The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

Whatever planet rules kidlit featuring South Asian history must be on the ascendant; no sooner did I finish Ahimsa, about India’s independence struggle, than I heard about The Night Diary, which provides a child’s-eye view of the partition of newly independent India. If you have even a passing acquaintance with the Indian subcontinent, you’ll have heard of the 1947 Partition (with a capital P), when 14 million people were displaced as British administrators pencilled a line carving up India on the eve of the region’s independence from British rule. Hindus and Sikhs from the newly created state of Pakistan migrated to India, while Muslims from India went northwest to Pakistan; most estimates have over a million lives lost during this exchange.

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July 14, 1947 is a special day–Nisha and her twin brother Amil have just turned twelve. Their beloved family retainer Kazi gifted Nisha a silk-and-sequin-covered diary, with thick unlined paper that Nisha likes way better than lined.  Nisha decides that night is the best time to write in her diary, as “that way, no one will ask me any questions.” Oh, and the name Nisha means night. See what Hiranandani did there…

Nisha is smart, studious, silent, and surrounded by love. Her mother died giving birth to the siblings, but Nisha’s Papa, a doctor at Mirpur Khas City Hospital, her grandma Dadi, her brother and Kazi all live together in harmony with their surroundings and each other. Nisha knows their family is a little different, for her father is Hindu and Mama was Muslim, but overall it’s as happy and secure a childhood as can be. And while Papa is always busy and sometimes a bit distant, Kazi is both mother and father; through his solid, unconditional love and tutelage, shy, introverted Nisha finds she can express herself through cooking for those she loves.

But “sometimes the world as you know it just decides to become something else.” (That sentence, oh;  The Night Diary, narrated in the form of diary entries addressed to Nisha’s deceased mother, is full of sentences that make your heart hurt for Nisha.) India is to be divided into two separate countries–and Mirpur Khas will be in Pakistan. Papa, worried about the family’s safety,  keeps the children out of school, but then a gang breaks into their house, and Kazi is attacked and injured. Very quickly, the children learn that grown-ups don’t have all the answers and that adults can be scared too.  They also learn all about the awful necessity of taking a side–Hindu or Muslim. Heartsick, Nisha writes, “Me, Amil, Papa, Dadi, and Kazi. That’s it. That’s the only side I know how to be on.”

Papa talks of moving to the new India, but all Nisha wants is the old one–the one that was her home. When on August 14, 1947, the ground she’s standing on is India no more, the family packs their belongings,  planning to cross the border by train. It’s wrenching, leaving behind almost everything for the unknown people who’ll occupy their home, but it’s unbearable that they must go without Kazi, who, as a Muslim, must stay in Pakistan… Then news arrives that the  people are being slaughtered on the border trains (in both directions). As rioters draw closer to Mirpur Khas, the family flees on foot, planning to stop at Nisha’s mother’s (estranged) brother’s house, and then make their way to India.

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Nisha now has to grow up in a hurry; Dadi warns her that she must cover herself with a shawl, and not trust strange men. After walking fifteen miles a day, the family sleeps in the open, with a fire to keep animals away.  Food is scarce, water even scarcer, and tempers fray as the stress of survival eats away at the family. As always, the question of her mixed Hindu-Muslim parentage hangs over Nisha; will people always hate one half of her?

The refugee life is one where the ordinary seems like a fairy tale. “Nothing was real. We didn’t have neighbors. We didn’t have a home. It was in-between living.”  In their time of crisis, everything non-essential is gradually pared away until all that’s left is the fear they will die of starvation/dehydration, or be murdered by rioters, before making it to Rashid Uncle’s house. Will they reach India with their family unit–and their faith in humanity– intact?

One of The Night Diary’s most noteworthy accomplishments lies in the way it subtly encourages young readers to connect this slice of history to contemporary events. In Hiranandani’s hands, the Partition isn’t just something that happened in a remote part of South Asia long ago, but a terrible lesson on how quickly things can go to pieces among people who’ve lived in amity for centuries. The diary format provides a peculiarly intimate and intense account of Nisha’s life, thus enabling middle-graders to understand the experience of refugees all over the world today.  And silent, not-so-brave Nisha’s journey to courage will stay with the younger set even if some forget the specifics of the politics of this particular story.

