The Night Diary is a fictional account of one family's experience during the partition of India into two countries in 1947. The story is told in the form of diary entries written by the main character, Nisha beginning on her twelfth birthday, addresses to her deceased mother. Nisha receives the diary as birthday gift from Kazi, the family's Muslim servant. "The diary is covered in purple and red silk, decorated with small sequins and bits of mirrored glass sewn in. The paper is rough, thick, and the color of butter..."
He tells Nisha "someone needs to make a record of the things that will happen because the grown-ups will be too busy." Nisha decides to address each entry to her mother Faria who died giving birth to Nisha and her twin brother Amil. For his birthday, Amil receives a beautiful book, a collection of tales from the Mahabharata, an ancient Hindu epic poem. The book contains beautiful coloured pictures, which Nisha knows Amil will love as he loves to draw but struggles to read.
The first hint of change happens on July 18 when three men come to the house while Papa is at work and speak to Dadi. She orders Nisha and Amil into the kitchen with Kazi. Dadi won't tell them what they wanted but Amil tells his sister that he overheard the men asking Dadi when they would be leaving.
The next day, July 19 Nisha and Amil are followed by two boys as they walk to school. Although this occasionally happens, this time the boys throw rocks at them. Nisha blames Amil who often taunts them and then runs away. But Amil tells her "It's because we're Hindus...There are lots of places all over India where the Hindus and Sikhs and Muslims fight one another all the time now...That's why those men came to the house yesterday. They said the Hindus should leave and they don't want Kazi to live with us." As tensions escalate, there is a fight between a Muslim and a Hindu boy at school and Amil is chased again after school. Papa decides that neither Nisha nor Amil will go to school. He explains that India will gain its independence from Britain but will be partitioned into two states. Their town of Mirpur Khas won't be in India but will now be a part of a new country called Pakistan. Although Gandhi wants everyone to live in peace, Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League wants a Muslim state while Nehru, leader of the Indian National Congress wants to be prime minister of India.
Life at home leaves Nisha bored and missing school which she did well at. Then on August 2, a group of people break down the door of their home, ransacking and breaking furniture and pots while Nisha, Amil and Dadi hide in terror in the pantry. After they leave Kazi comes to get them, his head bleeding profusely from a cut. Shortly after this Papa decides it is time for them to leave Mirpur Khas as it is no longer safe for them to stay. He decides to hold a party and invites family and friends. Their neighbours, uncles, aunties, cousins and Dr. Ahmed and his family attend the party.
After the party, Nisha realizes that she would have her memories of life in Mirpur Khas and new memories of life in the new India. "My childhood would always have a line drawn through it, the before and the after." Nisha, Amil and their father will undertake a journey across India that will change them forever and in ways they cannot anticipate.
Veera Hiranandani's The Night Diary is loosely based on the experiences of her father's family during the Partition. Hiranandani's father, grandparents, aunts and uncles had to cross the border from Mirpur Khas to Jodhpur in a journey similar to that undertaken by Nisha and her family. Although they safely crossed the border, at least one million people died in this mass migration that saw tensions between Muslims and Hindus escalate into violence.
Hiranandani's novel presents a balanced portrayal of the relationship between Muslims and Hindus in pre-partitioned India. As would be expected, the families of Nisha's Hindu father and Muslim mother had mixed reactions to their marriage years earlier; her father's family was against the marriage, puzzled by his lack of interest in the Hindu girls, while Nisha's mother's sister was so against the marriage that she never spoke to her again. However her mother's brother seemed supportive.
Because of Nisha's mixed background she and her family are open to friendships with both Hindu and Muslim people; her father's best friend is Dr. Ahmed, a Muslim, while Nisha's best friend is Sabeen, a Muslim student. Their cook, Kazi is also Muslim and considered a member of the family.
