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Leesa Gazi On ‘Hellfire’: Once A Woman Realises What It’s Like To Feel Free, She Can’t Willingly Go Back

The writer-filmmaker on the inspiration behind ‘Hellfire’, a chilling book about the horrors of patriarchy.
Leesa Gazi, who is also an actor, scriptwriter and filmmaker, runs an arts company called Komola Collective with three other female artists.
Leesa Gazi, who is also an actor, scriptwriter and filmmaker, runs an arts company called Komola Collective with three other female artists.

Leesa Gazi’s Hellfire, translated from Bengali by Shabnam Nadiya, is set over one eventful day when Lovely is allowed by her mother to visit a nearby market alone on her birthday. The twist, however, is that Lovely is not a child who needs adult supervision, but a 40-year-old woman.

“Only Allah ta’ala Himself knew how this impossible had become possible today,” Lovely tells us.

The day goes into unexpected, chilling directions for Lovely and her family, especially mother Farida Khanam and sister Beauty, as Gazi’s compact novel unveils the insidious horrors of patriarchy in a seemingly close-knit family in Bangladesh.

The Bengali novel Rourob, Gazi’s debut, was published in 2010, and Nadiya’s new translation, out from Westland’s Eka imprint, is fluid and compelling.

In an email interview with HuffPost India, Gazi said that “the urgency of living under lockdown during the pandemic makes us empathise with the experiences of the characters of Rourob.

UK-based Gazi, who is also an actor, scriptwriter and filmmaker, runs an arts company called Komola Collective with three other female artists. Her documentary film Rising Silence, based on the lives of women who suffered brutal sexual violence in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, has won several awards.

On the inspiration behing Rourob, Gazi said that there is a “collective effort” to keep women within four walls and make them feel ashamed of their own dreams.

“When a woman growing up in that environment realises for the first time what it’s like to feel free, what it’s like to take control of her own life then something fundamentally changes from deep within, something happens to that woman. That woman can never willingly go back to a place where she cannot feel free, cannot act freely, cannot think freely any more,” said Gazi.

In the interview, she also spoke about why the male characters in Hellfire don’t have much agency, the most disturbing reader reaction she received, and why she chose 40 as her protagonist’s age.

I felt my first chill while reading Hellfire when I realised Lovely was actually 40 years old. It made me wonder if I would have reacted differently if she was, say, half that age. What made you choose this age for your protagonist?

When I thought of the characters’ perspectives from where the novel begins, I realised Lovely’s age would be crucial from the storytelling point of view. As I was writing, I instinctively wrote Lovely turned 40 today. I did not question why I chose her to be 40. It felt right. Maybe because 40 is a significant age for us, humankind - the age when an individual is past their youth but not their possibilities. Also when you are at forty, and you feel your life has been motionless, powerless, purposeless, and you don’t find any footing when you look back or to the future, then the desperation you feel must be soul-crushing. I think 40 is also the age when one can feel utterly frantic, troubled thinking one life that is bestowed has just slipped through. That intensity of emotion often propels you to turn it around, take control.

Translator Shabnam Hadiya
Translator Shabnam Hadiya

The male characters in the novel are mostly silent and ineffectual, and don’t seem to have much agency. This seems a strange choice in a book that is about the horrors of patriarchy. Can you tell us why this is so?

That’s a great question. I made the conscious decision not to portray any men as representatives of the horrors of patriarchy. Patriarchy is so implanted in us that we don’t need men to manifest it. We immediately recognise the ghastly face of it, even in the absence of men. You can find patriarchy at work even in families where there is no male member. This is, more often than not, how it works in societies. Patriarchy has completely seized our subconscious and to break free we need tenacious work and commitment to change the mindset, which can only happen if we, both women and men, work towards affecting meaningful change.

“I made the conscious decision not to portray any men as representatives of the horrors of patriarchy. Patriarchy is so implanted in us that we don’t need men to manifest it.”

Though you had no idea this was coming while writing the novel, it’s hard not to read Lovely and Beauty’s story in the light of a pandemic and lockdown hanging over us. What was the inspiration behind Rourob?

The urgency of living under lockdown during the pandemic makes us empathise with the experiences of the characters of Rourob. The anxiety to “keep safe” to justify personal confinement is quite similar to the experiences of the characters of Rourob. So, yes, the book seems more relatable in that light.

The inspiration behind Rourob has come from the deep desire for women to have equal rights to freedom in our society: freedom of movement, freedom of association, freedom of choice, freedom of expression. There is a collective effort in our homes and communities to curtail the power of imagination of women, to snip their wings, to keep them within four walls, to make them feel ashamed, doubtful for their own aspirations. When a woman growing up in that environment realises for the first time what it’s like to feel free, what it’s like to take control of her own life then something fundamentally changes from deep within, something happens to that woman. That woman can never willingly go back to a place where she cannot feel free, cannot act freely, cannot think freely any more. That woman will try to do everything in her capacity and power to remain free. Freedom is so fundamental we seek freedom instinctively, and sometimes we take it for granted. But for a woman, in every aspect of her life, there is drawn an invisible boundary, she must not cross. Freedom is a dream to her, and when she comes to know the taste of her very dream, how can she not do everything to hold onto that dream, to hold onto freedom.