The Night Diary is built around the author’s own family history–Veera Hiranandani (who happens to be half Jewish and half Hindu) based the story on her father, who, with his parents and siblings, travelled across the border from Mirpur Khas to Jodhpur in India. As she writes in her Author’s Note, “My father’s family made the journey safely, but lost their home […]and had to start over in an unfamiliar place as refugees. I wanted to understand more about what my relatives went through which is a big reason why I wrote this book.” And yes, Hiranandani provides a nuanced take on the political aspects–there’s no blaming  any side or people or religion. “All those in power wanted peaceful relations between the groups, but disagreed on the best way to make that happen.” If you’re looking to introduce your middle grader to this slice of history about India’s struggle with British colonial rule, you couldn’t do better than to begin with Ahimsa and then go on to The Night Diary. 

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The Night Diary was published March 2018 by Dial Books. My thanks to the author and the publisher for the review copy!

 

 

 

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500 Years of Resistance by Gord Hill

(This review appeared on 24 June in  rabble.ca I wanted to post this piece for Canada Day, so it appears here today.)

500 Years of Resistance is a comic book depicting a Native American view of colonial history. It seemed somewhat presumptuous of me to review this book, and for this week’s National Aboriginal Day, no less. I am not Native American; by some benchmarks, I am not even North American, having moved to Canada less than 10 years ago.

And yet. I am from India, the country Columbus set out to discover before he washed up on the American continent, a country intimately acquainted with European colonialism. It seems to me that the most prevalent approach today to a colonial past is to assert that colonialism was a mix of good and bad (mostly bad). But dwelling on that past is deemed morbid and pointless; what really matters, in this view, is a calculated embrace of capitalism so as to beat the erstwhile colonizers at their own game. But another perspective sees the struggle between colonizer and colonized as an ongoing resistance — colonialism, rather than being eradicated, is deemed to have simply taken on new shapes, and Gord Hill belongs to this school of thought. In his introduction, Hill states that the mainstream depiction of Indigenous people as (mostly) passive victims of European colonization now resigned to (or even willing accomplices of) the activities of the settler-state is a deliberate falsehood. The 60 pages of extensively-researched graphics that follow depict his world-view and his reasoning.

500 Years of Resistance

500 Years of Resistance takes as its scope the Americas, North and South, and roughly follows the chronological order of colonial expansion. The book is divided into four parts with the self-explanatory titles Invasion, Resistance, Assimilation and Renewed Resistance. Invasion focuses on the methods adopted by European settlers to acquire Native land, while the section on Resistance takes up specific episodes such as the Inca Insurgency and the Seminole Wars, and includes details such as the deliberate distribution of smallpox-infected blankets by the British forces to facilitate quicker genocide of the Native people. Interestingly, the last section (Renewed Resistance) describes the kinship between Native Americans and other peoples of the world, citing the civil rights movement and the Vietnam anti-war movement as examples of a global struggle against oppression.

Hill concludes with the mention of recent armed conflicts between Natives and the state (such as the Six Nations standoff with the Ontario police in 2006), effectively making his point: for some, the resistance never ended. Even if you don’t agree with Hill’s approach, you’ll understand his sense of outrage after reading this book. The black-and-white artwork brings home the weight of accumulated injustices with an intensity few other formats could match.

Is any form of reconciliation possible (or even desirable) to a people whose histories and identities have been forcibly recast for centuries? 500 Years… emphasizes the actualities of the past and our interpretation of the present, but gives no vision for the future. The ultimate aim of any resistance movement is presumably to bring about social and political change that obviates the need for its existence. Hill, however, presents resistance as an end in itself — a problematic conclusion, given that this work is targeted at the youth. Fortunately, the book includes four-and-a-half pages of recommended readings, with titles that suggest a broader vision.

Consider yourselves warned: this book is a warrior’s celebration of armed resistance, and it’s not for the faint-hearted. The violence of colonialism and the Indigenous people’s bloody resistance is laid out in detail, from the European settlers raping local women and chopping off the hands and noses of those who failed to supply them with enough gold, to the severed heads of the crew members of an American ship attacked by Nuu-Chah-Nulth warriors. Hill writes that the comic book format “…uses minimal text with graphic art to tell the story. This format is useful in reaching children, youth, and adults…” This book is definitely not for children, but it should be read by everyone else.

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500 Years of Resistance by Gord Hill

Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010

Genre/format: Graphic novel, history