'Hellfire' book review: A Revolt Unfolded

Leesa Gazi​ explores tyranny and the way in which powerlessness is internalised, through the medium of a dysfunctional family.
Representational image
Representational image

Tyranny comes from the fear of losing what’s most precious to the tyrant. Sometimes that thing is power, sometimes it’s the semblance of normalcy. In her book Hellfire, Leesa Gazi explores tyranny and the way in which powerlessness is internalised, through the medium of a dysfunctional family.

The book opens on an intriguing premise: Lovely has been allowed a special treat on her 40th birthday - to go out of her home alone for the first time in her life. Her sister Beauty was to have come with her, but she wasn’t ready in time.

Uncharacteristically for the sisters, their mother Farida Khanam allowed the outing to proceed solo. And so, here is Lovely, with her oiled braids and dowdy dress, in a three-wheeler autorickshaw, heading for the market on her own. 

It takes a while for Lovely to even believe that she has the next few hours to herself, but when she finally does, it’s as if she has learnt to fly. She abandons all programmes, wandering wherever her whim takes her. She loiters around the market, buying clothes for her family.

Bored of shopping, she wanders to a garden she’s never been to before, and spends an hour there. She buys snacks, allows herself to be propositioned by a lecherous passer-by, stares at random people.

And through the day, her past keeps coming back to her, and revolt begins to form in her mind. It is the beauty of Gazi’s writing and characterisation that we are so completely inside Lovely’s mind through her journey.

We completely understand the direction of her revolt, even while realising that the underlying issue is something else altogether. For while she’s always been under her mother’s thumb, it feels like no strange thing to her - that’s just what she’s grown up with. Rather, her anger turns towards her sister, who, she feels, asks for (and gets) more than her fair share of privilege in the house.

While Lovely sits in the park, the narrative circles, like a carrion vulture, into the minds of the other family members, starting with her mother. Farida Khanam has been left alone by herself for the day, too, and is now re-evaluating her own life.

Her mind goes back into the past, towards a terrible secret that could tear her family apart. Should she tell her daughters? Should she carry her secret to the grave? We listen to her monologue and finally begin to understand why the mother has barred off the outside world from her children all these years.

While she is concerned with these thoughts, her household has barely noticed anything amiss. Her younger daughter Beauty is preoccupied with shallow pleasures and ways to procure them in this locked-up home. Her husband’s thoughts vacuously centre around what he will get for lunch. Such is the power of the matriarch that the twisted has become the normal.

When the family is reunited, the effects of the day of rumination manifest startlingly. They were all bound too tightly to let the light in - and when the bindings were loosened, the light revealed the rot at the core. Nothing will be the same again. Gazi's writing is reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith at her most incisive. The translation by Shabnam Nadiya is top-notch. One of the best books of the year, and a must-read.

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The New Indian Express