Aanchal Malhotra’s “The Book of Everlasting Things” – Chicago Review of Books

Any time I ask my mom about the Lahore of her childhood, the present moment glitches for a split second, and she disappears to some place within herself. Upon return, the edges of her lips curl into a sly smile, and—each time, without fail—she prefaces her answers with a single phrase: “Lahore Lahore hai” (“Lahore is Lahore”). 

Where does one even begin, then, when speaking about a city, let alone bringing it alive on the page, whose lore is so mystical and grand that it can only be defined in reference to itself? The answer, both in my mom’s stories and in Aanchal Malhotra’s debut novel, The Book of Everlasting Things, is by tending to the details that made the city. Lahore is in the details. 

In many ways, The Book of Everlasting Things can best be described as a novel of details. This is not only because of how intimately and purposefully Malhotra builds the novel’s cityscapes and environments with detailed, opulent prose, but because this is not only a novel about Lahore; this is a novel about lovers in Lahore in the buildup to and aftermath of Partition. And just as lush descriptions of Lahore, its culture, and its residents are central to the novel, so too are the places where Malhotra chooses to hold back on providing details, letting silences and thin offerings of context and descriptions shape the narrative instead. 

The novel opens in the old walled-city of Lahore in 1938 with a young Hindu boy named Samir Vij, who, on his tenth birthday, is taken to the Ravi River by his father Mohan and uncle Vivek. On the banks of the Ravi, Vivek hands Samir a bottle of ittar that he made from the essence of tuberose, taken from the ittar shop and atelier that he operates. Unscrewing the bottle and taking in its scent, Samir is immediately moved to tears, not only smelling the tuberose through his nose, but feeling it in his heart. This small act of initiation confirms what his uncle had expected all along: Samir, just like his uncle, has been “afflicted” with a keen sense of smell, and it is to this craft of perfumery that Samir will dedicate the rest of his life. 

On the other side of the old city, sitting in a calligraphy studio within the compound of Wazir Khan Masjid, is a nine-year old Muslim girl named Firdaus Khan, the daughter of Altaf Khan. While Altaf, a classically trained calligrapher, renders Arabic, Persian, and Urdu poetry and prose into glowing manuscripts for scholars and patrons alike, Firdaus works alongside him as his apprentice, ornamenting the borders of the manuscripts with drawings of flowers and golden leaves, while receiving calligraphy lessons of her own and dedicating herself to calligraphy at a young age.

By immediately situating Samir and Firdaus within an aesthetic world of tradition and lineage, luxurious craft and discipline, Malhotra makes clear that the Lahore she is resurrecting is one of splendor and beauty. This is a Lahore where rose-water is sprinkled in the courtyard of Wazir Khan masjid each morning, and manuscripts of poetry can be fashioned on handmade paper essenced with ittar; a Lahore in which horse-drawn tongas are called to make day trips to source fresh damask roses to distill into essential oils; a Lahore in which the arts of perfumery and calligraphy are spoken of and tended to with sacred reverence.  

It is within this Lahore that Samir and Firdaus cross paths and fall in love. After they lock eyes for the first time when Altaf brings Firdaus with him to visit Vivek’s ittar shop, their love blossoms when Samir begins taking calligraphy lessons in Altaf’s studio alongside Firdaus. But in 1947, just as their love begins to move beyond exchanging glances and letters in the studio, their Lahore is about to go up in flames, as the plan to Partition the Indian subcontinent and create the new nation states of Pakistan and India is announced. Communal tensions between Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs are flaring up all around Lahore, ignited by the talks and plans for Partition. Violence in the city escalates at a rapid pace, threatening not only Firdaus and Samir’s relationship but their lives. Before Samir and Firdaus even have a chance to make a plan to stick together, Samir’s neighborhood is burned down by a Muslim mob and his entire family is killed in the fire. In the aftermath of the fire, and after being rejected by Firdaus’ family, Samir, having lost the love of his life, his home, and his family, leaves Lahore. 

It is here, when the novel reaches the point of Partition, where Malhotra’s selective approach to worldbuilding through details and descriptions comes into light. The account of Partition given in the novel is fairly sparse and moves quickly. It mostly focuses on mob-violence and only briefly touches on political jostling by the Muslim League and Indian National Congress, and very little on the impact of British colonial rule. While full chapters are spent wading in the world of perfume, accompanied by meditations and odes to the power of scent and the wonders of the nose, the account of Partition feels sudden and bare. 

