By Maureen Tai, 27 January 2019
“All that suffering, all that death, for nothing. I will never understand, as long as I live, how a country could change overnight from only a line drawn.” – Nisha
The year Nisha turns 12 is the year that newly independent India is rent in two. A line is hastily drawn by the governing British, separating mostly Hindu India from mostly Muslim Pakistan, formally partitioning a country that had lived as one for centuries before. Nisha is a keen observer and the diarist in The Night Diary. Writing only after the sun has set each day, Nisha records her impressions and thoughts, hopes and fears. Hers is a compelling yet fragile and bewildered voice during the defining and possibly most devastating event in the history of the Indian subcontinent. This is not only Nisha’s story, but the true story of so many millions of others affected by Partition.
India’s independence from Britain, and subsequent partitioning occurred in the late summer of 1947. In parts of the new dominions, there was chaos and conflict as the inhabitants of India faced their new reality. Indians of the Muslim faith who found themselves in the newly created Hindu territory – on the “wrong” side of the partition border – were forced to abandon their homes and flee to where they were supposed to be, in Muslim Pakistan. Indians of the Hindu faith who lived in the newly created Pakistan, were likewise forced to do the same and to flee in the opposite direction to Hindu India. In this cross-migration, hundreds of thousands of lives were lost as fighting broke out between the two groups.
Just weeks before Partition, Nisha and Amil had celebrated their 12th birthdays in their home in Mirpur Khas, a city in the then north-western part of united India (after Partition, in Pakistan). Despite the lingering loss for her departed mother that colours all of Nisha’s writing, the twins have a happy childhood. Their father is head doctor at the local hospital, which allows the family to live comfortably. Dadi, their paternal grandmother, fusses over them lovingly as grandparents are wont to do. They live in a bungalow and their compound houses not only chickens, flower and vegetable gardens, but their cook Kazi. They go to school (but sometimes play truant), do chores, play, read, draw and look forward to eating their favourite foods. Amil has difficulty reading words so he prefers to draw, and Nisha has difficulty voicing her thoughts so she is mostly silent, except to Amil and Kazi. Their father is a hard man, but not harsh or mean. Kazi is taciturn, but kind and loving, almost an alternative mother-figure in Nisha’s life. It isn’t a perfect family – none are – but it is a loving and peaceful one.
Through Nisha’s diary entries, we learn about the parts of their individual identities that will alter the course of their lives in the months to come. The twins’ father is (a non-practising) Hindu, but they live in Muslim India because their mother was Muslim. Dadi is a temple-going Hindu, and Kazi is Muslim. It is less clear for the children. Nisha in particular, struggles to come to terms with her identity. If one half of her is from her Hindu father and the other half from her Muslim mother (whom she never knew), who is she other than just herself, a child who belongs to both sides of the now divided India? Nisha’s heartbreak as she leaves everything that she holds precious in the family’s desperate flight to safety – her home, her doll, even the painting of her mother’s – mirrors the heartbreak of thousands of Indians who grapple with not only the loss of possessions and livelihoods, but the loss of lives and identities.
In her diary, Nisha asks questions of her dead mother that are unanswerable. This is the great tragedy of our species, the lesson that we continue to learn and unlearn with deplorable regularity. We know that we are stronger when we accept and embrace our differences, and weaker when we do not. However, in spite of the chilling outcomes in our history, we continue to choose tribalism that ensures that we will forever be drawing lines in the ground – real or imaginary – that divide and separate, hurt and injure. Why would we not rather, if we had the choice, throw each other life-lines that bring us closer as human beings, to nurture and cherish, inspire and love? Although Nisha eventually comes to terms with her new existence in the part of India that she is told she “belongs” to, the shadow cast by this tragic compromise is long and dark, and affects us all. This makes The Night Diary a thought-provoking, poignant and important read that reminds us that we know the answers. We just have to make the right choice.
For ages 10 and above.