The love story is one of the oldest forms of storytelling. The quests and wars, the poisoned apples and the cursed spindles, the faces that launched a thousand ships, the princesses that wed statues at swayamvars, the wives who brought their husbands back from the dead, the queens who gave up their royal robes for tree bark and exile, have all been love stories at varied slants.

A good love story, one that firmly holds the reader’s attention in its grasp even as it balances something familiar with something new, is also one of the most difficult things to write. This is where Aishwarya Jha’s debut novel, The Scent of Fallen Stars, runs into its biggest challenge. It is a love story that hinges on a quest, as it traverses two timelines, separated by a little over two decades. Aria, a UK citizen, visiting India in 2018 to find her mother, has her story intersect with that of Will Rhodes, an ex-pat who lands in India just as spring begins to slide into the searing summer of 1995, and, soon after, falls in love with an enigmatic young woman, Leela. As the rules of romance dictate, Will’s love is unrequited, steady, and unselfish.

The Scent of the Fallen Stars, as much as the title holds within it a mixed metaphor, is a mixed bag of poetic prose and a predictable plotline where love triumphs over significant odds and individuals from diverse socio-cultural contexts find a safe space within which new, previously unimaginable relationships can be forged.

Delhi of then and now

Jha’s choice of location and timeframe is an interesting one. Will lands in Delhi in the March of 1995, right on the cusp of an Indian summer. His Delhi is a chaotic city where development has meant rapid urban construction, a conscious departure from the past, and much obeisance to capitalistic enterprise in a newly liberalized economy. A white man in a society where whiteness is the currency of privilege, Will moves with the swish set, attending parties, cultivating contacts, frequenting “Bombay Coffee House” and the iconic Wenger’s at Connaught Place, making the occasional visit to Jama Masjid, grudgingly learning to love the new city of his domicile when he sees, on a magical moonlit night, while chasing a scent he cannot identify, the luminous, almost gamine, Leela.

His absolute and irrevocable falling in love is decidedly reminiscent of cinematic romance tropes from a long-gone era: “I watched the mist. It was coming closer. Another gust of wind, another wave of fragrance- and she appeared. A small figure all in white, floating along the street in her revery, humming to herself. She wasn't aware that I was there, watching her with every fibre halted. She wasn’t aware that the universe was arranging itself around her, merely a stage for her meteoric presence”. Leela herself is the star and the scent of her beloved, ephemeral flower, the maulsari, the leitmotif that weaves through the impossible love story of Will and Leela.

Aria’s Delhi is obviously one the reader is more familiar with. It is the city of restored, aesthetically lit monuments, snooty shopping complexes and tottering high rises, soirees and incessant commerce, and an unbridgeable class divide. It is also, largely, the Delhi of privilege. Travelling through its streets, Aria sees two cities, but these are not differentiated by their occupants. Instead, these are spaces that “exist simultaneously: the ungainly metropolis on the ground, engorged with aesthetic atrocities, and the spectacular dreamscape of the city in the sky”. She lives in the city but much of Delhi remains unknowable to her.

Brought up by her professor father, Aria has travelled extensively, is studying music, and has a whole future mapped out for her, when she discovers that her mother, long-believed to be dead, is actually alive, living as part of a spiritual order in India. Aria’s search for her mother takes three directions. There is the missing mother, hidden in the shadows of the narrative, whose story Aria pieces together like a puzzle, visiting the orphanage she spent her childhood in, the people and places who stood witness to her life. All of this leads Aria to her own, very personal quest, of finding meaning, breaking with the past, and visualizing a new future. There is also, like a thread tying mother and daughter together, a spiritual quest, the conflict within the self, the (teetering on the edge of the woo) world of gurujis and spiritual retreats and the classically white insistence on finding oneself via mediated meditation in India. Navigating this trifecta, the cautious reader will find themselves engaging with the unpacking of privilege across matrices of race, class, and gender.

An oft-told story

The text does turn a somewhat cursory eye on social inequities and crass commercialisation in late 20th and early 21st century India. Will, intent on making reparations for Leela’s past unhappiness, gets a charity involved to resuscitate the orphanage she grew up in, exposing, in the process, the corruption in its administration, and the apathy with which underprivileged children were being treated. Aria, on her visit to Rishikesh in pursuit of her mother, finds it to be a “swarming conflagration of construction and confusion. A few structures plainly identified themselves as temples, but the others were commercial enterprises advertising every kind of material and spiritual ware”. Shops and ashrams, appositely, are the two primary offerings of Rishikesh, marketed extensively as the site of (often instant) spiritual transcendence. For the most, however, the book concerns itself with the personal lives of its protagonists, their conflicts and desires. It works hard at the empathetic portrayal of Will’s unrequited love, Leela’s surprisingly unjaded worldview, her refreshing candour, and Aria’s bereftness, her new, searing sense of loss, not just of her mother but of the possibility of the past she might have had and the love she was deprived of. It also, interestingly, builds on the idea of unconventional, found families, defined by more than just blood relations, a concept that is gaining ground in real life as well as in contemporary narratives.

Where the novel shines is in Jha’s felicity with language. Visiting an old building in Lutyens’ Delhi, Aria experiences the timeless being that Jha captures in poetic terms: “She stood in thrall to an old fantasy, that there were places where other worlds remained suspended in wisps in the atmosphere, so tangible she could almost see them, smell their scents, hear their melodies.” Will, when Leela first smiles at him, does not simply fall in love. Instead, he knows in that moment that he was “ruined”. The effect is charming, and entirely in keeping with Will’s character, decidedly old school. City sunsets, in Aria’s unique perspective, are ethereal: “A sea of liquid gold streaked across the horizon, with the distended sun turning corroded railway tracks into the wealth of kings”.

Jha’s ability to turn the ordinary into the magical with a delicate turn of phrase is impressive. The story, however, accomplishes nothing new. What is meant to be haunting often becomes merely repetitive, and as much as the prose shines with possibilities, the plot does not quite sparkle. The Scent of Fallen Stars was not this reviewer’s cup of tea but if you like your fiction optimistic, promising a tidy conclusion, and prose that ever so often turns into poetry, this slowly unfolding love story might just be yours.

The Scent of Fallen Stars, Aishwarya Jha, Penguin India.