Review: India’s Partition in deeply human debut novel

This cover image released by Flatiron shows "The Book of Everlasting Things" by Aanchal Malhotra. (Flatiron via AP)

This cover image released by Flatiron shows “The Book of Everlasting Things” by Aanchal Malhotra. (Flatiron via AP)

“The Book of Everlasting Things” by Aanchal Malhotra (Flatiron)

Star-crossed lovers. Intoxicating scents. Old war journals containing ghosts and secrets. What more could you want in a work of historical fiction?

Aanchal Malhotra’s debut novel “The Book of Everlasting Things” paints a riveting picture of the 1947 Partition of India using all senses — especially and unusually leaning into smell.

The Vij family, Hindus living in Lahore who become minor celebrities as perfumers, are well known and highly regarded for their unsurpassed ittar, extracted from flowers. This success attracts the Khans, a Muslim family whose patriarch teaches calligraphy at the Wazir Khan Mosque across town. On a fateful visit to the Vij shop in 1938, it’s the young Firdaus Khan’s scent that bewitches perfuming apprentice Samir Vij.

Over the next 10 years, their relationship grows from the curiosity of children to the fierce and longing love of young adults. But Partition takes “star-crossed lovers” to a new level as violence takes hold of Lahore, threatening to leave no person untouched by the impending split that would result in Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan.

But the story stretches far beyond Partition, even beyond Samir and Firdaus. To truly understand the history and the characters, Malhotra brings us back to Samir’s uncle — the first in his family to enlist in the army — witnessing firsthand the horrors of World War I trenches for the sake of India’s colonizer, Great Britain.

The story also stretches decades into the future, allowing the ramifications of war and heartbreak to echo through generations. And although the facts are predictable, the people are decidedly not.

“The Book of Everlasting Things” is a book to stroll through and indulge in; a sensory paradise basking in the sound of words, the smell of a childhood memory, the alluring hook of a nose or a letter. It’s an ode to passion, from handicraft to the first and deepest love. Tender moments slice through enchanting descriptions. Scenes of violence and accompanying smell-scapes of rot and decay breathe life into history. Loving relationships are laid bare in their many forms: mentorship, friendship, romantic love, marital partnership, parental affection — and each of these through various stages.

Having already proved her deep knowledge of Partition in her previous two nonfiction works, along with over a dozen articles and other works, Malhotra tried her hand at longform fiction and succeeded with elegance. At all turns, “The Book of Everlasting Things” is deeply human, with careful attention paid to both factual and emotional accuracy.

Donna Edwards
Donna Edwards
Donna is a text editor for the Asia-Pacific region.