagination of her readers.
“Before I sit down at my writing table, I carry, nurture, and investigate my characters' lives and their intentions in my mind. I follow my vision to create a trajectory for their journeys that goes on like life itself and does not necessarily end with the end of a particular story. As I write, I see the plot unfolding before me.”
Rourob is among a few other narratives that Gazi has written over time about patriarchy, subordination and the woman question. A few years ago, she produced the documentary, Rising Silence, which went on to win several accolades including the Best Documentary Award at the 2019 Dhaka International Film Festival and the 2019 Moondance prize for the best feature documentary.
Rising Silence, which first started off as a play, tells the story of the Birangona (brave) women who suffered from brutal sexual violence during the 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh. Working on this project, gathering testimonies from the women who had survived the gross injustices of war, Gazi says, “I realised that their journey, their sharing of their lives, and how they have tried to heal has shown me what I myself am capable of – as a woman.”
A particular incident that reinforced how she should approach the film – to portray the Birangona women beyond labels and statistics – was in 2015 when she traveled to a remote village in the north-west corner of Bangladesh to meet three sisters who had been kept in a rape camp along with 22 other women.
Gazi recalls, “We had a videographer present, and I was sitting in front of the three sisters waiting to interview them. We started talking when one of the sisters, Amina Apa, asked me quite abruptly, why I was not sitting next to them? She asked, ‘Are you ashamed to sit with us?’”
“I immediately understood that their experience was dominated by people ostracising them, or at best, watching and questioning from a distance. It was vital to them that we sit together, to acknowledge and learn about each other as women. They were asking for intimacy and sharing, rather than testimony.”
Hellfire too reflects such concerns manifold. As with Farida Khanam’s hawk-like watch on her daughters (and the uninvolved and disillusioned father of the two girls), Gazi encapsulates the excessive control of normative societies on a family and how every decision made within a household quite simply becomes a manifestation of these ingrained belief systems.
Leesa Gazi’s Hellfire, translated into English by Shabnam Nadiya has been published by Eka, an imprint of Westland Publications
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