Book review of 'The Book of Everlasting Things' by Aanchal Malhotra
For me, everything about Aanchal Malhotra's novel, The Book of Everlasting Things, has been a fifty-fifty kind of experience.
When I first heard of it, I was torn about buying it, wondering whether an oral historian with two brilliant books to her credit could successfully make the leap from nonfiction to fiction. In my experience, most people involved in the recording and narrating of research, such as journalists, scientists, historians, etc, are too absorbed in the subjects of their study to be able to turn it into a mere backdrop and place plot and characters in prime position instead.
When I bought the book, I was torn about reading it, hoping I was not about to fall into the Star-Crossed Lovers of Partition cliche. The blurb, after all, is centred on Samir Vij, a Hindu boy and perfumer's apprentice, and Firdaus Khan, a Muslim girl and illuminator of manuscripts, who fall deeply in love with each other at the ages of 10 and eight respectively in 1937 Lahore. Cue separation angst, heartbreak, semi-contentment with other people in the future, and a happy ending between the grandchildren of the protagonists who will meet in another country.
And when I finally dived into the book, I was torn by many, many emotions. Some of them approving, some the very opposite. Which makes this a difficult review to write.
The first half of The Book of Everlasting Things is set in pre-Partition Lahore. Much of the rest is set in France, where Samir, savagely ejected from his home in 1947, tries to escape the horrors he had experienced on a single day: his entire family burned to death, his friends of other faiths abandoning the faith of friendship out of fear, the woman he loved telling him to leave.
France is the only place Samir can think of going to when he realises that he cannot live in a country that does not have Lahore, while the country that does have Lahore cannot have him. His beloved uncle, Vivek, had fought in France on behalf of the British Empire in World War I, returning to Lahore with a knowledge of perfumery based on which the Vij family had opened an attar shop. But Samir is too numb, too desensitised to make use of his 'nose' for beautiful, memory-inducing scents. Instead, he works as a hospital orderly, surrounded by the smells of blood, sickness and disease.
He marries there and has a child, and Firdaus, left in Lahore, marries and has a family too. But while Firdaus slowly comes to love her husband and moves forward again, Samir, when his 'nose' eventually reawakens, goes back into the past, trying to recreate through scent all that he lost.
After years pass, Firdaus learns about Samir again. She thinks it's too late to reach out to him now. But when she dies, her grandson—a boy she named Samir—thinks otherwise. And he books a trip to Paris.
I found it impossible to sort out my emotions as I read this book. There was disbelief at the slowness of the pace. Frustration at the passivity of Samir and Firdaus who let each other go without even an argument. Irritation at the fact that while the author did successfully make Lahore of the 1930s and '40s the backdrop of the story rather than the hero, she was unable to make Samir and Firdaus the heroes of the story either. For all that Firdaus was brought up by her father to have agency, she submissively accepts everything that happens to her without a word. Samir, on the other hand, appears to be the author's conduit for the art of perfumery.
There was amazement that so many subjects could be squeezed into a single book—interfaith love, Partition, the histories and arts of perfumery, calligraphy, and illumination, the World War I experiences of Indian soldiers in France. And there was sorrow that a novel clearly intended to be the sweeping, soaring, epic tale of the lives, loves and worlds of two people, had failed to live up to its promise.
But there was also delight at the details of perfumery, calligraphy, and illumination in the book, the story of how books were once made, with scented inks and scented paper and glowing art. There were moments when my heart squeezed as I suffered the characters' pain. There was gratitude for the stories of the Indian soldiers who fought in World War I, stories that have been hidden for so long. And ultimately, when Samir Khan met Samir Vij, there was hope for better times to come.
As a novel, The Book of Everlasting Things is like a patchwork quilt that has failed to come together as a harmonious whole. Some parts of it, however, glow like the finest brocade.
The Book of Everlasting Things
By Aanchal Malhotra
pp. 472; Rs.799