Any time partition is mentioned, the mind immediately goes to 1947 and all the carnage that is usually associated with the birth of Pakistan. What many forget is that 1947 marked just one of two partitions Pakistan had to suffer. Where the first one was born out of pride and a sense of unique identity, the second—the splitting of Pakistan into the country it is now, and Bangladesh—was far more humiliating. As these things go, it, too was marked by incredible cruelty and violence. Nothing brings about the worst emotions in man than the questions of faith and creed. And 1971 saw Pakistan split along both these lines. It was the predominantly Bengali East Pakistan in a fight for dignity and representation against the Punjabi dominated West Pakistan; it was also a much older fight, of Hindus versus Muslims.
The main angst among the Bengalis was that they were treated as second class citizens in their own country, while the Punjabis ruled it with impunity. It was a time of great turmoil, the feel of which, unfortunately, is entirely missing from Ruby Zaman’s debut novel, Invisible Lines.
The story follows a young woman named Zebunessa Rahim, who is first introduced visiting the Bangladeshi Consulate in London to get a visa to visit her country of birth, Bangladesh. A child of the events of 1971, she is wary of returning home, of revisiting all the traumatic memories she had buried in her new life in England. The story flashes back to her childhood as she reminisces about her time in pre-partition East Pakistan. Her grandfather, a prominent politician and well-known community figure, allowed a life of luxury for young Zeb. A time when the only worry was getting scolded by her impassive mother and the joys in life involved eating mangoes and sharing secrets and giggles with her childhood friend, Husna. Maybe it is to solidify the impression that Zeb was a young girl, or because the author herself was a woman, but the young girl’s childhood seems almost cliched. A life one would expect a character in a book to have. She even had a whirlwind storybook romance, with a Scotland-returned boy called Taimur. All the details are there, but somehow, it does not ring true. A lack of depth and feel to the characters and the situation surrounding them.
That said, the story is interesting. The author might not throw you into the picture she paints, but she definitely gets your feet wet. It is a story of sorrow, after all. The trauma suffered by the people of Bangladesh at the hands of a brutal Pakistani army is hard to imagine, as it is with any such incident. Young Zeb suddenly finds her whole life shattered following her father’s death. The fact that her grandfather, an old man, had died just a little while earlier removed any anchor her existence had.
With tales of sorrow, you also have tales of hope. A lucky few people who come out of wars or terrorist attacks, mightily harmed, come out with hope in their eyes. There were tales like that from the splitting of Pakistan, as well. Of how Hindu families helped their Muslim brethren, strangers standing up for strangers against a common foe. Invisible Lines has an underlying theme of hope. Of how after all manner of hell has been unleashed, all you can do as a survivor is to get up, brush yourself off and keep going.
Zeb, as mentioned, is the lead in this book, but throughout, there is another presence. Shafiq, who first appears on screen as a Bangladesh embassy official in London, the man Zeb goes to meet for her visa to get back to Bangladesh. In the circumstances, they can both be forgiven for not recognizing each other immediately. The story flits back and forth between their conversation and subsequent events, and Zeb’s childhood in Bangla-desh. They had met earlier, but the circumstances did not encourage the creation of permanent memories. Shafiq had once, what seems an eternity ago, saved Zeb’s life and given her shelter when she had no one to turn to. Now, at the embassy, Shafiq cannot take his eyes off Zeb. She had always been beautiful, but as a sophisticated lady in London, she captivates him. It is only once she leaves his office does he realize he wants to keep talking.
It is a pleasant change. From the carnage of hot, sweaty Bangladesh of 1971 to a quiet and chilly London of 1984. The events of 1971 have finally stopped haunting Zeb, the balm of time taking away most of the pain. When she realizes who Shafiq is, that healing process comes to its conclusion. As far as she could run away from her pain, it was revisiting those memories that finally put her mind at ease.
Overall, however, even though the tale Ms. Zaman tells is compelling, to a reader, it seems more a product of the events around which they are based than the actual story line. At its most intimate, most tragic scenes, it fails to impress.