By Seemi Aziz, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ and Celeste Trimble, Celeste Trimble, St. Martin’s University, Lacey, WA
We focus on the theme of displacement and its representations in young adult and children’s literature in this July’s My Take/Your Take. With the present day global and national focus on anti-immigration and children being kept is cages point towards the necessity of giving this theme attention in any or all forums that we as citizens have access to. The textset within this forum includes strong narratives that speak to the issue in various parts of the world, some as historical present and others as historical past that still seems relevant to today. The five books to be discussed each week are The Night Diary, The Bone Sparrow and Guantanamo Boy, Internment, Amal Unbound, and Saltiepie.
SEEMI: For the first week we begin with the historical past, with one of the largest migration of humans in recorded history of the world; that of India splitting into two/three pieces, as Pakistan came into being on August 14, 1947 after being allowed to be carved out of India by the ruling British Raj. The lands with majority Muslim populations were split into further two pieces: East and West Pakistan by the British government as they were forced to leave, and India/Pakistan as sovereign states came into existence. East and West Pakistan had approximately 1200 miles of India dividing them and in 1971 when the regionally smaller but population wise larger, region became present day Bangladesh after a bloody revolution and a resulting war between India and Pakistan. The agenda of Britain was always to “divide and rule,” more so in joint India than ever before.
The beautifully articulated The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani places the narrative and the characters right smack dab in the middle when the partitions of the regions were taking place. This narrative is based on the historical event and its impact on the everyday humans who were forced to leave their secure existence for a new land due to their religion. The story is about a Hindu family living in the region with Muslim majority that later became Pakistan.
Nisha is a 12-year-old who struggles not only to express herself in words but with her identity as well. The father is a practicing Hindu doctor who married a Muslim woman. Nisha’s mother is dead, she lives with her younger brother, grandmother and a Muslim cook. She is given a diary for her birthday. In that diary she expresses all her thoughts and feelings; writing them out while addressing her dead mother. The only person she connects with is the Muslim cook and loves cooking due to that fact. As the political situation gets complicated Nisha loses all her friends who are mostly Muslim as they live in a majority Muslim region. As her family embarks on a perilous, forced migration from Pakistan to their home in united India, she begins to understand not only herself but her situation and the dead mother through her communication within the diary.
The beauty of this story is the diversity of characters (both Muslim and Hindu), the varied settings, and justice given to each detail that only an insider can provide. I appreciate the historical event that has not been given attention previously except by Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (an adult book) and is a well-deserved read. The complexity of situation from all sides, the dynamic nature of the characters within the narrative, and in giving justice to all involved was, I am sure, a challenging job for the author. The horrors of the displacement process through the journey that was undertaken by the core characters is well represented in the book. The peripheral characters that they meet throughout their flight are reminiscent of the stories I heard myself. I particularly appreciate the projection of the Muslim character, who comes forth to kill them just because they were Hindus and Hindus had killed all his family, but cannot as it would be ethically wrong. Each of the short anecdotes woven into the narrative has the same kind of complexity where religion as a major part to play.
Further, this is a historical event that has personal significance for me as my parents were involved with the creation of Pakistan. I was born in East Pakistan, present day Bangladesh, and went through displacement as I lost my beloved and stable home in the tea gardens of East Pakistan and was forced to relocate to the west portion of Pakistan in 1971.
Multiple reviews and awards are available for this book: Booklist, 02/01/18, Horn Book Guide, 11/01/18, Horn Book Magazine, 07/01/18, Kirkus Reviews starred, 01/01/18, New York Times, 02/25/18, Publishers Weekly starred, 01/15/18, School Library Connection starred, 05/01/18, School Library Journal starred, 01/01/18, Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA), 02/01/18.
CELESTE: This week in my undergraduate/graduate level children’s literature course, we were speaking of learning about history and enriching our understandings of history through reading historical fiction. I mentioned The Night Diary and Partition and was met with blank stares. Not one of my students had ever heard of this history and the creation of Pakistan. I assume this is not unusual. My thoughts surrounding this book begin with the idea that children now reading Hiranandani’s marvelous book will not grow up ignorant of this important piece of historical and cultural understanding. I am reminded of a moment from Chimamanda Adichi’s TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” in which she discusses the notion of beginning a story with “secondly.” Though we hear of Pakistan in American media outlets with primarily negative framing, without having any concept of the tumultuous and very recent birth of this nation through a colonial religious segregation, the story is quite different and woefully shallow. This book might have an impact in reducing for readers the anti-Pakistani bias, whether conscious or not, that media courts, and hopefully might inspire further reading.
