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Deconstructing a Child’s Experience of the Partition: Nisha’s Journey in The Night Diary

Tinka Dubey

In this paper, Tinka seeks to understand the experience of a child during the Partition by focusing on three critical aspects – being kept in the dark about the political reality, suffering the loss of friends and peers, and witnessing violence, death, and suffering. Her analysis is drawn from a close reading of Veera Hiranandani’s 2018 novel, The Night Diary.

One of the most prominent reasons for the limited amount of attention given to children with respect to the Partition, as Rachna Mehra notes, is that “it is difficult to recover their experiences ‘as children’” (1247). Even Urvashi Butalia’s conception of viewing childhood memories as “filtered through the prism of the adult experience” (qtd. in Mehra, 1247) suggests a fundamental problem of accessing unadulterated, first-hand testimonials of a child’s experience of the Partition. Against this contextual backdrop, Veera Hiranandani’s The Night Diary, an epistolary novel narrated from the perspective of a twelve-year old girl, Nisha, must be seen as an increasingly significant exercise. The narration of the text stays integrally connected to Nisha’s perspective—it is not recollected in retrospect, and instead traces real-time events, recording a certain immediacy of feeling that is rather uncommon in Partition narratives that center on children. It centralizes the child’s experience, affording it with space and importance.

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A child in a Partition refugee camp

 Margaret Bourke-White.

Ordinarily in society, politics and political violence are both commonly bracketed under the “adult” genre of things. Children are considered incapable of understanding such “difficult” topics. The Partition, like all other important political events, however, had torn through these societal limitations because it had immediate, real effects on the lives of millions of children. The Night Diary accordingly charts the slow and definite infiltration of the political into the personal realm of children, scrutinizing the relationship between children and the state. As subjects who have no autonomy besides what their parents might allow them, children are largely insignificant stakeholders for the state and its decisions. Yet, the novel makes us question if the decision makers at the centre are truly as capable as we think, and if the common people, children especially, are as incapable and insignificant. Following this thematic trajectory in the novel, this paper seeks to uncover three critical points of consideration that engender a child’s experience of the Partition— being kept in the dark about the political reality, suffering the loss of friends and peers, and witnessing violence, death and suffering. By closely following each of these strains, this paper ultimately seeks to understand how a child recuperates, or at least begins to recuperate, from the deep-seated trauma of the Partition.

 

The novel centers around the lives of Nisha, and her twin brother Amil, the children of an interreligious marriage—Suresh, their father is Hindu, while their deceased mother, Faria, was Muslim. It opens with Nisha receiving her diary on her twelfth birthday as a gift from Kazi, the cook of her household. Significantly, Nisha addresses each of her entries to her dead mother. In her very first, she notes, “When Kazi gave it to me, he said it was time to start writing things down… He said someone needs to make a record of the things that will happen because the grown-ups will be too busy. I’m not sure what he thinks is going to happen…” (Hiranandani, “July 14, 1947”). What becomes immediately clear here, is the absence of sufficient information—Nisha admits she is unsure about what “is going to happen”, or why “the grown-ups will be too busy”. She takes on the task of making “a record of things”, because it is “time to start writing things down”. This implicitly points towards the significance of Nisha’s task as historiographer, not only of her own personal reality, but of all “things that will happen”.

However, because Nisha is not a “grown-up”, her historiographical task is laden with challenges. The information she has access to is sparse and scattered. Early on in the text, when some mysterious men appear at the door of her house, Nisha is understandably befuddled, “I heard bits and pieces of sentences, words and names I had been hearing Papa talk about to Dadi, seen in the headlines from their newspapers. I turned over the words like puzzle pieces in my head, wondering how they were supposed to fit together: Pakistan, Jinnah, independence, Nehru, India, British, Lord Mountbatten, Gandhi, partition” (Hiranandani, “July 18,1947”). Nisha has access to the events of the outside world in incomprehensible fragments, “puzzle pieces”, that she must piece together herself. People of political significance and important historical events are jumbled together in her mind.

