Surviving Pulserat: Exploring Women’s Oppression and Agency through Leesa Gazi’s Hellfire
Honestly, Hellfire was one of those books that I bought simply because I loved its cover. I mean…just look at it – stunningly unnerving.
'Hellfire' by Leesa Gazi, translated by Shabnam Nadiya; Published by Eka. (2020)
Although the cover blew me away, I was certain that this would be yet another addition to my ever-increasing pandemic reading list. Little did I know that Leesa Gazi’s macabre novella would end a year-long reading drought for me. Set in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and translated from the original Bengali by Shabnab Nadiya, the novella chronicles a day in the life of two daughters imprisoned in a patriarchal hell of their mother’s making. I was hooked from the very first line:
Lovely adored wandering random streets without purpose. Getting out of the house, however, was a task as hard and complicated as crossing the pulserat, that final bridge of the afterlife spanning the fires of hell.
Gazi, Leesa. Hellfire (p. 1). Eka. Kindle Edition.
Both the impulse to loiter around on streets purposeless and free, and the impossibility of actually doing it, spoke to me at a personal level. “Lovely is just like me”, I thought. However, in a chilling twist, a couple of pages into the novel, Gazi reveals that Lovely, the elder daughter of the family, has just turned forty on the day that the story begins. In Gazi’s unnerving, staccato prose, we find out that the sisters Lovely and Beauty have been under a kind of house arrest almost all their lives, cowering under the ever-watchful and oppressive gaze of their mother – the formidable Farida Khanam.
What ensues is an intimate description of these women’s lives over the span of a particularly unusual day in their already unusual lives because it is Lovely’s fortieth birthday, and more importantly, the day Farida Khanam allows Lovely to step outside the house by herself to buy a piece of fabric. Gazi employs an omniscient narrative voice that focuses on the points of view of all three women – Lovely, Beauty, Farida Khanam – to paint a disturbing, yet empathetic, picture that reveals the all-consuming, everyday, patriarchal oppression of these women. Through surreal motifs and narrative tools, Gazi peeks under the hood of this seemingly perfect family, and shows us the horrors and violence of these characters’ reality.
These women show a proclivity for violence towards each other, simmering underneath the surface of “well-behaved”, “perfect” mother and sisters. This essay will explore themes of oppression and agency in Hellfire through the rich, yet liminal spaces of these characters’ internal lives.
The Next Few Hours Belonged to Her: Visibilizing Oppression through Defamiliarization
The BBC recently published a piece on the NCRB suicide data among Indian housewives which stated that, “Women are really resilient, but there's a limit to tolerance”. To me, Hellfire has been a study in how women navigate patriarchal oppression and what happens when this oppression pushes past their limits.
Both the desire for the basic freedoms of movement and choice, and the seeming impossibility of achieving them, expressed in the opening lines of the novel struck a chord with me as a queer woman isolating with my family in the midst of a pandemic when I read the book. I could relate to Lovely and Beauty’s struggle at two levels.
First, their mother’s obvious lack of respect for their right to mobility and self-expression. Neither of the sisters are allowed to step out of the house by themselves, and are punished for even expressing, let alone acting upon, their heart’s desires. I found some of the lines from the novel unnervingly familiar, although it is supposed to be about this exceptionally oppressive patriarchal household. I uneasily realized that a lot of these lines have been said to me and most of my friends by their respective “liberal” parents, who “allow” their children to do what they want. Take, for instance, this line at the beginning of the novel:
It was now ten o’clock, and she had to be back before lunchtime. She felt relieved. This was the first time that Amma hadn’t given her a specific time. She had only said, be back by lunchtime. Which meant that the next few hours, until two o’clock, belonged to her.
Gazi, Leesa. Hellfire (p. 4). Eka. Kindle Edition.
