On a certain eventful day in the middle of summer last year, I first set my eyes on this piece of brilliance at a relative’s place. The book, Invisible Lines, had deliciously yellow ripe mangoes on its cover; one of them half peeled. If that wasn’t enough, there was an equally yellow Harper-Collins logo at the bottom left corner. A Bangladeshi author’s magnum opus and that too by publishers of such repute was enough to have this avid reader salivating. That night, I drove back home with this lusciously yellow debut novel; expecting it to be full of pleasant surprises.
Our glorious Liberation War is something that we are proud of as a nation. In spite of that, Muktijuddho still remains a topic comparatively less documented in prose. Besides, in the past, there has been a rather romanticized approach to the portrayal of our War in more or less all branches of literature. Ruby Zaman however, gives us a rather realistic and analytic treatment of Muktijuddho, which enabled a sound narrative. But what really sets Invisible Lines apart from its famous predecessors is the variety of its characters, who are as diverse as the storyline. Perhaps a little plot summary could clear things up a bit.
Young Zebunnesa Rahim was born in East Pakistan to a Bihari father and a Sylheti mother, her maternal grandfather’s family being an affluent political empire. The prim and proper Zeb grew up in Chittagong- a melting pot of cultures amidst wealth and warmth. She knew peace until 1971, when her seemingly perfect world came crashing down and she became a victim of both sides of the war. The events in the run up to the war catch the protagonist and her upper middle class surroundings completely off guard. Families are torn apart; lovers are separated by previously negligible cultural differences and countless lives are lost. The spotlight is almost equally shared by Shafiq, first a determined young boy and then a valiant freedom fighter who loses a leg in the war. Yet another strong presence is Zeb’s caretaker ‘Didi’, a woman of unmatched dignity, wisdom and loyalty that even some of the more educated characters lacked. The story starts to jump time and place and shuttles back and forth from Chittagong to Sylhet to London. In a way, Invisible Lines is a journey, Zeb’s journey through the maze of war and human relationships.
In my ride through this remarkable debut I discovered that Ruby Zaman had intentionally kept her focus limited to the wealthier and more privileged section of the society instead of the common trend of highlighting the lower and middle classes. “What do the wealthy know of blood and tears?” one might say, but the author in fact has cleverly selected a smaller canvas and painted a better picture on it. But then again, there has been some vivid description of the toils and identity crisis of people of different ethnic and linguistic background. Hence perhaps a smaller ‘wealth’ canvas, but a larger and more detailed ethnic variation.
Yet another brave step by the author is shifting from the grand narrative of the Liberation War. The murder of Biharis during and after the Liberation War for example has never been considered as part of our poignant wartime losses. This for Bengali writers is a taboo topic, and hence not many have touched it in their works. Ruby deserves praise for developing the Bihari’s character in an unemotional way. When the story moves to Sylhet, and as the war breaks out, Zeb’s world turns upside down. Her father was brutally murdered in a train and her mother tortured and killed by Pakistani soldiers. Ironic was the fact that in spite of her grandfather’s pro-Pakistani political stand and reputation, it was the Pakistan army that caused havoc in her life.
Ironic too, was Shafiq’s affair with a Punjabi girl who he later marries – very unlikely for the typical Muktijoddha one might say.
Invisible Lines is driven more by character than story and we see very realistic character development throughout. Some of them, say Shafiq’s sister Shilu developed due to dramatic pitfalls in life, while some have had a gradual, balanced change from beginning to end, others remained the same.
Somewhat unrealistic was the recurrence of the same characters in the different places the story takes us. For instance, Zeb goes from Chittagong to Sylhet, and then life takes her to Rome and then London. But what the reader finds is a box full of coincidences; the guy she met in Sylhet ended up at the Bangladesh High Comission in London. This happened with every single character that Zeb met, and in her long life never had she made a new friend or come across a new person for that matter. Then there were some characters totally untouched by war, which is honestly quite hard to believe.
Neglecting that little glitch in the system, Invisible Lines was overall a gripping read and some good time spent reveling in the glory of the Liberation War. The strong, uncluttered language, the vibrant description and the dramatic turning points are worth poring over. This powerful debut has all the qualities to be a valuable reference to later writers, and hence, a must-read for all of you.