The Night Diary
In the vein of Inside Out and Back Again and The War That Saved My Life comes a poignant, personal, and hopeful tale of India's partition, and of one girl's journey to find a new home in a divided country
It's 1947, and India, newly independent of British rule, has been separated into two countries: Pakistan and India. The divide has created much tension between Hindus and Muslims, and hundreds of thousands are killed crossing borders.
Half-Muslim, half-Hindu twelve-year-old Nisha doesn't know where she belongs, or what her country is anymore. When Papa decides it's too dangerous to stay in what is now Pakistan, Nisha and her family become refugees and embark first by train but later on foot to reach her new home. The journey is long, difficult, and dangerous, and after losing her mother as a baby, Nisha can't imagine losing her homeland, too. But even if her country has been ripped apart, Nisha still believes in the possibility of putting herself back together.
Told through Nisha's letters to her mother, The Night Diary is a heartfelt story of one girl's search for home, for her own identity...and for a hopeful future.
Excerpt from The Night Diary
July 14, 1947
I know you know what happened today at 6:00 a.m., twelve years ago. How could you not? It was the day we came and you left, but I don’t want to be sad today. I want to be happy and tell you everything. I’ll start at the beginning. You probably already know what I’m telling you, but maybe you don’t. Maybe you haven’t been watching.
I like turning twelve so much already. It’s the biggest number I’ve ever been, but it’s an easy number—easy to say, easy to count, easy to split in half. I wonder if Amil thinks about you on this day like I do. I wonder if he likes being twelve?
We woke up at a little before seven. Amil and I usually sleep through our birth minutes and then when we wake up, we stand next to the last mark we etched into the wall with a sharp rock. No one else knows it’s there. I do it for Amil and he does mine and then we compare how much we’ve grown since last year. Amil has finally caught up with me. Papa says someday Amil will tower over all of us. That’s hard to imagine.
Papa gave me your gold chain with a small ruby stone hanging from it. He started giving me the jewelry when I was seven. Now I have two gold bangles, two gold rings, small emerald-and-gold hoop earrings, and the ruby necklace. Papa said I should save the jewelry for special occasions, but lately there are none, so I wear all the jewelry at once and never take it off. I don’t know where he keeps all of it, but each year on my birthday, another piece appears at my bedside in a dark blue velvet box with gold trim. When you open it, the blue satin lining winks back at you. Papa always asks for the box back after I take out the jewelry.
Secretly, I want the box more than the jewelry. I want it to be all mine and never have to give it back. I could find any old thing—a pebble, a leaf, a pistachio shell—and put it in the box. Like magic, these things would get to be special at least for a day. Maybe he’ll let me have it when your jewelry runs out.
I want to tell you about this diary I’m writing in. Kazi gave it to me this morning wrapped in brown paper, tied with a piece of dried grass. He never gives me gifts on my birthday. I once read an English story where a little girl got a big pink cake and presents wrapped in shiny paper and bows for her birthday. I thought about the little gifts Kazi gives us all the time—pieces of candy under our pillows or a ripe tomato from the garden, sliced, salted, and sprinkled with chili pepper on a plate. Cake and bows must be nice, but is anything better than a perfect tomato?
The diary is covered in purple and red silk, decorated with small sequins and bits of mirrored glass sewn in. The paper is rough, thick, and the color of butter. It is not lined, which I like. I’ve never had a diary before. When Kazi gave it to me, he said it was time to start writing things down, and that I was the one to do it. 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, but I’ve decided I’m going to write in it every day if I can. I want to explain things to you as if I’m writing a storybook, like The Jungle Book except without all the animals. I want to make it real so you can imagine it. I want to remember what everyone says and does, and I won’t know the ending until I get there.
Kazi also gave Amil five charcoal drawing pencils. Five! He also made us rice kheer with our pooris. I’m not sure there is anything better tasting in the world. Amil, who normally eats too fast, makes his pudding last extra long, eating the smallest bites he can. I think he just does it so I have to watch him long after I’ve finished. Every so often he’ll look up and smile. I pretend I don’t care. Sometimes he saves his sweets for me, but not rice kheer.
Today we were running late, though, and Amil couldn’t spend forever eating his kheer because Dadi took our plates away and told us to get ready. Amil started grumbling about school and how he wished he was a grown-up and could work at the hospital like Papa instead. “The drums sound better at a distance,” Dadi said like she always does, and rushed us out the door.
