Book Review: Koh I Noor by Anita Anand and William Dalrymple.

Published: 15-06-2017
Format: Hardback
Edition: 1st
Extent: 352
ISBN: 9781408888841
Imprint: Bloomsbury Publishing
Illustrations: 2 x 8pp colour insert

Diamonds are forever and so are the stories attached to them. This is a book about a diamond, and the lengths people went to in order to possess it. In the end it is a story about possessiveness, belonging and ownership.
It is a human story, a chunk of rock, no matter how great in value cannot speak for itself. It’s character is very much formed by its owners, and the fact that these people wished to own it says something about them in turn.
As the centuries pass, and the diamond takes on yet more handed down significance, afforded by generations of ownership and individual lives, it has grown a life of its own, a life perhaps as faceted as its etched surface that envelopes the lives of those that would posses it. They must understand what it says about them to want it. After so much time, Koh I Noor has a voice and it comes from centuries of history.

The premise of this book, (well presented and richly illustrated) is to tell the real story of the world’s most infamous diamond. This as opposed to the potted history’s collected by the British after they gained possession of it after the 2nd Sikh War. This it succeeds in marvellously. The two authors go back into Indian Legend to explain the significance of such stones as the Koh I Noor, and then follow it right down to the present day controversy of who should possess it.

William Dalrymple tackles the immense job of tracking the stone from early Legends and down through it’s hectic early life as a Mughal, then Persian then Afghan and then Sikh trophy. This section takes up part 1 of the story and ends with the death of the Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Dalrymple does a stellar job of reducing down whole centuries into chapters, but inevitably perhaps more elbow room is required and the narrative ebbs and flows.

Anand takes up the baton of the story in part 2 which traces the path of the diamond from the hands of the dead Ranjit Singh 1st Sikh War to its loss to the British, its travel to Britain and recutting, and then to the modern day. This part of the book is maybe a touch better written but perhaps not as academically pleasing. The narrative flows easily and is vivid as it is informative. The diamond, and attendant movements and politics play a background role to the people who own it, the lives of its principle Indian owners are investigated thoroughly, (so much so that I must admit to forgetting at times what the book was about.)

Distance is lost somewhat in the second half of the book, but that’s because we suddenly go into closeup. First of all there is so much more documentation available for Anand to draw on, which helps her build her narrative up. However I could not help but feel a certain unease when it came to the passages about the battles of the Sikh Wars. Now I will just say that the battles and politics surrounding the diamond are central to this story and need to be included to understand why it is important.

Nevertheless I wondered if it was necessary to at all times mention the (undeniable) prowess of the Sikh Army and then observe that whenever they were defeated by the British it was only ever down to either treachery or (apparently) better British weapons. I always flinch slightly whenever I come across patterns like this.

I tried to decide wether or not this mattered to anyone else but myself, wether or not I was being too pedantic, too critical or unfair. Yet I could not escape from the resolution that the authors had chosen to include this information, and associated titbits, and therefore having done so perhaps would have done well to have attempted to reach a balance of perspectives. For instance I could have picked at a few minor things to do with the Duke of Wellington but I decided that if readers wanted to read about the Duke in full they’d read another book, but the fighting is directly associated with the story of the diamond whereas Wellington is incidental.

This I think brings us back to the way the book tends to delve into the biographies of the main owners, and sometimes strays from actually discussing the subject at hand. Then when it does return to topic, using the Koh I Noor as a sort of connector to carry the story onwards, it is discussed in such a way, especially in the latter half of the book, as to suggest that everybody concerned had no other motive for doing anything than to gain possession of the diamond.

Sometimes this quirk can be seen in TV documentaries where a specific thesis is being presented, and where a single, secret, hitherto forgotten pivot becomes the reson-d’être of the entire story. I found therefore checks and balances to my enjoyment of the book, but on the whole I liked it, and it was a fascinating trip down a path less travelled, a joy to read. Then again nothing is perfect to everyone.

A book that shines in its ability to string together thousands of years of history, involving politics, war, personalities and rivalries into a fluid tale. In many ways parting the mists of myth that surround the diamond. A highly readable, exciting and poignant work, that cleverly tells the history of the diamond and at the same time using it as a vehicle to tell the history of India

It is a book that admittedly carries with it a few unanswered questions. In the end when the subject of ownership is raised we are left in the air. All we know is that some in India want it back, and some in Britain would see the act of giving it back as tantamount to admitting to a greater national guilt, perpetrated by earlier generations but nevertheless festering under the surface.

