FICTION: AROMA THERAPY

Published August 13, 2023

The Book of Everlasting Things
By Aanchal Malhotra
HarperCollins
ISBN: 9356294003
472pp.

Belonging, displacement, memory. The three words stand for collective trauma in oral historian Aanchal Malhotra’s first two books. And they come alive once again in her debut novel, The Book of Everlasting Things, in which tender passion and a generational spread of characters connect two families.

The story that begins with two lovers, as young as 10 years old, sweeps across four generations, each in its own way affected by the trauma of the 1947 partition of the Indian Subcontinent.

In most locales in the Subcontinent, cross-cultural romance is dangerous, almost sacrilegious, and yet Malhotra has penned a saga of amazingly fragrant emotions. She writes a magnificent saga about the severing of ties, of the pain of romantic displacement, of coming to terms in alien settings and the power of inherited memory in reconnecting.

The child romantics eventually return to Mother Earth, unfulfilled. But their grandchildren pick up the threads of cross-cultural love, set against a landscape shaken to the core by unprecedented geopolitical change.

Historian Aanchal Malhotra’s debut novel is a story of deep love spread across four generations, and is steeped in scents

While the pistachio green of Firdous’s eyes (a genetic carryover) and Samir’s keen sense of smell (since he is born with a gifted nose) form the backdrop of this novel, it is essentially the power of ethereal fragrance that creates sanctuaries in the madding world of the book. The Book of Everlasting Things is very much a scented piece of writing, heavily laden with perfumed references to every action. Fragrances fill the pages. They coat every word, they take the action forward, they sweep along four generations.

From the accounts of the fabric trader Somnath’s rose-fields in Pattoki to an old perfumer’s collection in a Kannauj perfumery; from the whiff of scented European fields in World War I — where Vivek Vij, after deserting the killing fields, finds solace in a French woman’s love because of the halo of scent around her person — to the Paris apartment during World War II, where his nephew Samir rebuilds life as a perfumer and eventually manages to pay homage to his own unsatiated romance by succeeding in creating the ultimate perfume; this is a story of smells seconded only by emotions. “Both are processed in the same part of the human brain,” explains Malhotra.

Vivek opts out of his family’s fabric business to enlist for WWI, only to return years later as a silent brooding man, a shadow of the optimist out to erase the borders between white Britishers and brown Indians. He does not tell, and the family does not ask, what happened in the battlefields in distant “vilayet” [foreign lands]. Then, along comes a whiff of perfume. Vivek comes to life again in a world he had never ever shown an inclination to in pre-war time.

Suddenly he is strengthened enough to change the family fabric business into that of attar. Where did he learn the art of distilling perfumes? What was the secret behind the creation of the Mushk Dana Ambrette? It would be only when nephew Samir is fleeing the ravages of Partition, to make France his home, that Vivek’s painful secret is laid bare.

As the mayhem of Partition draws a final border between him and the calligrapher’s daughter Firdous, Samir has just enough emotion to collect the charred memorabilia of his family from the burnt-out house in Shah Alami, Lahore. Silently, he calls out to his grandfather’s ashes, “Now tell me Dadu where should I go? You said this haveli was our refuge.” The answer is not forthcoming.

Malhotra paints a most beautiful and poignant picture of Samir bidding farewell to the family perfumery in Anarkali, trying to absorb the beauty of the stocked attars in the atelier, taking down from the wall the framed photograph of himself, his father and uncle, and hastily throwing things together into a suitcase, en route to Delhi. And yes, uncle Vivek’s leather case goes too, untouched, unopened.

With “a skin scorched by Partition”, Samir heads to France, fleeing from a land that “had taken everything from him but for the breath of his lungs.” It is France because that was the only place his uncle Vivek, who had trained him in the art of perfumes, had some very strong emotional connection to. Samir discovers the connection only years later.

In Lahore, Firdous makes a marriage of convenience to her cousin, births a daughter and lives on, silently rummaging through memories. Samir, too, marries a Frenchwoman, and has a daughter. Miraculously, he proceeds to find a clue to uncle Vivek’s mysterious past and consequent relation to perfumes, the secret behind Vivek’s masterful attar concoction that nobody had dared question before.

It would be another generation before the swan song is sung. Firdous’s grandson Samir, named so by an ageing Firdous and carrying the burden of his grandmother’s memories, travels to Paris after her death, in search of the original Samir. His only clue is the bundle of love letters his grandmother had shared with him during her last days.

In much the same manner and with much the same sense of guilt, Samir senior in distant Paris has shared his past with his granddaughter Anouk who, too, becomes entrenched in the world of scents.

The Book of Everlasting Things is a deeply beautiful work of fiction set against the backdrop of a warring world. Charming, lyrical, extravagantly inventive and magical, it is creativity based on years of hard-core research about the world of perfumes.

It has all the scent sources that make up the perfumery business: flowers, herbs, Mother Earth... To this is added the scent of human emotions. Malhotra has shown her talent of research in her earlier historical narratives. But whereas a lot of that research was based on memory, inherited and antiquated, the creative and literary strength of this novel rests on research into a field that few would have the perseverance to follow: the genesis of scents that make up our world.

The reviewer is a freelance journalist, translator and creative content/report writer who has taught in the Lums Lifetime programme. She tweets @daudnyla

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 13th, 2023

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