We are often told that Partition took place in 1947. This is incorrect. The partition of India was given legislative shape in 1947, but it had started a few years or even some decades earlier and it is still taking place in different ways, for no land can be partitioned if the hearts of a large number of its inhabitants have not already been divided. It is this long partition that Aanchal Malhotra’s debut novel, The Book of Everlasting Things, is partly about, but it also becomes, as it unfolds, a story about love and loss and, perhaps, finally a kind of redemption. The two are not unconnected concerns.
The novel revolves around Samir Vij, the scion of the Vij family in pre-Partition Lahore, and Firdaus, the young woman he falls in love with. Even though five generations are narrated in its 445 pages, it is essentially the lives and, shall we say, after-lives of Samir and Firdaus that are the concern.
Abandoning the family business in textiles, the Vijs enter the business of perfumes, propelled by the skills and experiences of Samir’s uncle, Vivek, who returns, after being presumed lost, from the First World War. He, like about 1.5 million soldiers from India (the largest contingent from any of the British colonies), had fought for the British empire. Vivek never talks about his war experiences, mostly in France, but they have altered him forever and taught him the skills and techniques of making perfumes. By a strange coincidence, his nephew, Samir, has a particularly attuned nose for smells and fragrances, and soon he becomes his uncle’s disciple, as the family business in perfumes flourishes.
The other family that plays a significant role in the novel is that of Ustad Altaf Hussain Khan, a master of calligraphy, who is educating his daughter, Firdaus, in the art going against the customs of the times. When the Vijs start using the Ustad for calligraphic labels on their bottles of perfume and Samir expresses the desire to learn calligraphy, having seen and fallen in love with Firdaus, the inevitable ensues and soon the two young people are exchanging letters and dreams.
Fires of hatred
But something else has started appearing as inevitable to many in British India, and that is, alas, Partition. Despite resistance and opposition to it, soon many parts of India, especially in Bengal and Punjab, are burning with the fires of hatred. Firdaus and Samir are parted. Firdaus is married off to a cousin whose family arrives from Delhi as refugees. Samir, having lost his family in riots in Lahore, ends up a refugee in Delhi, and then Bombay (now Mumbai), and finally France.
In France, Samir eventually marries Léa, a French woman, and starts a family, and begins to recover, through notebooks that he has saved from the conflagration in Lahore, his uncle Vivek’s story of the First World War.
Both Firdaus and Samir shore up the fragments of the ruin of their love and build families in different countries. The novel moves on to include a note of hope: not the hope of recovery, for that seems impossible, but the hope of new beginnings informed by the knowledge of what has passed, which is the hope life offers when one embraces love instead of hatred. However, it is best to refrain from paraphrasing the rest of the novel so that the reader can read for herself.
The Book of Everlasting Things is above all an accomplished historian’s novel. Its greatest strength is its intricate and well-researched historical backdrop, which is however narrated with novelistic ease and fluency. Its intricate description of the arts of perfumery and calligraphy, which fill the first few chapters, is fascinating and also helps suggest, perhaps unconsciously, both a time that is lost forever and the inescapable continuity of the past with the present. For both perfumes and writing are aspects of our lives today and, yet, they are so different from what the Vijs and the Khans wrought in pre-Partition India.
Similarly, Samir’s recovery of his uncle Vivek’s mute stories of love, loss and longing in the years of the war is not just a novelist’s choice, but also that of a historian who is aware of the fact that the stories of soldiers from the British colonies, especially the coloured colonies, have largely been whitewashed out of popular narratives about the two world wars. In the First World War, for instance, India contributed 14,01,350 soldiers to the war effort, which was as much as what all the other major colonies—Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa—together contributed. However, while stories of white Australians and white Canadians fighting for the British have seeped into popular culture in the West, those of Indian (or Caribbean) soldiers remain obscured despite excellent historical work in recent decades by scholars like Rozina Visram. In that context, Malhotra’s novel also brings a historian’s knowledge to a broader readership, the readership of novels.
Finally, Malhotra is a historian of not just Partition but also of “material memory”, and her use of perfumes in the novel should be read along those lines. Her choice of perfumes as the linking thread in her narratives is a conscious one. Perfumes, after all, are based on ingredients that already exist but are also at the same time crafted and bottled. Their fragrance is invisible and, yet, as the novel shows again and again, capable of evoking memories of concrete things, people, and events from the past. It is in this sense that Partition both evaporates from the narrative as the novel proceeds and never really leaves its pages. Or does it? Perhaps that is a test each reader will have to pass alone.
Then, to claim that this novel is a narrative of Partition is partly misleading. Its stories, like a perfume made of given ingredients, are rooted in the tragedy of Partition, but once the perfume is unbottled, the stories, like fragrances, waft away in different directions.
A minor flaw
Of course, there is a danger to this, for stories, like fragrances, work best when they are not itemised and explained a bit too transparently. This is an occasional flaw, but then this also seems to be a generic flaw in both historical novels and family sagas today, and usually gains them a larger readership. So, perhaps, it is not a flaw but a strength.
The transparency of the narrative, combined with the ease, elegance, and fluency of the narration is likely to appeal to most readers. In any case, if the showing sometimes suffers from an excess of telling, The Book of Everlasting Things nevertheless leaves various fragrances in its wake and proves to be a significant debut in fiction by a prize-winning historian.
Tabish Khair is an Indian novelist and academic who teaches in Denmark.
- The partition of India was given legislative shape in 1947, but it had started a few years or even some decades earlier and it is still taking place in different ways.
- The Book of Everlasting Things, is partly about this long partition but it also becomes a story about love and loss and finally a kind of redemption.
- The Book of Everlasting Things is above all an accomplished historian’s novel.
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