Here’s another secret, and don’t be mad. Amil and I didn’t go to school. We headed all the way out of town to the sugarcane field and tried to walk through it like a maze. We broke off pieces to chew. Later we stopped under a shady tree. Amil found bugs to draw and I read. After, we bought potato pakoras at the roadside cart in town, hoping no one would ask why we weren’t in school. The pakoras tasted crisp and extra salty. Amil thinks they’re too salty, but I like the sting on my tongue that stays long after I’ve finished eating.
Amil would rather draw and play all day instead of going to school. He would rather do anything besides school. He draws very well. Did you know that? I don’t hate school, but I didn’t want Amil to be alone on our birthday. When Papa finds out we didn’t go to school, he’ll be much angrier at Amil than he will at me. That’s how it is with Papa and Amil. It hasn’t always been like that. Amil used to be Papa’s favorite, I think because Amil was always louder, happier, and funnier than I am. But now because Amil isn’t small and cute, Papa is different.
When we were about seven or eight, Amil ran away. That’s when it started. Papa came home from a long day at the hospital and during dinner he told Amil to stop smiling so much, that it made him look ridiculous. This only made Amil smile more.
Then Papa said, “Amil, you can’t read. You play around too much and draw little pictures. You must be more serious or you will become nothing.”
“Maybe I should leave. Then you’ll be happy,” Amil said. He waited for Papa to say something, but Papa didn’t. He just turned back to his food. Amil got up and walked straight out of the house. An hour went by and he didn’t come back, so I went out to look for him. I looked everywhere, around the garden, the shed, Kazi’s and Mahit’s cottages, all the places he might go. I even looked in the pantry and in Papa’s closet. Papa acted like nothing was happening, but I told Kazi that I couldn’t find Amil anywhere and he told Dadi and Dadi told Papa, so Papa went out with a lantern. I stayed awake in my bed wondering what I would do if Amil never came back. I couldn’t imagine being in this house, in this life, without him. I heard Papa return and I waited to hear Amil’s voice or his footsteps, but I didn’t hear anything and began to cry, holding my doll, Dee, tight. At some point I fell asleep. When I woke at first light, Amil slept soundly in his bed next to mine. I wasn’t sure if I had dreamed the whole thing.
“Amil,” I said, poking him awake, standing over him. “Where did you go? Does Papa know you’re back?”
“Papa knows I’m back,” Amil said in a dull voice. “I walked into town, but then I kept going. I didn’t want to stop. But Papa found me.”
“Is Papa mad?” I asked.
“Papa will always be mad at me. It doesn’t matter if I smile or don’t smile. I’m just not what he wanted.”
“That’s not true,” I said, and put my hand on his shoulder. He turned away. He might have been right about Papa, though. Since that night he ran away, Papa always seems angry at Amil for being Amil.
Papa left a book on Amil’s bed this morning. Normally on our birthday he only gives me the jewelry and we do puja at our temple and offer the gods handfuls of leaves and sweets for a prosperous year, but Papa did not talk about it this morning. Maybe we will go tomorrow. Papa doesn’t like to go to temple. We only go on our birthdays and Diwali because Dadi begs us to go. Sometimes Papa walks her there and waits outside for her. I always look forward to going. I drink in the smoky smell of the lamps burning. I even like the metal taste of the holy water on my tongue. The soft sounds of the prayers being chanted and sung make me feel loved, like you’re there, watching. But maybe a Hindu temple is the last place you’d be.
Amil’s book is beautiful. It’s a thick collection of tales from the Mahabharata with gold lettering on the cover and bright colorful pictures inside. Amil will love the drawings, but he won’t read it. Amil says he can’t read right because the words jump around and change on him. Papa thinks he’s lying so he doesn’t have to do his schoolwork. But I know he’s not. I see the way he studies the writing, his eyes squinted, his face pinched. I see how hard he tries. He even turns the book upside down sometimes, but he says nothing helps. I think it’s because Amil is a little bit magical. His eyes turn everything into art. Maybe Papa thought if he brought him a really good book, Amil would read it.
Papa didn’t say anything about skipping school today. I hope our headmasters don’t send a messenger with a note. Now I’m tired and must drink my warm milk and go to bed. Amil is already sound asleep, making little whistling sounds through his nose. I’ve decided that night is the best time to write to you. That way no one will ask me any questions.
July 15, 1947
I only have time to tell you one thing tonight because my eyelids are heavier than wet sheets. Papa is very mad. I knew he would be when he found out. Amil’s headmaster sent over a message. Mine did not. When Papa found out, he made Amil sit in the corner with no breakfast this morning. Amil didn’t ask why I wasn’t being punished, even though Papa must have known I skipped, too. I guess the difference is that I do well in school and Amil doesn’t. I only ate one of my chapatis and wrapped the other in a napkin. Then I stuck it in my schoolbook for Amil when no one was looking.
