Distiller: Doni Faber
Rating: 4/5 Stars
The Night Diary
by Veera Hiranandani
Penguin Random House
March 6, 2018
In the vein of Inside Out and Back Again and The War That Saved My Life comes a poignant, personal, and hopeful tale of India's partition, and of one girl's journey to find a new home in a divided country
It's 1947, and India, newly independent of British rule, has been separated into two countries: Pakistan and India. The divide has created much tension between Hindus and Muslims, and hundreds of thousands are killed crossing borders.
Half-Muslim, half-Hindu twelve-year-old Nisha doesn't know where she belongs, or what her country is anymore. When Papa decides it's too dangerous to stay in what is now Pakistan, Nisha and her family become refugees and embark first by train but later on foot to reach her new home. The journey is long, difficult, and dangerous, and after losing her mother as a baby, Nisha can't imagine losing her homeland, too. But even if her country has been ripped apart, Nisha still believes in the possibility of putting herself back together.
Told through Nisha's letters to her mother, The Night Diary is a heartfelt story of one girl's search for home, for her own identity...and for a hopeful future.
This is a straight-forward book, yet also manages to capture the complexity of how good things and bad things can happen simultaneously, so interdependent that we can't extract one from the other. At a time when the Indian people ought to celebrating their independence from two hundred years of British Rule, instead they are attacking each other because of the division into Muslim Pakistan and Hindu Indian. Relations between the two religions were not perfect before; now tensions have broken out into outright murder.
Nisha doesn't understand what is happening and in this it felt like a very realistic portrayal of what a child's experience of these events would be like. It helped draw me into the world of Nisha. Still, I would have appreciated a bit more context: perhaps a more elaborate explanation from her father, the doctor. Instead, keeping in character, he tried his best to protect her.
Nisha's family has to walk from their former home towards their home in the new India. During this difficult journey, Nisha blames herself for much of what happens. I could relate to being hard on herself in hard circumstances. I found this element of her character very compelling.
I often find the epistolary format distracting to the flow of a narrative. In this case, it wasn't at all. It was haunting how she always drew in the presence of her mother by addressing her diary to her. It gave her a way of interacting with her that would have been difficult in some other format. It was also effective because Nisha had trouble speaking up for herself. Instead of relying on dialogue, Nisha could express herself through writing.
The account felt very authentic and respectful. The author relies heavily on family accounts who were involved in the separation of India and Pakistan and it showed. She demonstrates familiarity with the culture, particularly in descriptions of food preparation. Other details too, such as what is like to have dyslexia or a cleft palate also felt very informed and believable.
I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone wanting to get at the heart of the division of India, but would also recommend pairing it with a good non-fiction piece to learn more of the historical context.
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