“We were here too”: writer and historian Aanchal Malhotra pays tribute to the Indian soldiers who fought in the World Wars with her first novel, The Book of Everlasting Things

Malhotra has documented the first-hand experiences of Partition survivors and employed objects as a catalyst for storytelling

January 19, 2023 03:35 pm | Updated 03:43 pm IST

Aanchal Malhotra has used letters written by Indian soldiers to their families as the primary resource for ‘The Book of Everlasting Things’.

Aanchal Malhotra has used letters written by Indian soldiers to their families as the primary resource for ‘The Book of Everlasting Things’. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Samir Vij is desperate to preserve the past. Blessed with an acute sense of smell, the protagonist of Aanchal Malhotra’s historical fiction novel  The Book of Everlasting Things can pick up scents off a person much like a detective picks up clues.

Through them, he is able to distil the story of their life: the spaces they inhabit, the passions they nurture, the materials they love and live with. His prodigal talent earns him an apprenticeship at his uncle Vivek’s perfume shop in Lahore’s Anarkali Bazaar; the year is 1937 and Samir is 10 years old. This is where Samir first meets the quietly enigmatic Firdaus Khan. It is her fragrance that hits him first: a curious blend of vanilla and charcoal. He knows, before he has seen her or even learnt her name, that she is like no one he has met before.

Over the next decade, Samir and Firdaus grow close; he takes classes at her father’s calligraphy school and she surreptitiously draws him in charcoal. Rumours of Partition cloud the air, but the lovers are adamant they will not let themselves be separated. When the worst comes to pass, Samir is stripped of everything he holds dear, and all that he has left are memories, and a devastating desire to preserve them.

The Book of Everlasting Things is writer and historian Malhotra’s first work of fiction, published on the heels of her oral history collections Remnants of a Separation (2017) and In the Language of Remembering (2022). Malhotra spent five years bringing the novel to life, undertaking Partition-focused field work in India and Pakistan, combing through World War I archives in London, studying the basics of calligraphy in New Delhi’s Urdu Bazar and Chitli Qabar, and working with Janki Nandan of The Perfume Library to understand the art of crafting fragrance.

Aanchal Malhotra with relics from the past she has collected over the years.

Aanchal Malhotra with relics from the past she has collected over the years. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The historian’s earlier work with material memory — employing objects as a catalyst for storytelling — and interest in documenting the first-hand experiences of Partition survivors offered her an intuitive sense of how ordinary folk were shaken by the events of the time. “I don’t think I could have written the novel without having done the oral history work that I did, because it gave me a sense of nuance that became second nature,” the author says. “I refuse to easily put things in the dichotomy of right versus wrong or us versus them because it never is that simple.”

Not just a Partition love story

On the surface, the book is a love story — the tragic tale of a Hindu boy and Muslim girl who fall in love in 1930s Lahore, and are separated during Partition. This, however, sets Samir on a path to uncover an entirely new story: the journey of his uncle Vivek, who fought in France during World War I — making for some very compelling prose.

“When we learn about the wars in school, our understanding never factors in the Indian contribution, which is enormous,” she says. “I don’t think it was until the centenary of the war in 2014 that real work started to be done on the colonial contribution in general — whether it were the French African troops or British Indian troops.”

Over the course of her work as a Partition historian, Malhotra had heard of family members who fought in World War I, but very few first-hand accounts remained. Her primary resource, then, was the letters that soldiers wrote back to their families.

“The only way I could really understand — and only to an extent, because that’s not fully a reflection of their hearts — was through the letters they wrote,” she says. “These men knew well that the letters were read and censored, so they couldn’t really divulge much, but it’s still such a rollercoaster of emotions reading them. There’s no general or vague description of war, it is incredibly nuanced, specific, emotional, nostalgic, biting.”

I feel sometimes our youth was unkind to us, Firdaus writes to Samir in a heartbreaking letter. “ It happened at a time when it could be easily seized and swallowed by the violent ongoings of the world.” This, in my opinion, is where Malhotra’s novel truly shines. The historian does not elevate her characters to heroes and heroines who stand strong against all odds and valiantly defy the politics of the time. They are, quite simply, people, who lived lives that were largely defined by forces beyond their control.

Layers of the story

Malhotra’s mastery lies in her ability to cut through the shroud of political debate, and get to to the core of the human heart. “I hate that Partition narratives are very conveniently fit into this nostalgia box,” Malhotra says. “There are so many more layers. Partition and war are understood in these very violent terms, rightly so, but everyone has a story.”

Her protagonist’s penchant for perfumery, then, becomes a metaphor for Malhotra’s own process as a historian — an attempt to preserve something that has been long lost, to revive something intangible, to bring a person or a place back to life, even if only for a little while.

“Samir is the collector, the keeper, the inheritor,” Malhotra says. “I poured a lot of my curiosity into him, my abilities, and my sadness. He carries everyone’s life, and it weighs on him. He is always grappling with how much of the heaviness is really permissible to be brought into the present day.”

Still, it is Vivek, writing from the trenches of war-torn France, who cuts straight to the heart of the stories that Malhotra wants the world to hear:  “Let me say this while I still can: we were here too.”

The freelance writer and playwright is based in Mumbai.

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