When Nisha and her family become targets of violence she struggles to understand. Because of their mixed heritage, Nisha and Amil don't know who attacked their home and are left confused. "...And anyway I thought the two sides were supposed to be us and the British. Why are we fighting each other?" Nisha wants to "go somewhere fresh and new where people were happy..." and where "nobody would mind that you were Muslim and Papa was Hindu and Amil and I could hold both sides of our parents in our hearts." In trying to understand why people are fighting each other, Nisha asks, "Is it the brain that makes people love and hate? Or is it the heart?"
Nisha's father tells her that everyone is to blame. "...when you separate people into groups, they start to believe that one group is better than another." But Nisha recognizes "...we all have the same blood, and organs, and bones inside us, no matter what religion we're supposed to be."
The journey to the border is filled with hardships and terrifying experiences that change how Nisha views the world and push her to ask many questions. When they run out of water Nisha thinks about Badal, the water man who brought water to their home daily. "I never thought about how heavy it must have been and how lucky we were to have someone bring it to us every day. A wave of shame rippled through the center of my body..." As their situation grows dire and they are unable to continue, Nisha begins to think about death. "...I've thought about other people dying, but I've never thought about me not actually being here anymore."
Suffering from dehydration and unable to continue their journey, Nisha tells Dadi she loves her, making her realize that although they "never said those words to one another..." they "did thing that meant love." Nisha realise that love that exists in their home in the form of service to one another. "Now I could see it. Dadi washing and mending my clothes. Papa kissing us on our foreheads before bedtime, Amil making a drawing of me. Kazi making my favorite paratha stuffed with fried onions and potatoes. Every day had been filled with things like this. All love, even between Papa and Amil." Facing certain death from lack of water, when Papa returns with the much needed water, his sacrifice and comforting of them convinces Nisha that father loves them. "I knew I would remember this forever, pack it away in my mind."
After Nisha is attacked outside Rashid Uncle's home by a Muslim man who has seen his entire family murdered, she wonders, "Why had his family been killed? Why would anyone do that? Do people who kill start out like me, or are they a different kind of human?" The attack leaves Nisha unable to comprehend the violence. "I know lots of people have died walking and on the trains in both directions. The riots and killings keep happening. I still don't understand. We were all part of the same country last month, all these different people and religions living together. Now we are supposed to separate and hate one another. Does Papa secretly hate Rashid Uncle? Does Rashid Uncle secretly hate us? Where do Amil and I fit in to all of this hate? Can you hate half of a person?" Nisha is referring to the fact that she and Amil are from Muslim and Hindu parents, leading her to wonder how people will view them.
When they finally push their way onto a train to cross the border, Nisha watches as Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs fight one another in a bloody, deadly battle. "I looked at the dying men on the ground. For what? I did not know. More revenge? I shook all over. I had never seen anyone kill before. It has changed me. I used to think people were mostly good, but now I wonder if anyone could be a murderer..."
Hiranandani has populated her novel with realistic characters and has done an excellent job recreating the historical setting for the novel, demonstrating she knows her subject well.
The Night Diary doesn't really explore the root of the tensions between Muslims and Hindus in British India but it does show that the partition of the country into two separate republics was a violent event. This event viewed through the eyes of young Nisha shows how senseless the violence was, in what should have been a very proud moment in the history of the country - freedom from alost three hundred years of British rule. Today tensions continue to exist between Muslims and Hindus both within India and Pakistan and also between the two countries who are arch enemies. Neither nation has fared well since the Partition; India continues to have serious social issues including poverty, an inability to eradicate the caste system and serious women's rights issues, while Pakistan struggles with government corruption and encroaching Islamic fundamentalism.
Hiranandani includes a short Author's Note that provides some background information about her family's experiences and about the Partition. Readers may find the following websites helpful:
Stanford University's 19947 Partition of India & Pakistan
The British National Archives also have much information as does the BBC website.
Overall The Night Diary is an excellent, well-written novel for younger readers about an important event in the 20the century.
The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani
New York: Dial Books For Young Readers 2018