Myth-busting suddenly seems to be the in-thing in nonfiction. We had Shashi Tharoor recently busting the myth of how the British helped build the idea of a nation called India (You can read more here). Then we have William Dalrymple & Anita Anand’s Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond (Juggernaut), where the authors do a great job of bringing the real story behind the Kohinoor, busting many myths in the process.
When I started reading Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond, I was reminded of one Sidin Vadukut, who happens to be a fellow (and more illustrious) alumnus. Sidin, wildly popular with his twitter handle @sidin, wrote one of the most readable books on busting popular myths about India –The Sceptical Patriot: Exploring the truth behind the zero & other Indian glories (Rupa 2014). So I went back to check if the wise Sidin had unearthed anything on the Kohinoor. He has just mentioned the Kohinoor once in his book, in his busting of the myth of India being the richest country in the world, then.
So I went back to reading Dalrymple & Anand’s Kohinoor. The book is a collaboration effort and structured so- Part one by Dalrymple unearths the history of the precious rock, and part two is where Anita Anand goes deep into the Sikh history of the diamond. Coming back to the myth busting, it looks like a British gentleman, Theo Metcalfe, was asked by Lord Dalhousie to find out the history of the Kohinoor. It looks like Theo Metcalfe, in mid-19th century, knew exactly what the world would ask for, almost 200 years later- anecdotal fake news. Well, almost. As per Dalrymple, most of what Metcalfe picked up as history of the Kohinoor was based on “gossip”, and the authors go on to unravel the truth behind the fake news that Metcalfe had carefully assembled.
The book is not a very long read (264 pages) and written in an engaging style. I wish my NCERT history school text books were written in a similar fashion! Two years in the making, the extent of research by both the authors shows up some interesting facts about the Kohinoor. For example, did you know the diamond almost ended up at the Jagannath Puri temple, when Maharaja Ranjit Singh was on his deathbed? Or that for most of its history, the Kohinoor was an uncut diamond till Queen Victoria’s husband, in 1851, asked it to be cut to half its size so that it glittered, as cut diamonds do.
The authors trace the entire journey of the diamond from its excavation from the Golconda Mines to all the owners of the precious stone- Shah Jahan, Muhammad Shah, Nader Shah, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Maharaja Duleep Singh and finally in the coffers of Queen Victoria in London. The book also explores the current political scenario of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran demanding that the diamond be given back to its “original owners.” That the infamous Taliban also has this demand is a revelation for me. A parallel track that runs across the book, hinted by the title, is the trail of bloodshed and bad luck that the Kohinoor seems to have left behind, hence the adjective infamous in the book’s title. With molten lead being poured on a head and many such examples of torture, I wonder if Game of Thrones would have had a fan following if it were published a couple of hundred years ago.
Overall, a fantastic and deeply researched book that helps unravel new gems about one of the most fascinating piece of compressed Carbon in the world.
You can read the book on the Juggernaut app.