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Follow the Diamond

Book review: Kohinoor: The story of the world’s most infamous diamond

The Koh-I-Noor. It has been a symbol of the British crown for over 150 years. The crown jewel of the crown jewels of the British monarchy. Standing at a staggering 105.6 carats (21.12 g), this mesmerising feat of nature has with its beauty equally enthralled and tormented its many admirers.

Even for an object famed for its enchanting beauty, it has been the center of more politics, envy, greed, and painful history than anyone could ever have imagined. With its unparalleled sparkle, this brilliant by-product of nature has been at the center of debates on imperialism, history, heritage, colonial reparations and national ownership.

It has by now become a cornerstone of the conversation on colonialism. Where it is a symbol of the British monarchy, it is also a symbol for the subcontinent’s wish to see the wrongs committed by the colonisers righted.

It is perhaps apt that something like the Koh-I-Noor is what symbolises this. As the pride of the crown jewels, it reflects the pride that the British took in their dominion of the subcontinent. Where the Koh-I-Noor is quite literally the crown jewel representing the height of Britain’s richness, India too was the crown jewel of the empire – the most precious link, the so called ‘golden sparrow’ that gave and gave.

The diamond is a subject that elicits outcry, outrage, stubbornness, greed and the worst in humanity. It is almost Tolkienian in its nature, the one ring of colonialism, the desire to possess it symbolising one of the worst periods in human history.

The argument may thus seem simple. The stone belongs to India, and the British must return it. As Hitchens had once argued for the return of the Parthenon marbles, so should the world be clear on where the Koh-I-Noor actually belongs. The argument that British Prime Minister David Cameron made a few years ago was that if the British were to start returning things to where they came from, it would mean the British museum would soon be empty. As an argument, that falls flat on the ears. So let it be as long as artifacts return home.

That is the line toed by men such as Shashi Tharoor, a noble opinion to propagate and an idealistic one to boot. What one forgets is that the diamond has a history of its own. An ancient history actually, one that predates the British and India even, taking it far back into the realm of the Gods.

As the British have argued for years, there are too many claimants for them to return it to. The Afghans claim it came from their land. The Iranians lay claim to it through the loot and plunder of Nader Shah. The Sikhs claim they were the last natives to hold the stone and should thus be returned it. Even Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto laid a claim, to which his British counterpart James Callaghan had scathingly replied “I need not remind you of the various hands through which the stone has passed over the past two centuries, nor that explicit provision for its transfer to the British crown was made in the peace treaty with the Maharajah of Lahore in 1849. I could not advise Her Majesty that it should be surrendered.”

These details and this history complicate the stone and ensure that for now it rests safely on the head of Elizabeth II Windsor.

But the history of the diamond has somewhat been unravelled by the efforts of William Dalrymple writing alongside Anita Anand. The collaboration between the Indian history giants ‘Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s most infamous diamond’ is the definitive work on one of modern history’s great symbolisms.

As analogised by The Guardian,  chief among classic investigative journalism skills is to ‘follow the money’ and one will arrive at the story. Similarly, what Dalrymple and Anand have done so successfully is to ‘follow the diamond,’ and in doing so have uncovered the story. And oh boy what a story they have discovered.

Written like an action movie, the book reads almost like fantasy fiction, tracing this elusive diamond that has captured the hearts and minds of the rulers of the greatest empires. Except what Dalrymple and Anand have achieved is something that Tolkien never could: reality. Because the tale of this seemingly mythical diamond is real and it permeates to this day, hanging over our heads as a human conflict unresolved which will probably remain unresolved.

The exciting journey of the Kohinoor as written in the book is once again proof that Dalrymple is perhaps the greatest travel and history writer of our age, and that he writes heavily on the subcontinent is our luck. And while the book is quite definitely and engrossing read, it is also all one needs to know about the Kohinoor, and the expertise of Anand on the subject shine through. It is the unfolding of the history of India and its tango with the post-colonial world that unfolds in the adventures of a stone.

Abdullah Niazi

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