NEW YORK – Fear of violence permeating a child’s world is like quills of a porcupine. If news of regular school shootings is not enough to create a sense of paranoia, parents have to be on guard against the influence of insidious malevolence seeping in through TV and films, video games, comics books, predators lurking in online chat forums.
Then there are books which delineate violence, give it shape and form from history or fiction; some which many adults would shudder at the thought of it being read by children and adolescents.
It’s a constant battle: is it okay to take a child for a visit to the Holocaust museum, but not okay for him or her to actually read in excruciating, gory detail of what the Nazis did to their victims? After all, trauma is not to be taken lightly.
Veera Hiranandani’s excellent novel targeted at young adults, ‘The Night Diary’ (Dial, hardcover, 268 pages, $16.99) – but an evocative read for adults too – is one of those rare books that superbly crafts the history, terror and macabre horrors immediately before and the aftermath of the partition between India and Pakistan, in 1947, with rare subtlety and sensitivity.
Narrated in the form of series of letters written by the central character, a tween named Nisha living in Pakistan who turns 12 a month before the partition, to her deceased mother who died giving birth to twins, the sequence of events in the novel is depicted almost entirely through the perspective of children. They go through the rigors of lives upended suddenly by violence, with grace; their sympathy and humanity intact.
The allure of the novel is also in its escalating pace of narrative. Foreboding and suspense builds up slowly through the letters written in a journal, which never spiral into heart-wrenching melodrama.
The pace of events quickens as the vicissitudes of war threatens to ensnare Nisha, her twin brother Amil, her grandmother, and her Hindu father, a doctor at a hospital in Mirpur Khas, in Sindh, Pakistan. He had married a Muslim woman against the wishes of both his and her parents, and lived a happy life till his wife died, giving birth to Nisha and Amil.
At the heart of the novel is not just children in jeopardy, but the myriad cuts of pain and humiliation because of bullying in school, and loss of way of life, as conflict builds between Hindus and Muslims.
The brutal loss of identity, or the carving of a new one, as the children try to fathom their new status in society, if they are Hindu or Muslim, and suddenly discover that they live in a new country called Pakistan which is hostile to them, and fear of displacement, is also a driving force.
As children are apt to do, Nisha and Amil take adversities as calmly in their stride as jubilation and success. Yet, they are woefully unprepared for the horrors of the journey they take as refugees by foot and train, try to evade the marauding, murderous mobs baying for blood, to reach safety in India.
Hiranandani, who teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College, in New York, and is the author of the critically acclaimed novel ‘The Whole Story of Half a Girl,’ which was a South Asian Book Award finalist, has an excellent eye for detail when it comes to drawing out children’s emotions in turmoil.
She reveals in a note at the end of the novel that the events that inspired her are based loosely on her father’s side of the family, who were forced to march out of Pakistan as refugees after partition.
The Night Diary evokes many past great works inspired by the partition, like stories by Saadat Hasan Manto, and the novels by Bhisham Sahni and Khushwant Singh. There are also shades of ‘Train to India’ by Maloy Krishna Dhar, which was based in Bengal, and narrates the travails of a child from an affluent family who goes through the barbaric partition which led to Bangladesh. The lost innocence and broken childhood also brings to mind the novella ‘Regret’ by Ikramullah.
The Night Diary, would, of course, be an anomaly for most children in America who live a cocooned life, know little and care even less of vagaries of broken democracies and lives in flux because of poverty and deprivation.
Or, of great migrations happening today all across the world, affecting lives of millions of children, from Africa to Asia, which are no less in horror than the partition of 1947.
Yet, if a parent had to introduce a book that details horrors of such calamities and slaughter of humans, then ‘The Night Diary’ is an exceptional choice. If nothing else, the child will be fascinated and riveted by a lost art called ‘letter writing’.