"The Book of Everlasting Things" | Reviewed by Pat Sainz
In Aanchal Malholtra’s debut, love transcends inescapable cruelty and a separation wrought through war, ethnic discrimination, and religious differences. The novel tells the story of Samir, a Hindu perfumer, and Firdaus, a Muslim, who assists her father in the calligraphy business.
‘The Book of Everlasting Love” is set in Hindustan beginning in 1917. Much of the drama between Siamir and Firdaus starts in 1947 when Hindustan is separated at the directive of British Viceroy Louis Mountbatten.
India gains its independence but loses much of its land to newly-created Pakistan. Muslims were to live in Pakistan; Hindus in India. The separation resulted in the migration of millions and bloodshed on an unprecedented scale as neighbors who had lived peacefully together began slaughtering each other.
It is against this backdrop, several years before the 1947 Partition, when Samir, a 10-year-old apprentice in his father’s perfumery business, meets 8-year-old Firdaus. She is accompanying her father on a visit to the perfume distillery. He is seeking a unique scent to add to the ash he uses to create calligraphic art.
Samir has inherited a keen sense of smell from which he can discern all sources of scent. Samir encounters powerful responses that “affect his heart, his gut, his nose, even his fingertips, his whole body.” Samir even hears through smell the rush of rivers and the sounds of tunnels that lead the way to fields of fruit, flowers or vegetables, the source of his oils.
When Samir meets young Firdaus for the first time, he is immediately taken by her scent of rose, oranges, milk, flour, kohl, and vanilla. Above all, the aroma of roses captivates him. When Firdaus sees Samir, she is entranced by his face, his eyes, and his hands. They lock eyes, never speaking, and even as young as they are, they realize that their world has changed.
For ten years, they remain friends. Samir begins taking calligraphy classes from Firdaus’ father to learn how to draw titles on perfume bottles. Firdaus and Samir work closely together, supervised, rarely able to converse. When Firdaus begins taking classes at the university at age 18, Samir is able to meet her privately and they spend some time together.
In 1947, war tears them apart as Hindus kill Muslims, Muslims kill Hindus, and the British retreat from their British colony. Samir and Firdaus are victims of the partitioning of their hometown to Pakistan. Samir becomes one of the millions of migrants to leave India and separate from his love.
At great cost to others and himself, Samir spends years working to evoke the sweet scent of Firdaus, his greatest love. He also spends countless hours creating scents that call up the aroma of his home, his family, and his town. His scents become his memories and the path to his past.
The novel ends in 2017 as descendants of Firdaus and Simar learn of their ancestors' doomed love. A journalist begins to write their story, describing their love as an “intangible thing passed down from generation to generation, like memory or myth. Things that are not eclipsed by life or death. Everlasting things.”
Maholtra has written a memorable first novel that is equally lovely and devastating. Her descriptions of the intricacies involved in making fine perfume are captivating. She is a writer and historian from India and has written nonfiction books about the 1947 Partition.