Review: The Book of Everlasting Things by Aanchal Malhotra
Oral historian Aanchal Malhotra’s debut novel touches on perfumery, calligraphy and the First World War as it turns on a love story cut short by Partition
In Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition through Material Memory (2017), Aanchal Malhotra traced family histories through objects people carried across the border during Partition. The book was well-researched and eminently readable. It established Malhotra (whose grandparents were refugees from what would become Pakistan) as an authority on the Partition. She came to be known as a memory keeper.
Last year, In the Language of Remembering: The Inheritance of Partition explored the legacy of the Partition, the ways in which it is remembered by its descendants and the stories and the silences passed down.
Malhotra’s debut novel, The Book of Everlasting Things is firmly set in her domain and has thus been eagerly awaited — it was assumed to be based on years of feelings accumulated while collecting oral histories and research.
The plot had all the makings of a hit: perfume, calligraphy and love.
Here’s what happens: Samir and Firdaus are children when they fall in love. He’s a young apprentice at his family’s ittar shop; she at her father’s calligraphy studio. Their blossoming love story was cut short by the Partition when “two hearts broke, like the fragments of a newly divided land.”
Over the rest of the novel, traumatized by Partition, Samir tries to escape his grief and trauma by moving to Paris and then, for a long time, to Grasse, the perfume capital of the world, where he, once again, becomes a perfumer’s apprentice. In France, “in self-inflicted exile, following the impulses of his nose,” he learns of his inheritance. His uncle had served in the First World War, he had returned to Lahore with silent trauma and the art of perfumery. Samir was born gifted with a perfumer’s nose — his uncle had acquired one — and so they shared a special bond. In France, Samir is is consumed by his uncle’s secret journals documenting the horrors of the war — this forms a somewhat strong and substantial section of the book.
Samir never stops loving Firdaus even as he unpacks his pain over the decades. There is some kind of closure, the story neatly tied up two generations later in a bitterish, sweetish but mostly unoriginal, uninspiring ending.
The main problem is that Malhotra holds back. Every now and then there’s a whiff of the emotionally charged atmosphere of the years leading up to the Partition, a glimpse of the complex landscape of sentiments, the tenderness and tragedy of it all, but almost as soon as a complicated feeling appears, the scene ends with a platitude, one of a handful of platitudes repeated often in the novel.
In one scene, Firdaus’s parents Altaf and Zainab discuss the possibility of their daughter marrying Samir. It’s an intriguing set-up for a difficult conversation but ends abruptly, frustratingly. Later, in another conversation between the two, there’s a shift in Zainab who, previously restrained, “After witnessing the violence of Partition… wore her opinions like armour.” The scene is quickly summarized, like Samir and Firdaus’s break-up, with another version, one of many in the novel, of the worn-out Partition metaphor. “An ideological tear had emerged between them, never to be sewn or repaired. Their own partition.”
Research, Malhotra’s forte, is too rickety a frame to hold up her novel. It feels like nuggets of interesting or important information forced into a frail narrative.
I learnt, for instance, that Babur brought the Damask rose and perfume culture to India, and that he named his four daughters as a homage to the rose. And that it takes about 15,000 roses to create a vial of the pure essence of taifi, the Arabian rose. And that tea was popularized in Punjab only in the early 20th century due to the overproduction of the tea leaf when employees of the Indian Tea Board “were made to stand outside people’s homes and shops, offering chai along with a bun, free of cost.” I learnt about trenches and distilleries. All interesting, sure, but details belonging not in a novel on perfume and war but encyclopedia entries. Historicity is laid out with the earnest dryness of textbooks:
“In February 1942, as the commander of British Forces in Singapore surrendered to the Japanese, Burma lay vulnerable to invasion, leading the war to India’s eastern doorstep. Keen to secure India’s cooperation in an effort against the Japanese, the British government sent Sir Stafford Cripps, a member of the War Cabinet, to discuss its participation during the war and offer dominion status thereafter. But this proposal was swiftly rejected by nationalist leaders of all religions and parties.”
Malhotra shows her capacity to write fiction only in two scenes: Samir running through his charred home in Shahalmi Gate feeling “as though he had swallowed the world and the weight of it had multiplied inside his body.”
And earlier, a sweet love scene where teenaged Samir and Firdaus, flirt over a dictionary of poetic Urdu words:
“Irada — Intention. Had this list of words been extracted from his heart?
Just then, much to Samir’s surprise, Firdaus put down her atlik and qalam, slowly reached over to her father’s things, and picked up the second copy of the lughat.
‘Ishrat,’ she whispered. Happiness. A nine-year-old girl and a ten-year-old boy in a perfume shop.”
But it’s hard to sustain a love story when every time the heroine appears, the reader is reminded of her pistachio-coloured eyes. There are her “kohl-rimmed pistachio eyes,” there are “little wisps of honey and gold over a background of pistachio eyes,” then, her face partially covered by a dupatta, there’s “a single impassioned pistachio-green pupil peeking out.” There’s the time when “her eyes appeared more teal than pistachio.” And then there are times when the pistachio eyes of other members of her family are mentioned: her father, her uncle, her grandson.
It’s harder to dismiss the repetition of words than ideas. Malhotra, the memory keeper, describes her characters as custodians of other things often: “keeper of scents,” “keepers of the ancient art of papermaking,” “keeper of her own private seasons,” “the keeper of paradise…
The word memory shows up on what seems like every page.A small sample of excerpted sentences in no particular order:
“She was imprinted in his memory.”
“A perfume is composed with memories.”
“Her smell had become imprinted in his memory.”
“She was committing his features to memory.”
“Our sense of smell… a receptacle of memory and mystery.”
Also, the sense of smell as a way to “preserve intimacy, history, and, of course, memory.”
“Even history recedes into memory.”
Samir is “held prisoner by memory.”
A love note: “The paper boat of your memory has drowned in the river of this heart.”
By page 367, towards the end of the book, when Samir, talking of his home in Lahore, said he felt “weighed down by its memory,” The Book of Everlasting Things had been crushed by the word.
Still, its characters and setting are evocative, its tragedies sometimes tender, I could see it as a certain kind of sweet, simple film.
Saudamini Jain is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.