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Blood Diamond – Sunday Times

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My Sunday Times review of Koh-i-Noor The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand

You’ll find the original here.

The file in the foreign office containing international claims to ownership of the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond, the “Mountain of Light”, has been growing thicker of late. In 2015 alone, a consortium of Indian businessmen and Bollywood glitterati threatened legal action if the diamond wasn’t removed from its display case in the Tower of London and handed over to their country. In Pakistan, a certain Mr Jaffrey, after writing dozens of letters to the Queen claiming the priceless gem for his homeland, finally approached the High Court in the city of Lahore for help. And the Taliban announced that the Koh-i-Noor belonged to them, on the grounds that it had been in the possession of Afghan kings in the 18th and early 19th century. Return it “as soon as possible”, their spokesman demanded.

The Koh-i-Noor “retains a fame and celebrity unmatched by any of its larger or more perfect rivals”, write William Dalrymple and Anita Anand, the co-authors of this book. Coveted by the Moguls, Persians, Afghans, Sikhs and the British, to whom it was finally surrendered in 1849 in Lahore before it was secretly taken to London and put on display as the ultimate imperial loot, it also remains “a lightning rod for attitudes towards colonialism”.

An “insubstantial fog of mythology” swirls unabated around the Kohi-i-Noor, too. The most prevalent superstition being that any man daring to wear it will face a grisly end, while women are somehow immune to its dark power. Dalrymple and Anand trace the font of Koh-i-Noor folklore to a single report compiled in Delhi in 1849 by a “slapdash” British junior assistant magistrate, Theo Metcalfe, who wrote down verbatim the fanciful tales told by the city’s hereditary jewellers. Crucially, this helped propagate the myth that the diamond is a magical gemstone of Hindu mythology, the Syamantaka, the property of Surya, the sun god. “Theo’s version of events has since been repeated in article after article, book after book, and still sits unchallenged on Wikipedia,” write the authors, who instead relied on bona fide archives to produce a history shorn of “bazaar tittle-tattle”. In debunking the myths, they take a little of the sheen off the diamond’s allure.

Thanks to Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, who had it cut to suit western tastes in 1852, it is today only the 90th largest diamond in the world. What is more, there is no evidence of the Koh-i-Noor being a gem of great antiquity: the first indisputable reference to its existence is in 1739, according to the authors. But even stripped of fiction, the story of the Koh-i-Noor and its owners (emperors, kings, warlords and a one-eyed maharajah, many of whom did indeed meet violent ends, adding grist to the superstition mill) is riveting. Dalrymple and Anand present as evocative a rendering as the most enthralling bazaar storyteller while providing an astute and empathetic study of the historical landscape through which the diamond has made its troubled way.

It is a story rarely short on gore. When the Persian ruler Nader Shah captured Delhi in 1739, his troops slaughtered 30,000 of the population before carting off the gem, which by then had been set in the headpiece of the incomparable Peacock Throne. Shah was eventually knifed to death before the diamond passed to a succession of Afghan kings. The penultimate monarch, Shah Zaman, was blinded with a hot needle, yet managed to hide his most valuable possession in a crack in the wall of his dungeon.

Years passed before the Koh-i-Noor was discovered in the possession of a mullah who “in his ignorance was using it as a paperweight”. Later, it came into the possession of its proudest owner, Maharajah Ranjit Singh. The “Lion of Punjab”, who ruled from 1780 to 1839, wore the diamond strapped to his arm during public occasions — it was during his reign that the Koh-i-Noor “began to achieve real fame”.

In 1849, after Lord Dalhousie, the governor-general of the East India Company, wrestled the diamond from Ranjit Singh’s 10-year-old son, the Scot gloated in a letter about having caught his “hare”. He also annexed Punjab. And although his aggressive expansionism came in the context of an age when the British were hardly alone in assuming their right to grab whatever territory they fancied, the authors leave no room for doubt that Dalhousie’s actions were downright piratical. The gentleman charged with caring for the deposed child maharajah, Dr John Spencer Login, was not alone in condemning Dalhousie’s duplicitousness. He wanted the diamond paid for by the company and the funds used to help create jobs, schools and infrastructure. Instead, the Koh-i-Noor was taken to London, presented to Queen Victoria and subsequently displayed “in triumph, much as the Romans once had done with curiosities from their conquests”, write the authors.

More recently, the British monarchy has not shied from parading the Koh-i-Noor when occasion demands. After the death of the Queen Mother in 2002, her crown, in which the diamond is set, was placed on her coffin as she lay in state. Meanwhile, successive British governments continue to quietly rebuff all claims that the diamond was stolen. “I’m afraid to say, it is going to have to stay put,” David Cameron said while on a visit to India in 2010. Clearly, Pakistan, India, the Taliban and even the prolific letter-writing Mr Jaffrey are not going to have much joy. This highly readable and entertaining book, however, finally sets the record straight on the history of the Koh-i-Noor, which, cursed or not, continues to drive man’s covetous nature.

