By Saffron Coutts.
We are very happy to welcome Aanchal Malhotra to The Reading Corner to discuss her upcoming release The Book of Everlasting Things, out December 27th!
On a January morning in 1938, Samir Vij first locks eyes with Firdaus Khan through the rows of perfume bottles in his family’s ittar shop in Lahore. Over the years that follow, the perfumer’s apprentice and calligrapher’s apprentice fall in love with their ancient crafts and with each other, dreaming of the life they will one day share. But as the struggle for Indian independence gathers force, their beloved city is ravaged by Partition. Suddenly, they find themselves on opposite sides: Samir, a Hindu, becomes Indian and Firdaus, a Muslim, becomes Pakistani, their love now forbidden. Severed from one another, Samir and Firdaus make a series of fateful decisions that will change the course of their lives forever. As their paths spiral away from each other, they must each decide how much of the past they are willing to let go, and what it will cost them.
We are very happy to welcome Aanchal Malhotra to The Reading Corner to discuss her upcoming novel The Book of Everlasting Things.
Hi Aanchal, before we start I just wanted to say that your story was so gripping and haunting. What stayed with me more than anything throughout the process of reading it is that these real-life events happened under a hundred years ago, driving home the reality that people still alive could possibly resonate with your writing. written, congratulations!
Thank you very much, that means a lot!
What inspired the idea for your protagonist to have an enhanced sense of smell?
As one of the protagonists in my novel says, “of all our senses, smell is the most fragile. It is the least understood, and also most secretive.” It has a hold over us, an extraordinary power to exhume memory, transport us to different places, and even keep us connected to those no longer around. When I began writing this book, it was with mere curiosity about smell. Some years ago, my mother had told me a story about the time her father worked as a chemist at a pharmaceutical company and dabbled in amateur perfumery. The amorous, visceral manner in which she narrated those memories stayed with me, and helped to build the character of Vivek, one of the main perfumers in the novel.
What was the research process like for the book? I have noticed that there are so many intricate, beautiful, and tragic details. These range from smells, to the feels and origins of fabrics to even the history of this conflict.
The book took a total of five years to research, write and edit. Having begun my literary career as an oral historian of the 1947 Partition and immersing myself in the subject for nearly a decade now, writing about it came most naturally. These sections were also inspired by personal history, since my grandparents had lived through Partition and many of their memories have furnished the text. I’ve always been a visual and sensorial writer, and this comes from my formal training as a traditional printmaker, so it was essential to imbue nuance and care when writing about anything that involves or invigorates the senses. The research for this book has been diverse and humbling, ranging from studying the evolution of historic cities like Lahore, to constructing timelines of Partition-related violence through newspapers and speeches, and learning the basics of Urdu calligraphy. I spent years going through documents, letters, regimental journals, films and art pertaining to the Indian army in WW1, in military archives of the UK and India, as well as anything I could read on the social and psychological impact of war on soldiers. I spoke with experts in the fields of military history and olfaction. But perhaps the most important research was done with perfumers, through observation, conversation, smelling sessions, and travel.
Throughout the book you use a blend of languages, especially at moments of high emotions. Do you think this added layer of culture helped the reader to understand the lifestyle and society the characters grew up in?
Part of this decision was to pay homage to the way South Asians generally speak, which is in a combination of many languages, often in the same sentence. But I did also draw inspiration from my work with Partition survivors, where when they were recalling what they had experienced, they would repeat or stress on certain details and those details were often said either in the mother tongue (if they were otherwise speaking in English), or in a different dialect, or perhaps the language of childhood that they no longer spoke as much. I think a lot of these linguistic details add to intimacy of dialogue between certain characters, as well as certainly providing an insight into the time period. For instance, when my main protagonist, Samir encounters a man named Yusuf in his perfume shop in Paris, they speak in Punjabi rather than English or French, because they both hail from Lahore, and it is this shared language that – acting as a bridge between two men eventually drawn to opposite sides of a new border –leads them to a shared history.
Firdaus and Samir’s relationship felt, at times, so real. I couldn’t help but wonder if you were inspired by any real-life stories of couples/families being separated?