Curfews that make us calculate how much time we have to hang out with a friend/romantic partner when we step out of the house are but a way of life for most South Asian children. Furthermore, as a queer woman, freely espressing what – nay, who – I desire has always only been punished, just the way Lovely’s desire for her cousin Riaz is brutally crushed by Farida. Thus, Gazi takes familiar forms of women’s oppression and makes them unfamiliar, strange , horrifying, by only slightly changing their context. Instead of a twenty-five--year-old woman’s mother telling her how to live her life, we have a forty-year-old woman’s mother doing the same. Imagine being forty and still stuck in your parents’ house. What hell could be worse? Gazi’s triumph lies in recognizing that a seemingly minor change in the ages of her characters would suddenly vizibilize the true extent of the horrors of these invisibilized and normalized forms of oppression.
Another quality of Farida Khanam’s oppressive motherhood which was painfully familiar for me was her callous denial of Lovely and Beauty’s selfhood. She thinks of Lovely and Beauty as her extensions. She actively hinders them from growing into independent human beings by denying them opportunities to explore their selfhood through friendships, romantic relationships, or other personal interests. Farida Khanam raises her daughters to be helpless and dependent; they are systematically deprived of the agency to navigate the outside world without her.
Farida Khanam was constantly trying to prove how useless the two of them were without her help. Lovely’s inability to buy an orna would be further proof of their uselessness.
Gazi, Leesa. Hellfire (p. 7). Eka. Kindle Edition.
A large part of who I am, particularly my agency and pride, comes from my interactions and experiences with people, and in places, outside of my family and their home. My understanding of my sexuality and unique selfhood flourished when I explored the horizons beyond those of being a good daughter. By denying the sisters this opportunity, Farida robs them of their potential, dynamic selfhood. Many women in my family have been similarly coerced into sacrificing their unique selfhood at the altar of being good, dutiful wives and mothers. They have been denied the things that make them unique – from their art, poetry, and gardening, to their friendships, unrequited loves, and sexualities.
Once again, what makes this familiar form of oppression unfamiliar and particularly scary is the extent to and duration for which Farida Khanam keeps her daughters deprived of any sense of selfhood outside of being her daughters. The inescapability of their oppression makes their story particularly scary and unsettling.
What the Crow Says: Articulating Intergenerational Trauma through Surrealism
The first half of the novel, narrated from Lovely’s point of view paints a formidable and cruel picture of Farida Khanam as the reader gets to experience the extent of self-doubt and dependence she has bred into her daughters, and the violence she has enacted on them. In response to a seemingly minor transgression when the girls were fourteen , Farida Khanam moves Lovely and Beauty to a new house that is away from the town, accompanies them everywhere, and never gives them a moment by themselves to flourish as individuals, all in the name of their “well-being” which equals “honor” and “chastity” in the context of a patriarchal society.
In the second half of the novel, Gazi juxtaposes this portrayal of Farida Khanam as an oppressor, with details about her childhood and marriage. This helps contextualize much of her paranoid possessiveness towards Lovely and Beauty. Farida’s formidable, controlling demeanor, dedicated to running the “perfect household” is something she has inherited from her equally formidable mother, who passed down her conservative patriarchal values to her daughter. Upon finding out that her son-in-law is impotent, Farida’s mother reminds her that:
The duty of a worthy woman is to absorb. That is what you will do. Whatever has happened is fate. Don’t let people laugh at you—never give them the chance to laugh at you. Your husband’s humiliation is your own. Now, that house is your own, that man is your husband—no matter what he’s like.’
Gazi, Leesa. Hellfire (p. 96). Eka. Kindle Edition. Emphasis mine.
The only way Farida has been able to gain her mother’s approval, have any sense of self and semblance of control over her life is by “absorbing” what she perceives, through her patriarchal worldview, to be her husband and daughters’ “shortcomings”. This life-long endeavor to seem like the perfect wife and mother, represents the burden of intergenerational trauma and anxieties that Farida Khanam carries but does not have the tools to process or articulate.
Gazi chooses to represent this internal turmoil through the recurring, surreal motif of the crow, and the dread it elicits in Farida.
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 … Her sense of dread returned with renewed strength.