It is not difficult to find women around us who are willing agents of patriarchy, but Farida Khanam is an interesting manifestation, almost like a benevolent jailer. How did you come up with this character?

I remember meeting the mirror image of my three characters of Rourob: Lovely, Beauty and their mother Farida Khanam in their milieu. The elder sister seemed in her mid-30s, had two long braids hanging slightly above her knees, and was wearing a red dot on her forehead. With her big drifting eyes and dark complexion, 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 and a much lighter skin tone. Neither of them hardly spoke. The mother was jovial, sweet, she talked about her two daughters, and nothing else, while they were present. They nodded faithfully to everything their mother was saying about them. The interactions seemed strange with imposed sweetness. I sensed discomfort at the time, and that was all. The three characters evolved from there.

I think it is a trick of a man-made society to paint a mother figure as ‘holy’ to make her believe that motherhood is the whole purpose of her existence. It is profoundly conflicting and tremendous pressure to fulfil this ‘divine’ role when the same person faces daily shame, injustices, and cruelty from society, as a woman. As a member of a patriarchal culture, a mother tries her best to show that her family is perfect because her worth is only as much as her family’s honour. She is measured by her abilities to safeguard this image. We refuse to see them as human beings. The stifling norms and boundaries that are carefully marked for them to obey when they were growing up are the same rules they impose on their daughters too. In the process, she often unleashes a reign of terror on them and consequently dark secrets, and abusive relationships are born. It’s a full circle of horror. So the manifestation of their conflicted minds often brings out their cruel and psychopathic side.

'Hellfire' by Leesa Gazi, translated by Shabnam Nadiya; Published by Eka Westland (2020)
'Hellfire' by Leesa Gazi, translated by Shabnam Nadiya; Published by Eka Westland (2020)

Why is Lovely’s inner voice that of a man?

Lovely dreams about freedom. She desires intimacy. She craves for love. From her perspective, it seemed logical that her imaginary companion would be a man, represented by a male-voice, with whom she can talk about everything from the mundane to the whimsical. It is with whom she can be her true self.

What was the reception like for Rourob in Bangladesh?

The general responses were hugely encouraging and heartening, but I also encountered some disapproving comments about women’s sexuality in the book. I faced questions like, ‘didn’t you feel ashamed to write something like this?’ ‘How could you write such stuff. I felt uncomfortable even to read about it’! I usually found these comments quite amusing, and my reply was invariably, - “no, I actually enjoyed it”.

Rourob was first serialised weekly on Arts.bdnews24 with the support of the Arts Editor Bratya Raisu in 2009. I was surprised and intrigued by the comments of general readers. It was clear to me that the story was provoking people to question the dynamics that take place between parents and children in our homes. It was also making them assess their own experiences. One particular comment from a reader gave me a chill. She wrote, ‘I read the story. I thought of Amma. (My) Events are quite close to the story. Don’t know why they are so much alike.’

Sucheepatra published Rourob in Dhaka Ekushey Boi Mela in 2010, and it was well-received by readers. The book was out of print for many years. There are so many books that get published each year in Bangladesh with little care about content or quality, and next to no editing support from the local publishers. They come out, they disappear, and no one notices. Rourob faced the same fate. But I am pleased that people are still reading it online and, from time to time, they share their comments with me, and I am happy that it continues to interest readers.

“One particular comment from a reader gave me a chill. She wrote, ‘I read the story. I thought of Amma. (My) Events are quite close to the story. Don’t know why they are so much alike.’”

You have been continuing your work of bringing to light the ways in which patriarchy and violence affects women. Can you tell us a little more about this?

I am a creative practitioner by profession, and I want to tell stories that are close to my heart. I co-founded an arts company called Komola Collective with three other female artists: Filiz Ozcan, Sohini Alam and Caitlin Abbott. Through our work, we revisit history and question accepted beliefs to investigate new viewpoints on women’s standings, roles and their contribution to society as seen in our theatre production Birangona: Women of War. We create work that challenges social taboos to provoke discussions and spark change, as demonstrated by our multi-award-winning documentary feature film Rising Silence. We also deconstruct myths and link these ideas with contemporary culture as we are exploring in our new play Shahrazad by Tahmima Anam. The play is influenced by the tales of One Thousand and One Nights and real-life accounts of survivors of domestic violence.

My passion is to tell stories that affect women and girls across countries and cultures.

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This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost India, which closed in 2020. Some features are no longer enabled. If you have questions or concerns about this article, please contact indiasupport@huffpost.com.