Absolutely. Over the course of my research, I’ve recorded innumerable stories of couples and families who found themselves on different side of the border, either by choice or lack thereof. There were stories of loved ones who were reunited in the months and years after Partition, and of couples like my own paternal grandparents, who first met at a refugee camp in Delhi. There are migration routes, memories, gestures, sentiments from those interviews which have been woven into Samir and Firdaus’ story.
Throughout the novel, Samir has been able to put people’s identities into their scent. As a result, this made his emotional response to the smells that much stronger, such as Firdaus’ dupatta or the smell of the herb tulsi. Do you think his enhanced scent is a blessing or a burden because of this?
I think it can be both simultaneously, as it often is in the book. Many times, when I was writing Samir, I felt he too was conflicted about his relationship to smell at different points in his life and depending on what life meted out to him, he wrestled with those moments of intimacy with and isolation from perfume.
I love that you allow the reader to see different perspectives in the story, using the third person to switch from character to character. Do you believe this was essential to give the reader a wider understanding of the events, rather than a singular experience?
I had always envisioned the story being told in third person through various perspectives. It was the only way I could attempt to do justice to the many storylines and backgrounds of the characters I had created, but also the many perspectives through which colossal events like partitions and wars can be understood more fully. However, this also proved to be one of the hardest things to do, since I needed to inhabit the life of every character – primary, secondary or even those mentioned in passing. Every character needed a personal and often political history, the details of their everyday routine needed to be fleshed out, experiences that became formative to their beliefs and perspective on life needed to be imagined or researched, and this required time and effort. Very often, these details were borrowed from people in my own life, and there is more to each character than is present on the page.
I found Vivek’s journal entries unforgettable. Men returning home completely changed and unable to talk about their time in the war was a common occurrence. To see this written in detail felt shocking as a result. Do you think more needs to be done to show men’s different cultural experiences in the war?
Vivek’s journals were researched and written using the letters that Indian soldiers wrote home – sometimes thousands a week when they initially arrived on the western front – and the limits of what they were able to write and relay to their families about the war, the weather, and personal loss. It was one of the hardest sections to write because I had to descend into the depths of a psychological and sensorial state of being in war and longing for respite.
The extraordinary contribution of Indian soldiers in WW1 – numbering up to 1.5 million troops – had been relegated to mere footnotes, until very recently. There are several works of non-fiction focusing on different aspects of their service (by George Morton Jack, Santanu Das, David Omissi, Ravindra Rathee, Vedica Kant, etc), but very few novels or even major films on the subject. Even within the subcontinent, our collective understanding of WW1 hardly extends to our own soldiers who fought across the world in the armies of their colonisers.
As recently as 2021, enlistment registers with records of 320,000 Punjabi soldiers were found in the Lahore Museum, and digitized and studied by Amandeep Madra, the chair of the UK Punjab Heritage Association who worked with the University of Greenwich on the project. Similarly, the role of women during wartime, particularly from India during WW2 – I’m thinking of the Women’s Auxiliary Corps (India), which is being explored in detail by the UK-based project, Indian Women and War (1939-1945) – is a subject that deserves far more attention.
Part Five of the novel felt almost therapeutic for Samir’s character. Without wanting to spoil anything, you gave the reader a few ‘full circle’ moments. I adored that despite Samir not having returned to his home country in decades, started to make peace with it. I was just curious, what made you want to introduce the character of Yusuf in the final part?
I knew there’d have to be a catalyst which could tie the ends together, and begin the exhumation of childhood memory and first love. But Yusuf plays a dual role here, for it only after meeting him that Samir begins to softens towards his own history; he allows himself to actively remember and recount. It is that moment of being unexpectedly confronted with a person, a language, a familiarity of home – when home is a word that’s been willingly pushed to the periphery of one’s life – that Samir finally gives in and opens up to his family.
Aanchal Malhotra (b.1990) is an oral historian and writer from New Delhi, India. She is the co-founder of the Museum of Material Memory, a crowd-sourced digital repository tracing family histories and social ethnography through heirlooms, collectibles and antiques from the Indian subcontinent.
Malhotra writes extensively on the 1947 Partition and its related topics. Her first book, published in South Asia as Remnants of a Separation (2017) and internationally as Remnants of Partition (2019), won the Council for Museum Anthropology Book Award 2022.
Aanchal’s Instagram: @aanch_m
Find more interviews here.