Rock of ages

The Kohinoor diamond was one of the most coveted objects in Indian history, its romance and splendour unsurpassed, its form hidden in the mist of swirling tales. The Mountain Of Light by Indu Sundaresan is a history of the path traced by the 186-carat diamond all the way to the crown jewels in England. This is a true historical account, rendered fascinatingly by Sundaresan, who explains in the afterword what parts of the book are based on real episodes and which ones are the embellishments of her imagination.

The first recorded account of the diamond comes from Mughal Emperor Babur, who received the stone from an Indian Raja. From there it moved to Persia and Afghanistan, where the name Koh-i-noor was bestowed upon it by Nadir Shah. Our story begins with Shah Shuja, deposed King of Persia, in a wrestling match with his companion Ibrahim, in the Shalimar gardens, where they are living as “guests” of Ranjit Singh, ruler of the Punjab. Ranjit Singh has been promised the Kohinoor by Wafa Begam, wife of Shah Shuja, in return for the Shah’s freedom from imprisonment in Kashmir. How Ranjit Singh extracts the diamond from this woman of supreme intelligence is a tale that immediately charms the reader into the story. Ranjit Singh is the man who breaks the curse of the Kohinoor — that only a woman could safely possess it; no man could hold it and keep his kingdom. This man kept the Kohinoor for 30 years, and kept the British at bay, too. With his death came the annexation and the slow movement of the Mountain across the seas to another woman: the queen of England.

From the first page, Sundaresan transports you far back in time, to fountains in pools with the base strewn with jasper, agate and carnelian “which created a glitter of colours under the water”, a minister with a set of false teeth made from ivory after he lost his own teeth in an attack, tent poles studded with rubies and emeralds and the Kohinoor itself — the stone that could feed the entire world for a day.

Sundaresan’s writing gives you the feel of watching an epic movie, so visual is its quality. From the British encampment fashioned in the style of Ain-e-Akbari to the scene of the governor general and his sister stuck on an elephant that refuses to budge from the river even as it sprays them with water, every line flows fluidly. The emotions are refined with the same elegant hand, every chapter carrying a different set of characters and a different tug at the heart. In the latter half, the book changes scene and moves to England, with Dalip Singh, Ranjit’s son — who is in the care of the Logins and has accepted Christianity, being showered with a multitude of titles and favours by the queen. In the end, though, he bitterly realises that he’s “not good enough for a young British woman of little fortune and no pretensions to nobility.”

Although Sundaresan does not pepper the book with patriotism, objectively showing both sides, the darkness of colonialism and its deceitfulness is on full display. The Kohinoor, which is the connecting thread of the various fragments, reflects the fortunes of India’s royalty. At the very end, the queen has the diamond recut and when Dalip holds it again, “it is weightless upon my hand, its heft cut away… this is not a mountain anymore but a mere bump in the horizon… it isn’t the Kohinoor diamond…” So too, of course, the grand royals of India faded into oblivion, devoured by the British empire.

This book is a splendid work of art, a grave tale told with much romance and subtle meaning. You would take some time to come back to reality.

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