The Book of Everlasting Things marks Aanchal Malhotra’s return to familiar ground – the long Partition of the Indian subcontinent. The narrative landscape, however, is changed: in her debut work of fiction, Malhotra braids the lives of imaginary people and objects with real places and times. Unfortunately, what results has a somewhat lukewarm effect: the story evokes warmth, but is let down by its treatment.
From Lahore to Paris
The novel follows Samir Vij, a ten-year-old with a gifted nose who lives in the walled city of Lahore. Initiated into the art of perfumery by his uncle Vivek, Samir spends his days swimming in the scents of his family’s ittar shop in Anarkali Bazar. Vivek Vij, once a soldier, has a past his family have learnt to not inquire into – he has sworn off marriage, any news of war agitates him.
One day, a calligrapher walks into their shop in search of a rose scent, his daughter in tow. Firdaus Khan, though only nine years old when the book starts, is a talented calligrapher and, under her father’s able apprenticeship, optimistic about a future she can be the author of. Love blossoms between Samir and Firdaus – shy, gentle, patient. It is a love that bears little logical explanation – what love does? – but its intensity permeates the course of their lives.
As childhood recedes and the allures of adulthood tease, around them history is in the making. The end of British rule beckons, but something altogether more tragic awaits: the Partition. In the spiral of violence that marks the summer of 1947, Samir loses family, love, home and self, setting sail to a faraway coast – any coast – that will give him a chance to cling to life.
In Paris, Samir finds that chance: it is a life devoid of scent, but with some calm in his days and a new family that he can call his own. But there are also footsteps in the sand that time cannot wash away – as the years go by, he finds himself being led to parts of Vivek’s life he never had an opportunity to know, and to his own unfinished love story in Lahore.
It is to Malhotra’s credit that the total absurdity of Partition comes to the fore on the pages of Everlasting Things: a land divided almost as if on whim, and how blood seeps through some cuts long after the blade has been wrenched out. Almost overnight, millions lost all bearing; the question of what they owned was dwarfed by that of who they now were. How do you place yourselves in the world if not in relation to those around you, Malhotra’s characters ask, wandering through the remainder of their days in places they never quite belong to.
Clichéd trap of star crossed lovers
What is gained in imagination, however, is squandered by the prose. Malhotra’s vocabulary of love might be expansive, but of the lovers themselves is painfully finite – all we know of Firdaus’s charisma, for example, is her pistachio eyes and the scent that lingers in her wake. As a consequence, the love story central to the novel feels underdeveloped, almost acting on the belief that a story about living through the Partition cannot avoid the clichéd trap of a star crossed lovers.
Accompanying this is a lingering sense of characters written to appeal to a very specific modern sensibility: support for women’s education and participation in business, for instance, is emphasised for all characters the reader is expected to empathise with. It is a puzzling choice, more so since this courtesy is not extended to exploring almost any other axis of social division. It is especially striking for a book that takes the monumental decades before 1947 as its defining theme, and this insufficient attention to social heterogeneity lends the narrative hollowness.
What Malhotra’s vast canvas does successfully is impress upon the reader the scale of history – from Lahore to Paris and between the 18th century and the 20th, so much shifts and morphs that the effect of looking back is almost dizzying. Seeds become trees, and the fruits travel so far that their new seeds sometimes are unrecognisable, and all in what seems to be the blink of an eye.
On almost each page, the depth of research is evident. Both perfumery and calligraphy are used by Malhotra as more than just props for storytelling – they are subjects in their own right. It is also then perhaps a function of these chosen crafts that Malhotra’s aesthetic sensibilities overwhelm as often as they shine. Beauty – and the labyrinth of feelings that it inspires – is always remarkably difficult to capture, and in the absence of a story that can sufficiently anchor these abstractions, the attempt falls somewhat flat.
But the weakest link still remains the dialogue, whose writing suffers a dual predicament. With the story being steeped in the practice of crafts that most readers might be unfamiliar with, the dialogue seems primarily intended to communicate information about these crafts instead of revealing much about the characters who exchange them. What is more difficult to get past is their almost transparent bid to be quotable – so many lines are belaboured with the burden of profundity that they fail to shoulder the emotion.
The Book of Everlasting Things is a rewarding read for anyone interested in understanding the human costs of Partition, and how they continue to be levied on those who have inherited histories that they struggle to make sense of. Perhaps that is also why the book is a fitting parable for the troubled present of the lovers’ nations: love lost is not always hope lost.
The Book of Everlasting Things, Aanchal Malhotra, Harper Collins.