As Aanchal Malhotra’s debut novel opens, it’s 1938 in the old walled city of Lahore, Hindustan (now Pakistan), and Samir Vij has just turned 10. He’s about to join the family perfume business as an apprentice; like his uncle Vivek, Samir has an unusually perceptive nose. On the other side of the walled city, 8-year-old Firdaus Khan is the only girl studying in her father’s calligraphy studio. Soon after, Samir and Firdaus encounter each other for the first time when Firdaus and her parents come to the Vij perfume shop for rose oil to add to a special manuscript that Firdaus’ father is illuminating. Samir, a Hindu boy, and Firdaus, a Muslim girl, feel an instant connection, one that’s deepened when Samir too begins to study calligraphy.
The novel follows Samir and Firdaus as their friendship turns to love over the next 10 years. But after World War II, local demands for independence from the British Empire grow louder. Seemingly overnight, the ancient, multicultural city of Lahore, where Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs live in peaceable proximity and friendship, descends into violence and chaos. The price of independence turns out to be Partition, which divides Hindustan into India and Pakistan. Hindu families in Lahore flee over the new border into India, and Muslims flee into the new Pakistan. Samir and Firdaus are driven far apart, their destinies seeming to diverge.
In The Book of Everlasting Things, Malhotra balances the larger canvas (the devastation of two world wars and Partition) with the smaller (Samir and Khan’s love story), weaving in additional family stories to reveal how past actions affect the two lovers over the decades.
Malhotra is a visual artist and the author of two nonfiction books on Partition, and her prose is often gorgeous and evocative. The novel shines in its sensory details, particularly in regard to smells, showing how perfumers take in the world. It’s also strong in its sense of place, with memorable images of pre-Partition Lahore, a place lost to war and the passage of time, as well as of post-World War II Paris and Grasse, France. Samir, the character at the novel’s heart, is more developed than Firdaus, but both characters share a vivid sense of longing.
Some readers may quibble that The Book of Everlasting Things moves slowly, but this is a long, meaty story with an old-fashioned pace. It’s a novel to sink into as Malhotra spins a bittersweet family saga of love, loss and connection.