The book indirectly asks us to beg the question we return to the question, what does that say about those who want it back, and those who want to keep it? This stone that is now so heavy with the weight of history. There is no longer in either country an Empire for it to represent. Why defend what is no longer in existence? Why use Koh I Noor as a dagger of blame?

For all the controversy about ownership, right and wrong one of the most potent legends about the Mountain of Light is that it brings ill fortune to those who posses it. Koh I Noor is the original cursed stone. For centuries it has been fought over, and aptly, one owner was instantly identified as a conquerer for it can only be possessed by those who have vanquished another.

After reading this book I am tempted to say that yes, the stone must be cursed. When it became malevolent is impossible to say, but perhaps the curse isn’t what the stone does to people in terms of spells or incantations. But like all great treasures the curse lies in what people do to each other in order to possess it.


Book Review: White Mughals by William Dalrymple.

White Mughals.

Paperback: 640 pages41F2TQJ604L
Publisher: Harper Perennial; New Ed edition (19 April 2004)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0006550967
ISBN-13: 978-0006550969

The appearance of the hardback that I picked up second hand, is dark and mysterious. The celebrated portrait of the Palmer family on the cover, which though admirable, does not quite suit the actual story, more fitting is the latest paperback production of the book that shows the lovely portrait of  Khair un Nissen on a white background. Credit is due to the publishers for using the gilt lettering but without embossing the text, thus you can read it without taking off the dust jacket for fear of rubbing off the gilt.
Amusingly this used book showed the usual signs of a volume well read, at least twice. The usually crisp white block of pages striped with muddy grey lines deriving from a close hold and much finger flicking, the deepest stain indicated that the previous owner, whose dedication adorns the primary pages, often turned for help to glossary, when the many Indian terms became too much.
Here you are dealing with about 501 reading pages, so its a hefty number, with three sections of very fascinating pictures and beautiful, with between 1-4 pictures per page

This is now a famous book, there is a fan club and an intense almost cult following of Dalrymple’s works and it has taken a great deal of time for me to find out why. The author has all the ingredients a successful writer of History needs to attain international acclaim, and White Mughal’s succinctly encompasses them all.
An unknown subject, built upon by utterly new and fresh personal research that brings not only new light but compleltey new evidence and sources to a given field. This is indeed rare.
A solid and lucid narrative style inspired not so much by the subject but by the author’s personal experience of living in the country the work is set.
A deep knowledge of the literature and culture aside from the work at hand that props up the narrative and adds depth.
And last but not least the author is utterly sympathetic with to his subject and admiring and perhaps enamoured, as many writers often become when dealing with personal discoveries, of the characters involved.

The book purports to tell the story of a romance, or an affair, whichever, between British resident in Hyderabad James Kirkpatrick and the highborn “Begum” Khair un Nissen.
However due to the fact that “Khair’s” voice in the relationship is largely missing, it actually tells a much wider and richly embroidered story of a once cosmopolitan and cross cultural 18th century British India, full of open exchanges of ideas, religion and culture, changing into the Imperial, racially superior model it became reviled for.
It is the failing of new evidence that it usually needs an awful lot of beefing out to make a half decent book, and this is partially true here, but in this case the new evidence beefs out the already written record, usually dominated by Governor General Lord Mornington and his younger brother Arthur Wellesley.
Those like me, familiar with the Duke of Wellington’s India time, will own that it is entirely one dimensional, and largely concentrates on his service in carrying out his brother’s expansionist aims, and sheds only fragmentary light on the India either was dealing with. Little did I know when I picked up this book that this provides exactly that.
Here, through the story of William and James Kirkpatrick, Khair un Nissen and the Court of the Nizam of Hyderabad, we see the decaying grandeur of Mughal India, the politics concerning this vital princely state, usually relegated to a paragraph or two in most history books not specifically academic, the power struggle of Mornington’s uncompromising imperialism against the still proud yet pressured State of Mysore ultimately doomed to destruction. Similarly the last of Mornington’s achievements, the breaking of the Maratha Confederacy and the change in direction of British India.
Not only does it weave these rich threads, Dalrymple’s loom creates a vignette of Anglo Indian relationships during the early Raj, the motives an Indian woman would have to becoming a White Mughal’s wife, the trials of a bibi, or the longer term harem mistress and the bleak fate that ultimately faced the vast majority. One of the many interesting background stories I found was the French interest in India, represented by several mercenary officers, who seemed to carry over their royalist and revolutionary ideals to India, this is just one of the fascinating sidelines this book investigates.

Even though I find it a little amusing that any cavalry regiment of the line at this time should be compared to the SAS, this is without doubt a vital piece of reading for students of British Indian History and one I heartily recommend.