A story about the Kohinoor diamond that fails to hold attention.
In her latest book, Indu Sundaresan traces the history of the dazzling Kohinoor or ‘Mountain of Light’ that not only had rich links with mythology but also adorned the treasuries of some of the most famous rulers.
The book begins well with Shah Shuja, king of Afghanistan, and his wife Wafa Begum being placed under guard at the Shalimar gardens in Lahore. Ranjit Singh, the Sikh king, is waiting to be given the Kohinoor in return for helping Shah Shuja. Finally, in 1817, the Kohinoor comes to Ranjit Singh. Set in an armband, “the central diamond was mammoth, built with fire and light, flanked by two smaller diamonds.”
The narrative jumps 20 years ahead to 1837, when Ranjit Singh’s wife Jindan Kaur gives birth to Dalip Singh and the smitten Maharajah allows her to wear the Kohinoor on her arm.
Enter Lord Auckland, Governor-General of India, and his sisters Emily and Fanny. There is a long build-up, which covers much historical detail, to the meeting between the Maharajah and the English, who get to see the diamond. Eight years later, the Lawrence brothers John and Henry are in Lahore, Ranjit Singh is dead and his young son, Dalip has been named Maharajah of Punjab. The Kohinoor is pressed into Henry Lawrence’s palm, voluntarily, in this version. Time passes and, on the instructions of Dalhousie, it is taken to England and presented to Queen Victoria. We catch up with Dalip Singh’s story, from 1854 to 1893, and suffer with him the irony that it is the Queen who displays the Kohinoor to him, now much smaller in size.
Indu Sundaresan is able to animate historical figures and enliven facts to take the narrative forward. She has an eye for interesting detail. Despite this surefooted negotiation of what could be dull history, interest in the narrative slackens primarily because the Kohinoor changes hands so many times, and we are introduced to a new set of characters each time. As a result, any emotional connection to the diamond is lost. By the time it reaches Queen Victoria, and Dalip Singh makes the last grand gesture of gifting it to her, one really does not care. Sundaresan’s narrative is careful in its neutrality, giving us both the English and the Indian viewpoints.
Ultimately this raises questions of perspective. From a nationalist perspective, Dalip Singh’s story alone — from being separated from his mother to his death in a run-down hotel in Paris — is capable of evoking great pathos and indignation at the contentious annexation of Punjab and ire at Dalhousie. Demands are still current for the Kohinoor to be returned to India/Pakistan. From another perspective, wars have been fought through centuries, not just by the Sikhs and the British, but also by one Indian kingdom against another. Treasures were always the spoils of war, to be destroyed even, as happened with the Nazi-looted art. Human lives are affected by wars of expansion, and the effects of colonialism still smoulder in the world. A piece of carbon changing hands is perhaps the least of the fallout. Lacking a definitive stance, the book disappoints. However, those who are curious about the diamond, how it came to be part of the Crown Jewels of England might find it a good read.
The Mountain of Light; Indu Sundaresan, HarperCollins, Rs.299.