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India Through Foreign Eyes

Stimes Review

My latest review in the Sunday Times is of Sam Miller’s “A Strange Kind of Paradise: India Through Foreign Eyes”. You’ll find the original here. Or here’s the text.

A Strange Kind of Paradise India Through Foreign Eyes by Sam Miller

Cape £18.99/ebook £9.99 pp421

Ringo Starr couldn’t stomach Indian food. In 1968 he arrived with his fellow ­Beatles at the Maharishi’s ashram in Rishikesh in northern India lugging a suitcase of Heinz baked beans. Paul ­McCartney’s ­reaction to India’s ­poverty was “stoical” — he insisted that handouts to beggars were not the answer. George ­Harrison was instantly enamoured  of the culture, and referred to naked ­sadhus in the holy city of Varanasi as “really spiritual”. After the Maharishi made a pass at Mia Farrow, John ­Lennon left in disgust, penning the lines, “Maharishi, what have you done / You made a fool out of everyone”, although later he replaced “Maharishi” with “Sexy Sadie”.
The Beatles were hardly the first westerners to find India challenging or to form conflicting or half-cocked opinions about the place. They were merely the hippest in a long line of foreigners promoting a faddish impression of the country to the outside world — in their case as the land of “spiritual harmony”, the sitar and Ravi Shankar.
The imagery of India that author Sam Miller grew up with in Britain, however, was very different. The so-called “raj revival” of the 1980s that he remembers from his twenties was fostered by television adaptations of Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown and MM Kaye’s The Far Pavilions (the latter “the purest bilge”, according to ­Salman Rushdie) and Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi, with its “romanticised tribute to the steam train and the Indian countryside”. Consequently, when Miller married an Indian and started visiting her homeland in the early 1990s, eventually settling in Delhi, he began a process of “unlearning”. His unusual book is a revealing juxtaposition of his wanderings, alongside the fascinating history of what ­millennia of foreigners have made of this ­
baffling country.
Miller, who says he knows “quite a lot about India, the kind of facts that might win a pub quiz”, follows in the footsteps of everyone from Vasco da Gama (who takes the prize for “the most foul-tempered and unperceptive visitor”) to the serial 11th-­century invader Mahmud of Ghazni (definitely “the most unpopular”). Fawning fans have included Mark Twain, who eulogised endlessly about “the land of tigers and ­elephants”, but definitely not VS Naipaul, who became obsessed “with the subject of shit”. Miller ­visits the tomb of Jesus in Kashmir, or so the locals assure him; spots the Kama Sutra pop-up book at New Delhi airport; encounters the Goddess of English; and visits the Hindu temple that inadvertently inspired the X-Men character, ­Juggernaut.
In sifting through such improbable cultural detritus, Miller illustrates how the world’s perceptions of India have oscillated wildly. To the ancient Greeks it was “an unknown land at the edge of the world” populated by giant, gold-digging ants. Muslim and European invaders slavered over its tantalising loot. And more recently, the Slumdog Millionaire generation has perceived it as a nation of extreme poverty and call centres.
The British relationship with India proved no less predictable. The East India Company’s nabobs ­merrily plundered the land, yet its servants “busied themselves…with the task of classifying everything and everybody”. William Jones, the 18th-century polymath and founder of the Asiatic Society, recognised
the common linguistic ancestry of ­Sanskrit with Greek and urged Europeans to stop seeing “India through a glass darkly”, and to develop an appreciation for its “thousand ­little nuances”. But that appeal went mostly unheeded. Although many in Britain, including Queen Victoria, positively thrilled to India’s exoticism, the infamy of the Black Hole of Calcutta and the 1857 mutiny conspired to perpetuate an impression of barbarism.
The emergence of the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and ­Jawaharlal Nehru on the world stage improved India’s standing, but Miller quotes a survey conducted in the US in the late 1950s among “influential Americans” that revealed little in the way of erudition when it came to matters Indian. Clearly, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, with its monkey brain-eating Kali ­worshippers, didn’t help bridge that ­cultural divide.
It is a pity that Miller doesn’t dig deeper into the psychology behind why the country remains such an enigma for most outsiders. He is ­dismissive of Apple founder Steve Jobs’s astute observation that Indians are guided more by intuition than westerners, but offers no alternative view on what drives Indian culture to stand apart. However, for those he comes across searching for the “real India” (as opposed to the one of mega cities and shopping malls) Miller offers percipient advice: don’t generalise about this vast, extraordinary country. “India,” he writes, “has everything that is old…modern, and everything in between…enough to challenge and surprise me intellectually, aesthetically and existentially for many lifetimes.”
 + Available at the Sunday Times Bookshop price of £15.99 (including p&p) and £9.99 (ebook) on 0845 271 2135

 

 

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