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Newspaper clipping reporting on Partition violence.

This lack of coherence causes bubbling anxiety in her and Amil both, and even though Amil persistently asks his grandmother about what happened, she dismisses him, “It was nothing to worry about” (Hiranandani, “July 18, 1947”). This unsettles and confuses Nisha further, because things in her daily life also begin to change as fights break out in schools. Amil is chased by some older Muslim boys because he is Hindu. He explains to Nisha, “There are lots of places all over India where the Hindus and Sikhs and Muslims fight one another all the time now… That’s why those men came to the house yesterday. They said the Hindus should leave, and they don’t want Kazi to live with us” (Hiranandani, “July 19, 1947”). And so Nisha pieces together another part of the puzzle, and perceptively connects her own narrative with the nation’s, “Everyone knows who is Muslim, Hindu, or Sikh by the clothes they wear or the names they have. But we all have lived together in this town for so long, I just never thought much about people’s religions before. Does it have to do with India becoming independent from the British? I don’t see how those two things go together” (Hiranandani, “July 19, 1947”). In fact, while pondering upon the changing contours of nationality, Nisha also questions her own identity, “I guess we’re Hindu because Papa and Dadi are. But you’re still a part of me, Mama. Where does that part go?” (Hiranandani, “July 19, 1947”). There is an evident proliferation of questions within Nisha, and very few people willing to provide an answer.

As the narrative progresses, Nisha notes how her grandmother and father have an increasing number of “whispering conversations” (Hiranandani, “July 22, 1947”). Denied access to transparency about the present of the nation, Nisha turns to her personal past to reclaim her identity—she asks Kazi about her mother, uncovering her life in pieces from his stories. When the political reality of the Partition and the necessary rift it brings between different religions finally comes to the fore, Nisha leans on personal markers of identity—she points out her mixed heritage to Amil, and reaffirms her strong bond with Kazi, who is also Muslim. However, Amil only warns her not to bring this up in front of anyone else. There emerges, then, an evident barrier in communication between the adults and the children of the house. The scope for transparency is limited, and this leaves Nisha and her brother in an evident state of confusion and disorientation, especially as tensions begin to mount. She admits, “Everything is different now, even though it’s exactly the same. I can see it all around us, but I don’t know what to call it” (Hiranandani, “July 25, 1947”).

 

Soon however, these incidents hit close to home, after Amil is beat up one day by some Muslim boys. Their father finally sits to explain Nisha and Amil about the Partition, and about how their home town—Mirpur Khas, was soon to become part of Pakistan. He also decides that it is not safe for them to go to school until things settle down. Notably, when Amil tries to ask more questions, he stops him, saying he has spoken enough. A few days later when Nisha asks him when they can return to school, he does not respond either, “I don’t ask many questions, so it would be fairer if he answered the few I ask… I could be like Amil and ask a question every five seconds, but he doesn’t answer many of those either” (Hiranandani, “August 1, 1947”).

Against the pervasive silence of their father and grandmother, Kazi seems like the only adult who still provides some information and insight to the children. Nisha closely notices the changes in his behaviour, and senses his sadness. When he is beaten up by some people, Nisha and Amil are both deeply alarmed, while their father too, usually solemn until now, bursts into anger, “Everyone has gone crazy…This was supposed to be a beautiful moment in history… but instead what are we doing? What are we doing?” (Hiranandani, “August 2, 1947”). The confusion the children feel, then, may be seen as an extension of the disorientation felt by adults as well. When Nisha tells Kazi she wishes to know what is happening, and that she is “twelve now and ready to know everything”, he tells her, “…I am four times as much, but I feel like I don’t know anything” (Hiranandani, “August 3, 1947”). A sense of losing control and certainty, with regards to knowledge of one’s surroundings, becomes a recurrent trope in the earlier section of the novel with events leading up to Independence.

