Thursday, 21 September 2017

Review: 'Koh-i-Noor' by William Dalrymple, Anita Anand

Exactly two months ago I was browsing through The Guardian’s Culture section when I stumbled upon Maya Jasanoff’sreview for Koh-i-Noor, a book she described as ‘a dynamic and gory history’ of one of the world’s most famous gems. I was immediately fascinated and Tweeted as much. And then, lo and behold, I had the chance to read the book and prove to myself my earlier excitement was completely warranted. I guess I have the Guardian and Jasanoff to thank for this, as much as Dalrymple and Anand. (Also) Thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing Plc and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 15/06/2017
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
The first comprehensive and authoritative history of the Koh-i-Noor, arguably the most celebrated and mythologised jewel in the world.
On 29 March 1849, the ten-year-old Maharajah of the Punjab was ushered into the magnificent Mirrored Hall at the centre of the great Fort in Lahore. There, in a public ceremony, the frightened but dignified child handed over great swathes of the richest country in India in a formal Act of Submission to a private corporation, the East India Company. He was also compelled to hand over to the British monarch, Queen Victoria, perhaps the single most valuable object on the subcontinent: the celebrated Koh-i Noor diamond. The Mountain of Light.
The history of the Koh-i-Noor that was then commissioned by the British may have been one woven together from gossip of Delhi bazaars, but it was to be become the accepted version. Only now is it finally challenged, freeing the diamond from the fog of mythology that has clung to it for so long. The resulting history is one of greed, murder, torture, colonialism and appropriation told through an impressive slice of south and central Asian history. It ends with the jewel in its current controversial setting: in the crown of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. 
Masterly, powerful and erudite, this is history at its most compelling and invigorating.

Non-fiction has to hit the spot. I often find myself craving a non-fiction read after a few fiction books, wanting to sink into rich history and fascinating detail. But not all non-fiction history books deliver that exquisite break you’re looking for. They’re either too technical and lose themselves in their own topic, or they breeze over the actual history in favour of personal beliefs or arguments. I hate being disappointed by a non-fiction read because it tends to trigger a reading slump with me. Thankfully, Dalrymple and Anand have crafted a brilliant book in which history and narrative go hand in hand. Koh-i-Noor is incredibly enticing, to the point where I was wandering around Shanghai reading, avoiding being hit by taxis only through sheer luck.

The Koh-i-Noor is a fascinating piece of history, surrounded by myths and legends but very few actual facts. And even the facts we have are obscured by the motivations of those who vied for possession of the diamond. Dalrymple and Anand start at the beginning of the diamond’s history, or at least what we think may have been the beginning. Tracing through the various sources, some never discussed before, Dalrymple and Anand attempt to trace the Koh-i-Noor through history, from Indian mines to te Peacock Throne to the Singh Maharajas and finally all the way to the Tower of London. Not once does their narrative become dry, rather with each new owner, each new home for the diamond, the story becomes more and more fascinating. I’d like to paraphrase Shrek here. History is like an onion; it has layers. And Dalrymple and Anand build up those layers brilliantly. By the end of Koh-i-Noor the reader has an actual understanding of how the diamond came to be so significant, how its reputation grew over the centuries and why so many people died for it. Dalrymple and Anand also don’t shy away from addressing concerns about imperialism and colonialization, especially when it comes to the diamond’s current resting place in London. It’s place in the British crown is, and will remain, controversial.

As I said, Dalrymple and Anand create a fascinating story in Koh-i-Noor. Dalrymple covers the first part of the diamond’s history in the book’s first part, ‘The Jewel in the Throne’, relating tales of close escapes, gruesome deaths and awe-inspiring battles. There is a lot of historical information in this chapter, most of which will be new to many readers, but he presents it in a way that prevents it from becoming too much. He treats his subject with respect, both highlighting the East Indian Trading Company’s circumspect ways of gaining power, as well as the friendly fire that brought the Mughals and Maharajahs down. In ‘The Jewel in the Crown’, the book’s second part, Anand tackles the Koh-i-Noor’s journey and stay in England, from its lukewarm reception at the Great Exhibit to its crucial influence on English classics such as Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone. With the diamond now in a completely different cultural sphere, its use and purpose shifts, yet it remains a lightning rod. The book’s two parts come together beautifully and seamlessly, and the book is as much a history of as an ode to the Koh-i-Noor.

I give this book…
4 Universes!

I adored Koh-i-Noor and it made me ravenous for more historical non-fiction, especially if written by Dalrymple and Anand. They present history as something within a modern reader’s grasp, bringing people who lived centuries ago to life and making them and their actions understandable, if not quite sympathetic. I’d definitely recommend this one to fans o historical non-fiction as well as India’s history more specifically. 

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