It’s Terrifying to Think Fictional Characters Have Such a Hold on You: Author Aanchal Malhotra

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As Aanchal Malhotra gets ready to launch her first fiction novel, The Book of Everlasting Things, she gives Kunzum a sneak peek into the book and the challenges she faced in switching from oral history about the Partition to a fictional love story. By Sumeet Keswani & Paridhi Badgotri

Aanchal Malhotra is well-known as an oral historian of the Partition. With two immensely popular and profound books, Remnants of a Separation and In the Language of Remembering, Malhotra has explored the decisive event through the lens of personal memories of survivors and its inheritance in subsequent generations. But while she was still working on her second book, Malhotra started on a third one—a fictional love story featuring a Muslim calligrapher’s apprentice and a Hindu perfumer’s apprentice who are pulled apart by the events of 1947. The Book of Everlasting Things is slated to release this December.

When Aanchal Malhotra recently came down to Kunzum Jorbagh for the book launch of Hymns in Blood, translated by Navdeep Suri from the original Punjabi version, we sat down with her to talk about the Partition, her fiction adventure, and more. Here is an excerpt.

A Conversation with Aanchal Malhotra

Kunzum: There has been a spurt of late in books—written and translated—about the Partition. Which factors do you think have contributed to this trend?

Aanchal Malhotra: People in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have been fascinated with the Partition for different reasons, perhaps since it happened, so we see different waves of literature coming out about it. I also think that the Partition is not something that can be fully experienced, it is not something that is finite. It doesn’t end with the generation that led to it; it finds a way, either physically because of where you live—perhaps near the border—or mentally, [where] there are scars of trauma lingering. It finds a way to deposit itself in subsequent generations, and I think every generation looks at the Partition in a different way. But I do believe that the 70th anniversary had something to do with a kind of resurgence in interest about the Partition, particularly from younger people—people who were three generations removed, like myself, or even four generations removed. And I think that is primarily because of the way social media is playing out, bringing us a lot closer—we can virtually see the other side. A lot of young people are realising that their grandparents are not going to be around for much longer, and they want to know and record the stories of their origin—I think this will continue, there will be waves of interest in it. I don’t think it will ever end in my opinion.

Kunzum: How do you see the current sociopolitical landscape of India when compared to the breaking point of 1947?

Aanchal Malhotra: We are not at that tipping point where we were during the Partition. To a layperson, it may seem like there are parallels, but the context is wildly different. And I personally am really wary to say that all communal violence can be traced back to the Partition because there are events like 1965 or 1971. I’m wary of people constantly drawing parallels, because the context is very different: where we are now versus where we were 75 years ago. 

Kunzum: Tell us about your new book. What made you venture into fiction this time?

Aanchal Malhotra: I had an idea that could have only been written as a novel. I didn’t think of writing it as non-fiction, because I would have done injustice to the idea. It’s a crossover to a new genre. It’s a new audience. Your voice is new. So, I’m definitely nervous to see how it’s going to be received.

Kunzum: You come from a place of oral history and writing books that stay true to the memory of your interviewees. And now, suddenly, with fiction, you have this big canvas of freedom to take the story anywhere. How do you navigate that change as a writer?

Aanchal Malhotra: Yeah, fiction does strange things. I was writing fiction along with my last non-fiction [In The Language Of Remembering]. It’s ironic to say this, but sometimes when I wanted to feel grounded I would read the novel, rather than the non-fiction I was writing. It was a refuge for me. It’s very atmospheric because it’s also about senses like smell—and you don’t have to be of a certain identity or nationality to experience that. So, I love that it kind of went above and beyond any kind of classification.

Kunzum: Was there a moment, a spark, when you knew you were going to write this story as a novel?

Aanchal Malhotra: It was March 2017. I already had a scene in mind: two children are looking at each other through a glass cupboard full of perfume bottles. I remember I started writing it in Paris, and everything was terrifying because [there were so many questions]: How do you write dialogue? Should I write in first person or third person? What if I am writing the middle part right now? And I’m sure if I ever write another novel, I’ll have the same questions, because non-fiction is orderly—you have your proposal or outline, you have field research, and you can’t deviate so much out of it. But with fiction you can’t predict anything, for instance there was a character who I was certain did not have much of a role to play but as I was writing she demanded to be on the page. And it’s pretty terrifying to think that fictional characters have such a hold on you. But the sense of accomplishment you get is unmatched. Non-fiction takes so much of work, and it gets a lot of respect. For fiction, the scale is huge, [in terms of] the number of countries that can resonate with it. Non-fiction ends up being very niche; it doesn’t travel much. [For my fiction book] The first language to be bought was Dutch!

Related: Literary Translation Plays a Critical Role in Building Bridges between Communities: Author & Translator Daisy Rockwell

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