Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

The Night Diary begins in July 1947, just a month before the end of British rule in India and the Partition, the division of British India along religious lines into the two separate and independent countries of India (Hindu) and Pakistan (Muslim/Sikh) between August 14-15. Twelve-year-old Nisha and her twin brother Amil live in what is to become Pakistan, but they will soon be leaving the only home they have known to live in the new India. Their father is Hindu, and their deceased mother was Muslim. And although the family is mixed and secular, they are still considered to be Hindu.

Nisha is a quiet, introverted girl who has just received a diary for her 12th birthday from Kazi, the family's Muslim cook and the one person with whom she feel most comfortable, besides her brother. She decides to write her diary to the mother she has never known in an attempt to feel closer to her. Nisha records the small events in her life, like spending time in the kitchen with Kazi and her developing interest in learning to cook like him, but she also records the way life is changing outside the home as the day of Partition draws closer.

As violent incidents increase against Hindus in their town of Mirpur Khas, it becomes evident to their father and grandmother that it is time to leave. Nisha and Amil can't walk to school safely any more, and even home proves to no longer be a safe haven. Leaving beloved Kazi is difficult, especially for Nisha. The family is forced to set out for India on foot after hearing about deadly violence erupting between Hindus and Muslims at the train station. The plan is to stop at Rashid Uncle's house, which is halfway to the new border.

The journey, a distance of 91 miles between Mirpur Khas and the Indian border, is fraught with perils and problems. Leaving home with only what they can carry, it soon becomes apparent that the trip is going to take longer than expected and now they have become unwelcome refugees in Pakistan. They soon find themselves traveling slower than hoped, walking is dangerous, and the air is hot and water is scarce, and then Amil becomes seriously ill from lack of water.

Eventually, the family arrives at Rashid Uncle's home. Nisha is very excited about being there because it was her mother's home growing up. She has so many question to ask her mother's brother, but he has a cleft palette and doesn't speak. Soon, Rashid Uncle and Nisha begin cooking together in companionable silence, much the way she had cooked with Kazi.

Nisha would like to stay at Rashid Uncle's, but he lives in what is now Pakistan, and they are forced to leave again. Eventually, they arrive at their destination, Jodhpur, India, and settle in. But one day, there is a wonderful surprise at their door that again completes them as a family. one that has finally found their true home.

The Night Diary, so called because Nisha only writes in it at night when everyone is sleeping, is a thoughtful exploration of one young girl seeking her own cohesive identity and home. Nisha's story is nicely reflected in and paralleled with the events of the country she knew and loved at the moment of partition, when it too must forge its own identity.

Written as letters to her mother, Nisha's longing to know her, fueled in part by curiosity and in part by her need for the love and guidance a mother provides a daughter as she becomes a young woman, is both poignant and understandable. And perhaps these letters have helped because as the family travels closer to the new India, Nisha begins to discover her own voice, a voice that has always been silent, as well courage, resilience, and strength within herself that surprises everyone, especially her father.

I've read a number of novels about the 1947 Partition, and this ranks up there with the best of them. Veera Hiranandani based Nisha's story loosely on her father's family and their journey from Mirpur Khas to Jodhpur, giving this novel a wonderful feeling of authenticity, so important in historical fiction. I loved the way Nisha's diary captures the sights, sounds of what is going on around her, and especially the smells and tastes from Kazi and Rashid's kitchens that she loved so much. At the same time, Nisha also captures the disintegration of different people who previously had been living in relative harmony and who become hateful and violent once the borders are drawn. As Hiranandani writes in her Author's Note, more than 14 million people crossed the border and at least one million died or were killed.

The Night Diary is a wonderful coming of age story that should not be missed, presented with honesty (there are some violent scenes) and intelligence and an objectivity that doesn't allow the reader to take sides for or against either Muslims or Hindus.

An Educator's Guide to The Night Diary is available courtesy of the publisher, Penguin Random House

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an ARC received from the publisher

This map shows India before and after Partition

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