RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
"The Night Diary" is a novel set at a pivotal and bloody moment in history, written in the voice of a 12-year-old girl. Nisha takes us on her personal journey as part of the mass exodus of Hindus and Muslims in the turbulent time when India was broken up to allow for the creation of Pakistan. Nisha's story is told through her journal, letters she writes to the mother she never knew who died at the birth of Nisha and her twin brother. Veera Hiranandani is the author of this young adult novel and joins us to talk about it. Welcome.
VEERA HIRANANDANI: Thank you so much for having me.
MONTAGNE: And, you know, I gather that this is a journey that you know well from family stories.
HIRANANDANI: Yes, I do. So my father went through Partition when he was 9. And he had to leave his home with his mother, his father and his five siblings. Basically, they packed what they could and got on a train and left for the new border of India.
MONTAGNE: And this was a tough journey for many people. And tough maybe doesn't even begin to sum it up.
HIRANANDANI: Sure. Yeah. One to 2 million people died. But it was also the largest human migration in world history. So around 14 million people migrated during this time, which is pretty staggering.
MONTAGNE: Yes. And it's known as simply Partition. It's 1947. It's the birth of both India and Pakistan. Nisha's mother was Muslim.
MONTAGNE: Her father is Hindu. And in the 1920s and '30s, when they would have met as teenagers, their marriage would have been just about unheard of.
HIRANANDANI: Yes, it certainly is rare to have happened at that time. But it did happen. And part of the reason I wanted to do that is that I am from a mixed background. So my father is Hindu, and my mother was born in this country, and she's Jewish. And having multiple identities was something I have always been navigating. But I wanted Nisha to be from a mixed background not only for my own personal connection, but it allowed me to explore her own sense of belonging during this time. And it allowed me to open up and break through some of the bias and explore the questions I had about that time.
MONTAGNE: The divide between the two religions haunts this story. Nisha can't understand, for one thing, why she can't be both. But tell us about her most tender relationship with an adult, and he is the family cook. And he is Muslim.
HIRANANDANI: Yes. You know, her father's a doctor. He's very busy, pretty reserved. And she doesn't have a mother. And Kazi really functions almost as this mother and father and friend for her because she's lonely in that way.
MONTAGNE: And they cook together.
HIRANANDANI: Yes. Yes, they do.
MONTAGNE: It's very sweet. And he knew her mother.
HIRANANDANI: Yes. And he bit by bit sort of shares that with her. Also, he introduces her to cooking and ignites her love of food. And that is a way for her to express herself because she's very shy, and it's something that she struggles with.
MONTAGNE: Partition forces this little family out of their home and school, their lovely garden. And they set off on to the border into this hellish world. I mean, there's a moment when Amil, her brother, seems to be dying of thirst.
HIRANANDANI: Yes. Many people died of thirst and hunger. Many people walked. Many people took trains. And the trains were an incredibly dangerous and violent place, where, at times, trains were attacked by the other side going in both directions. This happened, where everybody was killed on the train, and it would arrive at the station full of dead people. So I touched upon that in the novel. At the same time, I didn't want to traumatize a young reader. And I feel like sometimes as adults - I'm a parent - we want to protect young people from that. But they're incredibly curious. So I felt like it was OK to open up some of the truth of that pain and some of the truth of that violence because I know when I was younger and when I was curious, sometimes it was harder to have these questions - that things that felt really scary - to have them hidden. And then they stayed mysterious. And somehow, that mystery made it even more frightening.
MONTAGNE: Let me ask you to read part of this time that they have spent in the desert, when Nisha has a vision of her long-dead mother. Read us a little bit of that.
HIRANANDANI: (Reading) I see you now walking with us, a red and gold scarf blowing behind you. You are the most beautiful person here on this dry, sad path. It's like we're all the color of dust, and you are gold and rich brown in red and purple with dark-lined eyes and shiny, red lips. You glow. I see the flash of your golden earrings. I hear the jingle of your bangles. You are here, and I'm following you, Mama. You will take us to Rashid Uncle. And you will take us to our new home.
MONTAGNE: It's like her mother is saving them. This is a young adult novel. How do you hope Nisha's story will resonate for other young girls who read this book?
HIRANANDANI: Well, I hope it resonates on a few levels. I think kids that I know in my area - they learn about what a refugee is. But I don't know if they always have a specific sense of what that means for an individual person going through this. So I hope that readers will see that Nisha is a 12-year-old girl who loves her home, has a complicated relationship with her father, loves her brother. And also, they fight. And she wonders what's for dinner. And she does all of these things that I think most 12-year-olds could relate to.
And another aspect that I hope readers would take away from is that Nisha really doesn't understand how brave she is. And it takes her a long time to understand how brave it is during a time of adversity that she hangs on to that hope. And because she comes from this mixed background, she doesn't understand why people separate themselves in the way that they do. And that certainly is resonating today more than I even expected when I started writing this novel years ago.
MONTAGNE: Veera Hiranandani's new book is called "The Night Diary." Thanks very much for joining us.
HIRANANDANI: It was a pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF TONY ELMAN, ET AL.'S "MINNOW DANCE")
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