I love the format of the text as Nisha’s diary to her mother who died in childbirth. It is so personal, a tool for Nisha to remain connected to the idea of her mother while also working out her own thoughts on the traumas she undergoes. I feel that she is introducing herself to her mother, again and again, keeping her informed about how she is growing, feeling, existing. She is connecting with her mother’s memory while the reader is connecting to her. There is so much about Nisha that readers might connect to, and I think that is always important. In one instance, this connection seems more intentionally crafted. Nisha says, “It feels like we’re really in a story now. I’ve heard about stories like these, about people who flee their homes in a war with nothing but the clothes and food on their backs. Now that’s who we are, even though there’s not a war here, but it’s like a war. It seems almost like a made-up war.” This moment seems to be speaking directly to modern readers experiencing this very reality through media consumption.
SEEMI: You say, “Though we hear of Pakistan in American media outlets with primarily negative framing, without having any concept of the tumultuous and very recent birth of this nation through a colonial religious segregation, the story is quite different and woefully shallow.” How so? I agree that one story cannot and should never be used as the only representative of any culture or circumstance/event. I, however, did not find the story shallow in any way, it was merely written for a younger audience and therefore written in an easier way to comprehend. We need to understand that the events unfolding during that long-drawn event of pushing Britain out of the subcontinent (spanning the couple of centuries where the occupation by British colonial oppression continued) was saturated by bloodshed and pain (both physical and emotional) connected to the Partition and to make it accessible must have been quite a challenge. Partition itself pitted Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs etc. against each other; people who had been friends previously. Hindus wanted a joint India while Muslims realized that a joint India will never give the Muslims an equal share in governance and rights, something that is seen evidently throughout India’s history after the Partition, the issue with Kashmiri Muslims, and with Modi’s second term and the manner in which Muslims are suffering with majority Hindu rule. The story did project a poor Muslim cook against a financially stable Hindu doctor but that was not the be all and end all of the story.
CELESTE: Oh, no, I did not mean to suggest that The Night Diary was shallow at all! I mean that the story we hear about Pakistan in the American news media is shallow and does not give us the depth of understanding about the history of the country that we truly need in order to consider the contemporary moment. This novel, however, does begin to allow the reader to gain not only a depth of understanding through building historical empathy, but hopefully incites curiosities that lead to further research and reading.
I appreciate your positive view of Partition in terms of seeking an equal share of governance and rights. I had never considered that viewpoint before. As with this novel, my primary knowledge of the Partition is that it spurred such violence and forced displacement, separating friends and neighbors. But perhaps this is simplifying this vastly complex history of religious and ideological and political struggle. So I recognize that I don’t know enough about the history of modern India and Pakistan to even be able to speak on this.
Throughout our conversation, I’ve been thinking of Arundhati Roy’s brilliant book for adults, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, in which the reader glimpses some pieces of the struggles in Kashmir and religious violence in Gujarat. When on Democracy Now in 2017, Roy said, “You know, what happens in Kashmir or what happens with people who have been displaced or what happens in intimate spaces, all of it can only be presented as part of a universe in fiction, because you can’t do it otherwise.” I believe this. The Night Diary is a beautiful example of the power of fiction to teach and to allow the reader to develop, little by little, a more nuanced understanding of the particulars of global humanity and history.
SEEMI: I am glad that you mentioned Arundhati Roy and her take on the Indian Muslim dilemma especially in Kashmir today. She is such a nonpartisan international voice that exposes the issues with Modi’s government. His reelection with a strong majority bespoke of the direction India is headed to presently.
[Editor’s Note: The Night Diary is reviewed in Volume 11, Issue 3 of WOW Review.]
Author: Veera Hiranandani
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Date Published: April 23, 2019
Throughout July 2019, Celeste and Seemi give their takes on books on the theme of displacements and its representations. Check back each Wednesday to follow the conversation!