Gazi, Leesa. Hellfire (p. 118). Eka. Kindle Edition.
Every time Farida is about to lose control of the domestic ‘bliss’ she has carefully manipulated her family into presenting, she either sees a crow - a familiar bird, particularly in South Asia - and feels inexplicably terrified of it or it directly attacks it. The local superstitions about crows being bad omens only help further the surreal, supernatural element in moments of stress for Farida. Thus, Gazi effectively uses the crow to give an other-worldy quality to Farida’s real-world anxieties around being an imperfect wife and mother as well as the intergenerational trauma that breeds these anxieties within her. Author Carmen Maria Machado, explains in an interview that surrealism, or what she calls “non-realism”, is “...a way to tap into aspects of being a woman that can be surreal or somehow liminal—certain experiences that can feel, even, like horror. It allows you to defamiliarize certain topics…”
The dissonance between how things appear in this household, and how they really are, crescendos in the climax of the novel when the simmering tension in Lovely and Beauty’s relationship reaches a point of no return. Old resentments, rooted in Beauty’s anger towards Lovely for being romantically involved with their cousin Riaz, well up and highlight the broader differences between the two sisters — Lovely’s quiet refusal to play by her mother’s rules, unlike Beauty, who attempts to exercise whatever little agency is afforded to by her mother’s patriarchal rules.
Today was the day for everyone to be what they weren’t, or perhaps to be what they were.
Gazi, Leesa. Hellfire (p. 192). Eka. Kindle Edition.
This line foreshadows the chilling end of the novel where Lovely not only commits a senseless act of violence, but also immediately normalizes and accepts it as a banal part of her life. In a truly subversive moment, Gazi reveals the full extent of this family’s dysfunction by defamiliarizing what may initially seem to be familiar tensions for a pair of sisters who are made to compete for the attention of a man—the only man they are allowed to see—Raiz.
However, the violence of the ultimate, climactic tussle between the two sisters takes these differences and magnifies their intensity to reveal the violence simmering underneath their seemingly harmless and familiar tiffs throughout the novel.
It’s All in Our Head:Exploring Agency in Hellfire
So far, Hellfire must seem like a sad story of oppressed women – which it is. But, what I found most powerful about it was the way it portrayed its characters’ rebellion against the seemingly insurmountable obstacles they have faced all their life. The story is brimming with little pockets of hope, where the characters try to reclaim their agency. Take, for instance, Lovely thinking:
Of course, no one could say that Lovely had ever disobeyed her mother even unwittingly. But it would be a different story if you considered what went on inside her.
Gazi, Leesa. Hellfire (p. 15). Eka. Kindle Edition. Emphasis mine.
Accounting for the socio-cultural milieu that the story is set in, Gazi reimagines portrayals of women’s agency, removing them from the realm of the physical and into the liminal space of the characters’ minds.
The man in Lovely’s head is an imaginary companion whose mischievous, liberated voice supports her through moments of loneliness and uncertainty, prodding her toward embracing her desires, and quietly rebelling against her mother’s injustices. Throughout the novel, as Lovely navigates the outside world, which she has been allowed to explore by herself for the first time in 40 years, the man in her head supports her attempts at exercising agency and even suggests avenues for doing so:
…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.
Gazi, Leesa. Hellfire (pp. 35-36). Eka. Kindle Edition. Emphasis mine.
The very first time Lovely speaks to the man in her head is in a moment of loneliness and vulnerability. As Gazi stated in an interview that he is someone “with whom she [Lovely] can be her true self”. He, thus, embodies the companion that Farida Khanam denied Lovely.
Interestingly, though, by making the voice a man, Gazi collapses the border between the real and the surreal, highlighting that even in the liminal, imaginary space of her mind, Lovely cannot imagine a woman having the agency to articulate the things the man in her head does.
Lovely’s rich, surreal inner life ties into her significantly more rebellious and adventurous outer life – from choosing to stay out alone without her mother’s permission to her having sex with her cousin Riaz when they were in college.