As reality continues to become evasive and volatile, there emerges in the novel a deep yearning to build human connections. One way in which this manifests itself is through the strengthening of the familial bonds within Nisha’s family. After her father decides it is time to leave Mirpur Khas and cross the border to go to Jodhpur, there is a marked shift in his behaviour. He spends more time with his children, and reads them stories. Nisha says, “Maybe he was lonely. Maybe he was scared, too. I’ve felt lonely many times before. But I didn’t think grown-ups could get lonely” (Hiranandani, “August 5, 1947”). He even tells them about his marriage with Faria, and the challenges he faced in society. Soon however, he warns them not to speak of this with other people, and Amil, echoing Nisha’s earlier assertion about their mother, points out it might be a “good thing” (Hiranandani, “August 5, 1947”) to tell them, perhaps then they would not have to take a side. This simplicity in thinking is something unique to the children in the novel—that uses personal reality to challenge politically or socially imposed alternate realities. But in an adult world, this simplicity has no value. Their father tells them, “…You can’t change people’s minds now” (Hiranandani, “August 5, 1947”). At the end of this entry, Nisha significantly directly challenges the political leaders and their decision to break up her family, specifically their separation with Kazi. Nisha realizes that this abstract, administrative decision has tangible impact on her personal life, “My childhood would always have a line drawn through it, the before and the after” (Hiranandani, “August 7, 1947”). She shudders at the thought of its implications, and she asks, “If you were alive, would we have to leave you because you are Muslim? Would they have drawn a line right through us, Mama?” (“August 15, 1947”). Nisha’s crisis in fact is a pertinent question concerning nationality and identity that pervaded the lives of Partition children. Especially for children born out of abductions and interreligious unions during the Partition, the Pakistani or Indian state did not and could not allow them to stay with their mothers. Following the enactment of the Recovery Act (1949), many children in fact were forcibly left behind and separated from their mothers because of their complicated mixed identities (See Mehra).

Almost in a quiet defiance of this forced partition of personal lives, Nisha takes remnants of her mother with her—her jewellery, and treasures a mortar and pestle Kazi gives her. Nisha’s family commences journey to cross the border over foot, and after a few days as the unforgiving heat increases and their water supplies dwindle, we see the emergence of an acute struggle for survival. Amil falls extremely sick, while Nisha herself notes vividly how thirst paralyses her. As people fight to have water and one man is injured, Nisha’s father, a doctor, mends to his wounds. Yet, in a deeply telling moment, after tending when he asks the man for some water for the children, he refuses and hobbles away. The rift between human relations and the lack of empathy here punctuates the basic reality of the necessity for survival. In fact, Nisha herself notes she does not feel for the man’s suffering as much as wish to have an excuse to be able to get some water. Her very real fear of Amil dying causes anxiety in her. When a bout of heavy rain comes and her father finally gets some water from a nearby village, we see a touching moment of the strengthening of their family bond as they eat hot meals and drink water. This constant vacillation, between estrangement and connect, becomes a pervasive feature of human relationships in the narrative.

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A map tracing Nisha’s journey from Mirpur Khas to Jodhpur.

It is towards the second half of the novel, when the family reaches Umerkot and seeks refuge in the house of Nisha’s uncle, Rashid, that we see the formation of new human connections. While in the beginning there is an understandable amount of distance in the house, especially since Rashid cannot speak because of his cleft palate and must write on a board to communicate, the family slowly draws close to him. Nisha begins to cook with him every day. She even makes a new friend, Hafa, although she is forced to keep this a secret because she is afraid her family might be put into jeopardy. Amil is the only other person to know of this friendship. Nisha’s anxious, almost uncontrollable desire, to seek a friend provides telling commentary on a very important aspect of the Partition. The need to socialize, to play, to mingle with your peers, is a basic necessity for children as they grow up. Yet, the Partition draws lines between this aspect of life too. Nisha is forced to leave Sabeen, her best friend from school in Mirpur Khas. When she meets Hafa, she is excited, but also afraid, “Maybe if Papa finds out and her parents find out, they will see that we’re just two lonely girls who want to be friends. How could a friendship be dangerous?” (Hiranandani, “September 8, 1947”).

