I was curious to see how partition would be presented in this book by an Indian Hindu author featuring characters who are half Hindu and half Muslim relocating to Hindu India. Told in journal entries written by 12 year old Nisha to her deceased Muslim mother, the 264 page AR 4.5 book is wonderfully done, extremely compelling, and about so much more than the politics that birthed India and Pakistan.
Nisha and her twin brother Amil are opposites, yet they complete each other and care for each other in such a tangible and heart swelling way, that you can’t cheer for one while not rooting for the other one to find success and their place in the world as well. As the twins turn 12 and Nisha is gifted with a journal from the families beloved cook Kazi, India and Pakistan too are about to come to fruition and Nisha’s journal entries detail her understanding of the larger events around her as well as her own struggles to come in to her own.
For Nisha words do not come easily. She excels at school and loves to cook, but talking to people, or making friends eludes her and her longing for her deceased mother, make her a quiet reflective child. She observes and takes in so much around her, internalizes it, ruminates on it, and pieces it back together in a gifted way when she writes, that reading her entries, and the voice the author creates for her, is really amazing and fluid. You feel like you really know Nisha and what makes her tick, what she fears, and how she thinks, you also get emotional attached to her and her world and find yourself surprised at how invested you are in not only her family’s successful migration across the new border, but also in her finding her voice and the confidence to use it.
Amil’s voice comes through Nisha, but her love for him and the way his strengths are her weaknesses and vice versa allows insight into the other family dynamics and attitudes to the two children. Amil is an amazing artist, that suffers from dyslexia and does poorly in school. He is weak and wiry, but fast, and he can talk and charm and ask all the questions that Nisha wants asked but can’t find the words for. He and their physician father are rarely on good terms, as he isn’t the ideal strong boy with a medical degree in his future.
When it is decided that the family must leave their city where Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs live together and journey into Hindu India, the twins, their father, and their father’s mother, Dadi, must rely on each other to survive the riots and violence of the mass migration. Nisha must also survive the understanding that with a Hindu father and Muslim mother there is so much about her own place in the world she doesn’t understand, and thus the journey is both an internal and external one, that will change Nisha forever.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love that the protagonists voice is so steady and believable. I truly fell in love with Nisha and felt her pain, happiness, anguish and overall got emotional for her, it was a rollercoaster. The author does an amazing job of painting the politics of Jinnah, Nehru, Gandhi and Mountbatten in broad strokes, but believable ones to the understanding of a 12 year old. She sees that one India held people of all faiths and that this breaking up of everything is leading to violence, upheaval, and horrors previously unimaginable. She doesn’t understand why people had issues with her mother being of one faith and her father another, she loves her Muslim cook and loves listening to him pray five times a day as her paternal grandmother sings Hindu prayers in the other room. She is both Hindu and Muslim and doesn’t see the contradiction within herself, suspending the reader’s own opinions on partition (if they have them), because how she sees it, does make sense for the story’s narrative. The author takes Gandhi’s side of non violence and staying together, but balances very well and very intentionally that atrocities and humanity was seen from people of various faiths and political persuasions. The role of British colonization and freedom from it, is slightly glossed over to the point of disservice, but again, being the target age of the reader and the age of the characters, I’m willing to over look it. Families with Indian and Pakistani heritage will want to take the lacking information and help their children to fill in the blanks.
I love that the backdrop is the action of the story, but the relationship between the characters is truly the heart. A lot of growth and compassion is conveyed very succinctly and powerfully. Nisha wants so desperately to speak, but can’t, and her internal struggle and the pain she feels when she can’t speak up to help and participate in the world around her is gut wrenching. As she confides in her diary, you realize that kids understand so much more than we adults often give them credit for. The lesson is not lost on me. I initially thought a book steeped in subcontinent history, with religious conflict and foreign words, wouldn’t appeal to a western elementary aged readers, after reading it, however, I now think this heartwarming story should be thrust upon them all.
There is violence and death. Not sensationalized, but detailed enough to set the tone of how serious the journeys were between the two countries when British rule stopped There is some bullying and mention of the father smoking socially with friends.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
There is an Author’s Note, and a glossary at the back, and the inside covers have maps showing the journey the characters take. I would absolutely do this as a Book Club selection for upper elementary, and will consider it even for middle school. A lot of tools for teaching the book are available online, here are just a few:
Educator’s Guide: https://www.penguin.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/The-Night-Diary_Educator-GuideWEB.pdf
Children’s Discussion Questions: https://www.readbrightly.com/brightlys-book-club-for-kids-the-night-diary/
Classroom Bookshelf: http://www.theclassroombookshelf.com/2018/06/the-night-diary/