Historical fiction makes readers feel connected to people and settings from the past. Growing up in India, the time of the Indian subcontinent’s freedom movement, division, and independence was pretty significant in my student life. The heroic stories of the survivors were part of my history lessons. I remember dressing up like freedom fighters for costume shows in cultural events at school. I imagined – through the stories I read – how the experience would affect a child who lived that life.
The Partition of India was the division of British India in 1947 that resulted in the creation of two independent countries – India and Pakistan. It was one of the most important historical moments of South Asia. More than 14 million people were displaced between the two countries, and nearly two million of them were killed.
I’m thrilled that Veera Hiranandani gave a voice to the children who experienced the life-changing experience in 1947, through her novel, THE NIGHT DIARY.
In this post, author Veera Hiranandani shares her experience of writing THE NIGHT DIARY, a poignant, personal, and hopeful story of India’s partition, and of one girl’s journey to find a new home in a divided country.
The book is called “THE NIGHT DIARY.” Explain what that is. Where did this story begin for you?
THE NIGHT DIARY is a fictional diary, where twelve-year old Nisha writes to her deceased mother about her experiences during the Partition of India in 1947. In some ways, the story began when I was a child, because I grew up hearing about partition from my father. My father was nine when he and his family had to leave his home in Mirpur Khas, Pakistan and travel over the new border of India into Jodhphur. I would hear parts of the story, but I knew they weren’t telling me everything. This ignited my curiosity and when I got older, I started asking more questions and researching on my own. As I learned more about it, I was shocked at the amount of violence and upheaval millions of people experienced. I didn’t know I would grow up to be a writer, but when I did, I knew I had to try and shape a story around this piece of history.
So take us to the year of 1947. We know that more than a million people were killed and many millions displaced by India’s partition. Are there any true stories that moved you to write this book? If so, how did you go about translating the true shocking experiences so that it made sense to young readers?
Several weeks after India’s independence and the partitioning of India into two countries, India and Pakistan, my father’s family decided they had to leave their home as the unrest around them grew closer. They packed a few bags, got on a train, and left everything behind. They arrived over the border safely, but lost their home, their friends, their community. They were considered lucky.
As a young girl living growing up in Connecticut, my life seemed pretty secure, and the thought of losing everything so quickly was hard to imagine, but my father felt the same way about his life in Mirpur Khas. He lived on a large piece of property with his parents, brothers and sisters. His father was the head doctor at the Mirpur Khas hospital. They were involved and connected to their community. Yet, things changed overnight for my father’s family as it does for Nisha in the book. How could a peaceful community completely change in a matter of weeks? How does violence and hate spread so quickly? These are the main questions I had about partition that I tried to explore in the book.
My father’s family made it safely, but many others did not. Many lost their lives. I wanted to express these questions honestly and innocently, the way a young person would, yet I needed to communicate the realities of the fear, violence, and divisiveness without making it too difficult for young readers. It was a tricky balance to maintain.
In the novel, the main character is twelve-year-old Nisha who doesn’t know where she belongs, or what her country is anymore. She embarks on a long journey after leaving her home and faces huge challenges in the midst of the Partition of India. What type of research did you have to do to write Nisha’s story?
I had many discussions with my father. I talked to some additional family members, but sadly my grandparents and his older siblings, my three uncles, and aunt, aren’t living anymore. I also read historical accounts, both political and personal, and watched several documentaries and fictional films on the subject to try to understand several perspectives. Though I was interested in the factual and political history, what I was most interested in was how an ordinary person, and particularly a young person, might have felt during this time, so I read as many personal survivor testimonies as I could.
I also wanted Nisha to be forced to confront her identity and sense of belonging in a more direct way than my father had to. I wanted her travel in the direction that a Hindu family would travel during that time, from Pakistan to India, because that’s the journey my father’s family took, and the one I was most familiar with. But I chose to make her mother Muslim, so when her country is split apart and Hindus and other religious groups such as Sikhs, are supposed to go in one direction and Muslims are supposed to go in another, she has to wonder, in a very personal way, where she belongs. I also come from a mixed background. My father is Hindu and grew up in India. My mother is Jewish and grew up in New York. I’ve had to question my sense of belonging my whole life, though the stakes are much higher for Nisha.
There is this kind of revolutionary spirit sweeping through the country. You tell a fascinating story about how Nisha believes in the possibility of putting her life back together during trying times. Why were you drawn to the time period of 1940s in the story, and how do you think the Partition story is relevant for kids in the present day?
First and foremost, I needed to understand what my father’s family went through, and honor not only their experience, but the millions who were affected by partition. I wanted to tell a partition story for young people who are connected to this history, to see a story about their family’s past. I also wanted to share it with those who don’t know anything about it. There’s so much we can learn from it.
I didn’t quite realize when I started writing about a refugee family traveling in dangerous, divisive times how relevant it would be to the present day global refugee crisis and the divisiveness and xenophobia growing louder in this country. I see many young people all around the world, discovering the strength and a voice they didn’t know they had like Nisha does.
How does Nisha come to terms with her haunting childhood memories and her new life as a refugee?
I think when one goes through such a life-altering crisis, it stays with you forever. You can never go back. You can only move forward through the altered space. Nisha will never be the same. My father also carries these memories with him and knows how fragile the world can be. I believe that understanding how quickly society can change for the worse, either makes a person fearful or more courageous. Imagining Nisha past this book, I think she chooses the later. She learns to rely on the strength of her own voice.
What do you want readers to take away from the book?
I think that Nisha doesn’t know how brave she is, but she finds the strength to keep that sense of hope as she writes in her diary at night and rises each morning to face her world and move forward. Even if one is not dealing with obstacles on the level that Nisha does in the book, we all have obstacles we face every day. I think to be brave enough to keep going, to stay hopeful, loving, and open-minded, is a courageous act. I see that energy all around me, especially in our younger generation, and it gives me a lot of hope.
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