Hafa too, tells Nisha how all her friends, Hindus and Sikhs, have left, and she is left alone here. The children, denied of their friendships because of the adult-dominated decision of the Partition, instead create an alternate space, away from adult interference, in the shared backyard between Rashid’s and Hafa’s house. For a short while in the narrative, we see a development in both, the relationship between Nisha and Hafa, as well as Nisha’s family and Rashid. For the first time, Rashid tells the children about their mother, and expresses genuine affection. Hafa and Nisha, meanwhile, braid each other’s hair, and Hafa even gifts her a new hair ribbon. The flowering of this relationship however is abruptly cut short after Nisha’s father sees Hafa, and is furious. He decides they must leave immediately. Hurt, ashamed and confused, Nisha notes, “Hafa and I will never become normal friends who braid each other’s hair, talk every day, and tell each other our secrets. Rashid Uncle and I won’t spend time together where I could learn real stories about you, not just make up my own imaginary ones. Now it’s all dust behind us” (Hiranandani, “September 11, 1947”). The lack of stability and permanence severely affects Nisha, as does the frustrating inability to retain human connections because of the inexplicable danger of the Partition. She admits that she wanted a friend so badly that she did not care about anything else.

The pertinent clash that emerges here is between the politically mandated incision between separate religious segments—Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, and the reality of human connections that cut across these segments. For Nisha, it does not matter if Hafa is Muslim, what matters is that she is also a child, who has also lost friends, who also feels alienated in an adult world which gives no explanations for bringing lasting changes in their lives.

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Umerkot, photograph by Vaqar Ahmed

Besides struggling to cope with estrangement in personal relationships, and a certain failure in communication, as a child Nisha also has to witness a great deal of suffering, cruelty and gruesome violence. On their way to Umerkot, Nisha’s family is forced to deal with an acute shortage of water and scorching heat, and both Amil, and Nisha’s grandmother fall almost fatally ill. Nisha especially suffers through a great deal of emotional turmoil in addition to her physical weakness—she must contemplate on the possibility of her brother dying in front of her very eyes. She significantly voices her anger, “If Gandhiji was walking with us, could he tell me why we have all been sent into the wild like a bunch of starving goats? Maybe this is what those in charge really thought of us, India’s people, when this decision was made” (Hiranandani, “August 25, 1947”). Here, Nisha consciously reflects on the inhuman suffering and displacement of the common people, confronting the political leadership of the country.

Later, in a very significant incident, Nisha is directly attacked by a man as her, Amil and their grandmother wait outside Rashid’s house. Notably, contrary to what one might expect, Nisha seems to remain very aware, and recounts the incident in vivid detail in her diary. Joshua Pederson, in his literary model of analyzing trauma, points to the necessity of giving attention to such “augmented narrative detail”— “Traumatic memories… are not elusive or absent; they are potentially more detailed and more powerful than normal ones” (339). Nisha’s account too, is detailed and impactful:

The person, a man, I could tell from the size of his hand, covered my mouth and held a knife up to my throat. The metal felt strangely smooth and warm. Dadi started crying. “You killed my family,” he spoke in my ear through gritted teeth. I couldn’t see him, only hear him, smell the scent of old sweat, and dirt, and sour breath. I could hear my breathing echoing in my ears. The side of the knife pressed harder… (Hiranandani, “August 30, 1947”).

