Towards a tolerant future

Ambika Shaligram
Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Author Veera Hiranandani, through her book The Night Diary, questions about using violence to solve problems. The book meant for young readers broaches the topic of Partition and how it affected the lives of Nisha and her brother Amil

Papa told us that he (Gandhi) was a great man who believed India was a place where people of all religions could live together in peace. When people made him unhappy with their stupid fighting, instead of yelling at them or fighting with them, he wouldn’t eat until people were peaceful again. Papa told us a lot of people listened to him. But I guess not everyone...”  reads one of Nisha’s diary entries that dates back to July 30, 1947. 

When Nisha was 12, she got a diary as a birthday gift from her best friend and their family cook, Kazi. She began writing her entries about innocuous things addressed to her deceased mother. Later entries are full of confusion, hate, anger over decisions of the adults (Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru and M A Jinnah).

Nisha is the protagonist of The Night Diary, written by Veera Hiranandani and published by Penguin. It is a poignant tale of love, longing, loss and new beginnings. The US-based author has also chosen some incidents from her father’s life who had to leave his home in Sindh, in the newly created Pakistan, to settle in Jodhpur and later in Bombay. The book is dedicated to her dad and several others who watched the madness take over people, whom they called friends and neighbours. It also speaks about finding sanity and love. 

Excerpts from the conversation with the author: 

Have you tried to base Nisha’s character on Anne Frank? Anne too received a diary around her 12th birthday and then her life starts crumbling. It’s the circumstances which make you brave. Anne discovered her bravery in the hiding place above her father’s office, and Nisha and Amil find strength and courage during their walk to the border.
- It wasn’t intentional. I haven’t read Anne Frank since I was a child, but I’m pleased that there naturally are comparisons. I find this connection interesting since Anne Frank is about the holocaust which my mother’s and husband’s side of my family have ties to, sadly.
Yes I agree, circumstances can make you brave, but I think an underlying courageousness in the person has to be there already in order to thrive during adversity. Both Anne and Nisha have those qualities. 

Are Nisha’s questions that of your father’s? Did he find something to be happy about in India? Did he make a visit to his home in Pakistan?
- The specific questions are not directly from my father. They are more based on the questions I had during my conversations with my father and other relatives and friends about the Partition. They are also the questions I believed Nisha would have asked. Unfortunately, my father hasn’t been back to his first home in Pakistan. After Partition, his family travelled to Jodhpur and then settled in Bombay. He has the greatest attachment to Bombay, since he lived there from around age 10 until his early 20s before coming to the US. His family eventually rebuilt their lives there and he has returned many times. 

Do you think Nisha will go back to Mirpur Khas? Can there be a sequel to this book?
- I have been thinking about writing a sequel. I’d be interested in exploring how Partition survivors rebuilt their lives, and specifically how Nisha and her family managed. But because I would set the novel during 1947-48, it would be dangerous for Nisha to go back during that time. I’d like to think as an adult she would, though.  

The Night Diary also talks about physical and mental deficiencies, deformities. Is it because you wanted the young readers to be more accepting of ‘incomplete’ in whatever shape and form?
- I think so and I hope that readers ultimately wouldn’t see Nisha, Amil, or Rashid as incomplete, but rather as people with perhaps more unique differences and challenges. I have some personal connections to learning differences and I thought that it would be even more difficult in 1947 to have these kind of struggles because we didn’t know as much about learning or behavioural issues back then. 

Nisha might have been seen as simply shy, and Amil might have been seen as lazy or not smart, when this wasn’t the case at all. I purposely didn’t label their particular issues. I wanted to let the reader come to their own conclusions and work it out for themselves. I wanted them to see Nisha and Amil as complex individuals, first and foremost. We all face obstacles. Rashid’s cleft palate sort of mirrors how Nisha feels inside, that her obstacle at times seems as unchangeable for her as Rashid’s limitations are for him. Yet they find their way to connect and communicate. 

How have your kids received the book? Are they old enough to understand the complexities that their grandfather and his family undertook?
- They both have been very supportive and positive. My daughter, who is 14, was a helpful reader along the way and now understands a lot more than she did when I first began the book. My 12-year-old son has read some of it. He prefers lighter, funnier books, but he liked what he read so far. They have talked to my father about his experiences and I’m glad that my kids will grow up knowing more about him, more about India and Pakistan, and more about the world. 

How would you want young readers to make sense of the world they are living in?
- I hope that this book can open up conversations about kindness and acceptance, and perhaps counteract the xenophobia and racism that we are seeing all around us. It also opens up questions about using violence and revenge to solve problems and how devastating that can be. As I say in my author’s note, remembering the mistakes of the past will hopefully create a more enlightened, tolerant and peaceful future.

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