This trend continues throughout the book. In the aftermath of the carnage that Samir escaped from in Lahore, he does not linger in the newly-established India to process the loss of his family and homeland. Almost immediately, Samir begins to rebuild his life. With little mention of his past, he decides to travel to France, finding comfort in the fact that this is where his uncle, Vivek, had learned about the world of perfume. He pours through journals he was able to save from the fire that were left behind by Vivek that chronicled Vivek’s experiences fighting on behalf of the British in World War I. Samir studiously maps all of the places Vivek was deployed to and where Vivek traveled to when in Paris. Samir then follows Vivek’s notebooks to Grasse, France, where Vivek first learned the world of perfume that was eventually passed down to Samir. It was also in Grasse where Vivek began to recover from and process the horrors of World War I, and built a life for himself and started a family. At each phase of Vivek’s life that Samir reaches in the journals, he throws himself into it obsessively, as if he is living the life that Vivek once had in order to understand his own self on a deeper level, and to connect with his uncle. When it comes to describing the horrors of World War I and the depravity of trench warfare, the serenity of Grasse, the transformative power of perfume, Malhotra’s evocative descriptions and imagery are masterful, thorough, and tended to with precision. Yet, at the same time, depictions and explorations of how Samir processes the extreme violence he witnesses and all that he has lost, the slim build up to his short lived marriage to a Frenchwoman woman, his relationship with the daughter they have together, and how he feels about fatherhood are noticeably less descriptive and expounded upon. 

But rather than attributing the differences in depth to a lapse of the pen, Malhotra seems to be making a point of the nature of memory and grief itself, from the viewpoint of those who lived through the trauma of Partition. Partition was a kaleidoscopic event: different stories and pictures emerge based on how one chooses to process the history. A story of Partition could be told from the vantage point of political elites like Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru who argued for different visions of independence from colonial rule and rallied their constituencies accordingly; one can track and trace the way that riots and massacres metastasized across the subcontinent, breeding a distrust of the “other”; and one can analyze the history of British colonialism, how Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs were split into different voting constituencies or political blocs under colonial rule, and analyze the violent carelessness with which the border between India and Pakistan was drawn. Each mode of analysis unearths different facets and ways to make sense of the enormously bloody and brutal tragedy that was Partition. But just as analyses on political currents and the role of empire inform us about how Partition happened, they also can obscure the individual experiences of those who lived through it into a faceless amalgamation.

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Many survivors of Partition speak very little about the horrors that they experienced. Neighbors killed neighbors; entire villages were burned and razed to the ground; women were systematically targeted and raped; traincars arrived at train stations dripping in blood, as each passenger aboard the train had been slaughtered on their journey from one side of a freshly-drawn border to the other. Not only did the trauma of either having witnessed or engaged in acts of violence, or both, stun people into silence, but so too did the question, how did this happen? In the aftermath of a Partition far bloodier than anyone could have predicted, where does one even begin to reckon with the fact that communities who had lived alongside each other, formed generational friendships, and shared a culture suddenly erupted into bloodshed? For many survivors, they simply didn’t. Silence was a means of survival and moving forward. 

As such, the quick pace at which Malhotra deals with the violence and loss that Samir experienced also reflects how an individual picks their life back up after such an experience. Samir’s obsession with charting his deceased uncle’s footsteps and reimmersing himself in the world of perfumes, juxtaposed with his relative silence about the footsteps that he himself walked after the violence of 1947, implicitly tells us about the vehicle through which he carries his grief. Samir does not speak much of the horrors of Partition and leaves India as soon as he can, but he finds meaning in committing his life to the small details of what his uncle loved. Instead of choosing to remember Partition by the massacres and rupture, Samir’s battle to remember consists of carrying on his uncle’s memories. In this way, The Book of Everlasting Things is a novel about remembrance and memory as much as it is about Partition.

Detail is a strength as much as a vulnerability based on where Malhotra places it. Without prior knowledge of Partition, one can walk away with an incomplete, simplistic understanding of what transpired in August of 1947 and the months and years leading up to it. Additionally, the story can be unevenly paced and repetitive at times when diving into the wonders of perfumery. But, by focusing on just one family, and one person’s experience of Partition, we get an understanding of what the official recounts or academic monographs don’t always capture in the same way: the deeply human cost of both living through Partition and moving on from it.

The Book of Everlasting Things
By Aanchal Malhotra
Flatiron Books

Published December 27, 2022

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