The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani
Veera Hiranandani’s The Night Diary tells the story of two children navigating sweeping societal and cultural change: India’s independence and Partition in the summer of 1947. Nisha, a quiet and intelligent twin, is given a diary for her twelfth birthday and uses it to write letters to her mother, who died during childbirth. Nisha’s brother, Amil, could not be more different than her; he is outgoing and playful, loves to draw, and does not enjoy school as he suffers from undiagnosed dyslexia. Nisha almost never speaks, except to Amil and Kazi, their Muslim cook. She loves to help him in the kitchen, and despite her father’s protestations, it is clear that she feels most at peace when she is sorting lentils, grinding spices, and imagining recipes to try with Kazi.
(Mango, coriander and cumin seeds, and cardamom pods ready to be toasted and ground)
Nisha’s family is in a unique position. Their mother was Muslim and her father is Hindu. As India violently divides itself into India and Pakistan, Nisha tries to understand who she is and what it means to have a divided cultural heritage, all the while being forced to stop attending school and leave her home in fear of violence. Her family lives in Mirpur Khas, an area that will become Pakistan. She and her family are considered Hindu, so they must leave for the new India. Before they leave, Nisha’s father decides to throw a party, inviting all their friends, whether Hindu or Muslim. They eat chapati, dal, chutney, mutton biryani, samosas, pakoras, sai bhaji, and gulab jamon, all of Nisha’s favorite foods. She savors each bite and cherishes the moments she spends with her friends, recognizing that love of food unites all people, no matter their religion.
And so, while Nisha struggles to find her voice, she uses food to communicate her love for the people around her, and for the shifting boundaries of the country she calls home. She doesn’t understand why a label that never mattered before is now violently dividing her family and friends, but she is determined to survive in the face of intense hardship, refusing to deny the love she feels for others.
The Night Diary beautifully tells the story of a child trying to understand who she is and what she believes. Throughout the book, Nisha begins to accept her differences from Amil as natural and lovely, just as we all need to do for our fellow humans.
Her love for cooking is inspiring; it demonstrates a connection to the earth and a desire to nourish the people around her. I found myself craving all of the delicious ingredients she describes. I decided to make a few of the recipes included in the book. I had never ground spices from seed or made fry breads on the stove. I was led to learn about the vast difference between curry powder and curry leaves (they are not remotely related) and the inaccurate definition of “curry “ itself as propagated by British colonialists. I felt all of the emotions Nisha writes about in her diary. Peace, contentment, accomplishment. It felt so wonderful to share these foods with my family, and we’ve already made plans to share them with friends. Food is a language all its own, and it was wonderful to be reminded of the love and joy it expresses.