 

Nisha is saved after her father soon returns and diffuses the situation, and they take refuge in Rashid’s residence. Nisha evidently is forced to face death, of herself as well as her loved ones, at a very young age. It is understandable then, that she desperately seeks friendship and stability after witnessing homelessness, violence, and death. When eventually her friendship with Hafa also comes to an abrupt end and necessitates their displacement from Rashid’s home, Nisha feels angry and resentful towards herself, “I’m losing a part of you all over again, Mama. It’s like my heart is cracked in half and will never be whole again. Why did I need to talk to Hafa so badly?” (Hiranandani, “September 11, 1947”). That estrangement in personal relationships and physical displacement cause a crack in Nisha’s “heart” is deeply poignant. Nisha builds her own identity by relying on a series of external realities—where she lives, what she does, who she shares relationships with. She is uprooted from her home and life in Mirpur Khas, and just when she and her family begin to make themselves at home, even if temporarily, at Rashid’s house, Nisha is uprooted once again. Deprived of any markers of identity, Nisha begins to despise herself, and wants to sever her connections with her family too— “I should let them all get on the train without me. Then they wouldn’t have to worry about another body, my useless body, to fill with water and food anymore” (Hiranandani, “September 12, 1947”). On their final journey in a train to Jodhpur, she is again plunged into the chaotic violence and crowd of the Partition, “I have seen things I never thought I’d see” (Hiranandani, “September 12, 1947”). She witnesses riots and death, and wonders if she will ever survive.

Even after they reach Jodhpur, Nisha hardly seems to feel at home, “We have been here now almost three weeks... I feel so sad all the time. Aren’t I supposed to be happy now?” (Hiranandani, “October 3, 1947”). Things slowly start to fall back in rhythm as Nisha and Amil resume school. In a very important turn of events, Kazi, their cook from Mirpur Khas, finds his way to their residence in Jodhpur after an arduous journey, and this marks the beginning of the creation of a new home in India for Nisha. Nisha proclaims, “To Nehru, Jinnah, India, and Pakistan, to the men who fight and kill—you can’t split us. You can’t split love.” (Hiranandani, “November 9, 1947”). Herein perhaps lies the message of the novel, and the key for Nisha’s eventual recuperation from trauma and displacement. It is love, and the relationships she has in life, outside of narrow religious or political prescriptions mandated by the society and the state. Included in this, is also her relationship to writing, and in extension, her deceased mother— “I’m so happy I made this space for you”, she says, “—this space for us. It’s where I can go to find you whenever I need to” (Hiranandani, “November 10, 1947”).

 

Throughout the novel, Nisha relies on her diary, which becomes as Paige Gray notes, a sort of “surrogate mother” (317), to understand “how we make meaning through grappling with the fact that nothing is really fixed, not stories, not our identities, not even our national borders; we are seemingly always erasing and starting over” (318). Her creative and historiographical task as writer, of her own history, firmly aligns by this ethos of fluidity. Against the backdrop of the national, adult, ‘official’ history of the Partition, Nisha’s diary documents the personal history of a part-Hindu, part-Muslim child, whose closest relationships extend far beyond mandated boundaries, into a world that is, before all else, human.

 

 

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Works Cited

Gray, Paige. “Writing Identities, Erasing Borders: The Night Diary, Front Desk, and Our Shared Story of Migration.” Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures, vol. 11 no. 2, 2019, p.312-320.  DOI:10.1353/jeu.2019.0029. Accessed 13 August 2021.

Hiranandani, Veera. The Night Diary. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers, 2018.

Mehra, Rachna. “The Birth Pangs of a Divided Nation: Articulating the Experiences of Women and Children in the Post-Partition Period” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, vol. 75, 2014, pp. 1247–1252., www.jstor.org/stable/44158516. Accessed 13 August 2021.

Pederson, Joshua. “Speak, Trauma: Toward a Revised Understanding of Literary Trauma Theory.” Narrative, vol. 22, no. 3, 2014, pp. 333–353., www.jstor.org/stable/24615578. Accessed 13 August 2021.

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Tinka Dubey is currently doing her Masters in Literature at Ambedkar University, Delhi. She graduated with a Bachelors in Literature from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi in 2020. She is passionate about music, writing, and theatre.