I think Kazi likes us best. Papa loves us of course because he’s our father and Dadi loves us because she’s our grandmother. That’s what they’re supposed to do, but Papa is too busy to do a lot of liking and Dadi is too old. Papa works every day, even on Sunday. I guess he has to since he’s a doctor. People leave gifts on our doorstep all the time, like flowers and sweets for the wonderful things he has done for them. Sometimes I think Papa’s not real. He leaves early with the cool morning air and never makes a sound. Sometimes when he comes back late at night and kisses me good night in my sleep, I wake up and see him. It feels like I’m dreaming.
July 16, 1947
Kazi has so much energy for us. He always has. When we were younger, maybe five or six, he used to sit cross-legged on the floor and play with us after his work was done. I remember he was the first person to teach Amil how to play cricket in the front of the house, how to throw and bat and catch. Papa never did. I would peer out the window and watch them, laughing hard when Amil missed the ball, since he could hardly see me.
I help Kazi in the kitchen all the time, even though Dadi doesn’t want me to. She says I’ll marry well and have someone cook for me, just like Kazi does for us. But that doesn’t sound like any fun at all. I can’t wait to be older and do what Kazi can do. He lets me help him more all the time. I know how to sort the lentils, grind the spices with his marble mortar and pestle, clarify the butter for ghee, and mix the dough for chapatis. I usually finish my schoolwork fast and sneak into the kitchen, when Dadi thinks I’m still working, to help Kazi prepare dinner. He sees me even when he’s not looking up. It’s like he smells me. He turns and holds up a handful of peas to be shelled. I like to cook things even more than I like to eat them. How does Kazi take all these plain boring foods—bitter vegetables, dried lentils, flour, oil, spices—and turn them into something so warm and delicious every time?
July 17, 1947
Kazi is right. I was made for writing in a diary. I’d much rather write than talk. I talk very little, mostly just to Amil and Kazi. I feel normal around them. I talk to Dadi and Papa if I have to. But for the rest of the world, the words just don’t want to come out, like part of my mouth or my brain is broken. It feels scary to talk, because once the words are out, you can’t put them back in. But if you write words and they don’t come out the way you want them to, you can erase them and start over. I have the neatest handwriting in my class and get the highest marks on all my compositions. You would be very proud of me.
Amil likes to talk. He likes to run. He likes to laugh. He likes to yell. But he hates writing anything down, except for his drawings. The teachers think he’s stupid because he can’t read and doesn’t do his schoolwork, but they should look at his drawings. Amil draws all sorts of things. Sometimes he draws frightening scorpions and snakes with dark charcoal pencil. He draws every leg, every bump, every little detail. Sometimes he draws me early in the morning when I’m still sleeping. It’s strange to look at myself that way, but I like it. It makes me feel like I’m not alone, like someone is always watching over me. Are you, Mama?
Sometimes Amil draws Dadi or Papa when they aren’t looking and only shows me. He draws Kazi cooking. He likes to paste lots of paper scraps together with flour and water to make a bigger drawing space. Kazi once gave him a drawing pad. Amil only does his best work on the paper after he practices on his bits of flour bags, ends of newspaper, whatever he can find. He let me touch the drawing pad paper once. It’s cloud white, silky smooth. I wonder why Amil is the way he is. I wonder why I am the way I am. I bet you know.
July 18, 1947
Something very strange happened today. Three men came to our house this afternoon. I don’t know why they came. I was doing my homework. Amil tried to do his but mostly doodled. Dadi sat at the table writing letters. Papa was at the hospital. The men knocked on the door. One of them was a teacher at our school who always dyes his gray hair red. His beard is the color of a chili pepper. I didn’t recognize the other two men. Dadi looked out the window and called Amil. Then she told us both to go into the kitchen with Kazi, so we did. Her eyes darted back and forth before she answered the door.
All three of us—me, Kazi, and Amil—peeked around the corner. The men spoke so quietly I couldn’t hear them. Then they spoke louder. 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.
Dadi nodded and nodded, and the air smelled like the smoke from pipes. She tried to close the door once and one of the men, the tallest one, held the door open, not letting her. I held my breath. Then she finally closed the door and turned around. We came out from our hiding places, but she didn’t say a thing. Her eyes were big, and she and Kazi kept giving each other secret looks. Amil asked what happened.
Dadi waved him away, but Amil didn’t give up.
“Tell me or I’ll scream,” he said.
