The Accidental Historian by Veera Hiranandani
People say children are sponges. It is true that some kids just absorb things. They learn facts like names and dates without too much trouble and soak up the information they’re asked to learn. They are amazing. I was not one of those kids.
I was an inconsistent student, and always had a difficult time in social studies. I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s and my public-school history curriculum was full of dense textbooks and chalky lists I was supposed to memorize for tests. I was told the important names and dates and who the good guys and the bad guys were. There weren’t blurry questions to chew on, conflicts to internalize, and complex characters to wonder about, relate to, hate, or love–the stuff of stories. I gravitated towards literature and art. There I found the stories I needed to help me make sense of the world. I decided I didn’t “like” history. A piece of history, however, has followed me my whole life. Only as an adult, did I finally look more closely.
When my father was nine, he and his family fled their home in Mirpur Khas, Pakistan after the Partition of India in 1947. They loved their home, their neighbors, their community. My grandfather was a prominent surgeon who directed the Mirpur Khas City Hospital. My grandmother ran the home and took care of my father, his three brothers, and two sisters. They lived on a large piece of property in the province of Sindh, a diverse area of what was then India, now Pakistan, where Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and smaller religious populations like Parsis, Jains, and Christians lived side by side harmoniously.
On August 14 and August 15, 1947, when India gained independence from British rule and was partitioned into two republics, India and Pakistan, everything changed overnight. Instead of celebrating freedom from British rule, many communities found themselves torn apart. Many Muslims in India were forced to seek refuge in Pakistan and Hindus and other non-Muslims living in Pakistan were forced to travel over the new border into India. During the migration, much of it on foot and trains, people turned against each other out of fear, anger, and survival. It is estimated that over 14 million people crossed the borders and at least one million people died during the crossing, some say close to two million. It is the largest mass migration in history.
My father and his family had to start over in Jodhpur and then eventually Bombay (Mumbai). He and his siblings later settled in America and began their own families. I heard the stories my father and his family told–that they suddenly realized it was too dangerous to stay in Pakistan and they had to pack what they could and board a train–that my grandfather had to stay to finish up his work at the hospital, so my grandmother took five of her children (my father’s two oldest siblings were already studying in India) on a train with her brother and his wife–that they arrived across the border safely—and that my grandfather eventually met them. Many people following similar journeys in different areas were not so lucky. They were killed in riots, or died of thirst and hunger while crossing. Some trains arrived in both India and Pakistan full of dead and dismembered bodies. I never remember hearing about it in school or from people outside of my family.
As I grew up and became a writer, I thought more and more often about Partition. I started wondering who actually made the biggest mistakes? Who began the domino effect of fear and mistrust and revenge that continues to this day? Who was to blame–the British, or the Indian leaders Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, or even Gandhi, who was always seen in my house as the wise peace keeper? But Gandhi made mistakes. Everyone did. Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs were the victims and the attackers. These questions have haunted me for a long time. After learning about Partition now from many sources, I haven’t been able to discover a clear answer as to why it happened and who was ultimately to blame. The only conclusion I can come to is that everyone was, though some more than others. Many testimonies of survivors say the same thing—we all got along until Partition.
Because of Partition, there is a divide particularly between Hindu and Muslim survivors. Muslims coming into the newly created Pakistan carried the same heartbreak and faced the same violence that Hindus faced leaving Pakistan. They all became refugees together. Everyone suffered together and committed horrific and staggering amounts of violence. Humans are delicate creatures. It only takes a spark of fear to ignite a bonfire in the ego. The “othering” we do as humans seems to be a faulty protective reaction–protecting what’s “ours,” our family, our property, our people–except that it’s all ours. Sadly, we forget this over and over.
So, after many years of turning away and tuning out of my history courses, I felt called to write a historical novel about a fictionalized family living through Partition, and explore these themes of home, identity, fear, displacement, human failings, and the blurriness that comes with Partition as best I could. I was inspired by my family’s experiences, but also by my research, and combined all of this into one possible perspective, a young girl’s, with a Hindu father and a Muslim mother, as she and her family leave their home in Pakistan. I feel like I wrote The Night Diary for a younger me who needed this story.
Many proponents of diverse children’s literature say that books can be mirrors or windows, starting with scholar, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, who made the metaphor in her ground-breaking essay, Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors (1990). It is my hope that books can strive to be both. Along with presenting a wider variety of mirrors for traditionally marginalized readers, literature can attempt to create narratives where a reader might, at first, look through the window of the story and discover the mirror, or multiple mirrors, they may be surprised to see. When we present complex and diverse historical narratives to children, the more open-minded, independent, empathetic, and aware our children will be. Stories, a multitude of them, both fiction and non-fiction, from as many perspectives as possible, can help history students, especially a reluctant history student like I was, engage, question, and remember.
Veera Hiranandani earned her MFA in creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College. She is the author of The Whole Story of Half a Girl, which was named a Sydney Taylor Notable Book and a South Asian Book Award Finalist. She now teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College’s Writing Institute and Writopia Lab.