Readers should juxtapose this with Beauty’s walled-in reality, lacking the complex interiority that Lovely does. However, within the confines of the domestic hell that is their home, Beauty reigns supreme – throwing tantrums, raging, screaming, snarling, and demanding all the creature comforts she thinks may fulfill her desires from beauty magazines to ganja.
She had been smoking for about a year now. The boy had introduced her to it.
Gazi, Leesa. Hellfire (p. 131). Eka. Kindle Edition.
In a moment of pathos, Gazi reveals that smoking marijuana in the confines of her bathroom is really the most rebellious thing Beauty has done in her life, and even this, she does not discover by herself. The boy who comes to their house to run errands introduces her to it. She seems to have resigned to the life of isolation she has been forced into by her mothers’ oppressive house arrest for them, and prefers not trying to escape it. She says as much in a conversation with Lovely, when she asks Beauty how she can be so daring and outspoken in the house.
‘What do you mean daring? It’s a very simple equation. I will obey her, and she will take care of my comforts. Why do you act like a scared mouse all the time, Apa? Listen, inside these walls, we do as we please—do you understand?’
Gazi, Leesa. Hellfire (p. 59). Eka. Kindle Edition.
So, while Lovely chooses to quietly attain what her heart desires through her imagination, Beauty chooses to suppress her desire for freedom, and exercises whatever agency she is afforded in the space she knows she will be able to without any real-world consequences – at home over her family. Even her authoritarian mother worries about her tantrums.
Farida was afraid of this side of Beauty. She never disobeyed her mother, but Farida knew very well that she could easily do so if she wanted to. Lovely wasn’t capable of that.
Gazi, Leesa. Hellfire (p. 106). Eka. Kindle Edition.
This seemingly real-world power Beauty holds over the household is undercut by the fact that throughout the novel, she loses out the opportunities to do what she most desires – from going out to the market by herself to being with Riaz – both things Lovely achieves with a little help from the man in her head.
By juxtaposing Beauty and Lovely’s trajectories throughout their lives and at the end of this tragically unusual day, Gazi emphasizes on the power of the surreal and the imaginary. The relationship that Lovely has developed with her inner self, through the man in her head, helps her survive the oppression she has been subjected to. As Carmen Maria Machado says in her interview, surreal motifs, like the man in Lovely’s head are, “a reminder that you are allowed your own fantasies, the particular fancies of your own mind. That everyone deserves this, and should insist upon it. That—even as others tell you the things you want are unrealistic, outrageous, not permitted, or silly—it’s okay to say, I want this.”
So, on the one hand, through the characters of Farida, Lovely and Beauty, Gazi shows us the full extent of the powerlessness, lack of agency and sense of unique selfhood, and intergenerational trauma and violence of living in a patriarchal society. On the other hand, she pays homage to the forms of agency that women develop and exercise in imaginary, surreal, liminal spaces to escape the oppressive reality of living in a patriarchal society through a character like Lovely.
For me, despite its overall sense of oppressive gloom, Hellfire was a firm, much-needed, hope-giving reminder that it is possible to survive pulserat - the hellfire of a patriarchal society - just so long as we do not let it rob us of what goes on in our head.
Fassler, Joe. 2017. “How Surrealism Enriches Storytelling about Women.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/10/how-surrealism-enriches-storytelling-about-women/542496/.
Gazi, Leesa. 2020. Hellfire. Translated by Shabnam Nadiya, Chennai: Eka. https://champaca.in/products/hellfire?variant=32375840899107
Hrishikesh, Sharanya. 2020. “Leesa Gazi on 'Hellfire': Once a Woman Realises What It's like to Feel Free, She Can't Willingly Go Back.” HuffPost, HuffPost. Https://www.huffpost.com/archive/in/entry/hellfire-book-leesa-gazi-interview_in_5f903bf9c5b62333b240fc0e.
Pandey, Geeta. 2021. “What's behind Suicides by Thousands of Indian Housewives?” BBC News, BBC. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-59634393