I put my hand over my mouth. I couldn’t believe he was being so naughty.
Dadi frowned. “It was nothing to worry about,” she said. “And if you scream,” she said, wagging her finger angrily at Amil, “your Papa will be the first to know.”
Amil’s shoulders slumped. Kazi disappeared into the kitchen. I finished my work and helped him clean some green beans and chop the garlic and ginger into the tiniest pieces you ever saw, but Kazi didn’t tell me anything and I could tell he didn’t want to.
“The men seemed upset,” I said later to Amil when we were lying on our beds. “I think something bad is going on.”
“I know,” said Amil. “I heard them ask when we’d be leaving.”
“Why would we leave?” I asked.
“It has something to do with India being free from the British soon,” he said.
I wondered what that meant, to be free from the British. Why were they allowed to rule over us in the first place? Didn’t they have their own people to worry about? I thought about the men at the door. They seemed calm in that way grown-ups get calm before they get very angry.
“Remember when Papa used to tickle us?” Amil said, turning on his side toward me.
“He hasn’t done that in a long time,” I replied. When we were little, Papa would tickle us to wake us up. It’s so strange to think about that now. I remember trying to like it since Amil liked it so much. Amil would throw his head back and squeal for more. I would grit my teeth and try not to push Papa’s hand away. It made me feel like I was falling off a cliff. I asked Amil why he was thinking about that.
“Because I wish he was still that way,” Amil said, and turned on his back again.
He closed his eyes and I could hear his breathing slow down. I thought about the old Papa, the one who tickled us. Had Papa changed that much? Or had we just gotten older?
July 19, 1947
More bad things are happening. When Amil and I walk the mile to our schools, we pass lots of things. First, we walk through the rest of our compound where we live since Papa is the head doctor for the Mirpur Khas City Hospital. The government gave us a large place to live in, much bigger than anyone I know. We have our bungalow, and a coop for the chickens, the flower and vegetable gardens, and the cottages where Kazi and the groundskeeper, Mahit, live. As we walk closer and closer to town, we pass the hospital. Then we pass the jail where all the people have to go when they do things like steal from the markets. Dadi says it’s not a jail for the murderers. The murderers go somewhere else. I always try to catch a prisoner’s eye when I go to school, since I can see them through the fences. I feel bad for them. Usually they stole because they were hungry. But sometimes there are truly bad ones, too, who just want to be bad, who hurt and steal just for fun. I think I can tell who’s bad and who’s not. The bad ones smile real big. The good ones don’t.
Our schools are right next to each other, the Government School for Boys and the Government School for Girls. Mine is smaller because not all girls go to school, but Papa says it’s important to be educated. Today when we walked to school, two older boys started following us. Sometimes this happens. Sometimes they chase Amil, but usually only to scare him. He runs faster than anyone I know, so he always gets away. This time though, the boys started throwing rocks at us. A small one hit the back of my head. Amil pulled my arm and we broke into a run. Amil led us into an alley. We ran through the alley and some gardens, then back onto another dirt road. We found a cluster of mango trees and hid behind them.
“Why did they do that? What did you do?” I whispered at him.
“Nothing! I didn’t do anything,” he whispered back at me.
I touched the small bump where the rock hit me. We went a different way to school, down another dirt road and through the sugarcane, but it took a long time and we were late. After school we ran all the way home without stopping. When we got home, we stood catching our breath outside the door, so Dadi wouldn’t ask why we were out of breath.
“It’s because we’re Hindus,” Amil said. He looked around and started to whisper again. “There are lots of places all over India where the Hindus and Sikhs and Muslims fight one another all the time now. Just not here, yet. Kazi tells me what he reads in the papers. 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.”
“Because he’s Muslim?” I asked, but Amil didn’t answer as he ran into the house and to our room where he worked on his drawings until dinner. I thought about those boys. They were Muslim. 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.
Sometimes Amil knows things that I don’t. He talks to people more and goes to the market with Kazi. He has lots of friends at school. He doesn’t mind if his words come out right, or not. I wish I were more like Amil. I don’t have any friends except Sabeen. All the kids play together at my school no matter what religion we are. Sabeen is Muslim, and she and I always have lunch together. She doesn’t have many friends because she doesn’t stop talking and never listens. I don’t mind. I’m a good listener.
Nobody ever mentions the fact that you were Muslim, Mama. It’s like everyone forgot. But I don’t want to forget. The truest truth is that I don’t know any other children whose parents are different religions. It must be a strange thing that nobody wants to talk about. I guess we’re Hindu because Papa and Dadi are. But you’re still a part of me, Mama. Where does that part go?