Thursday, 6 March 2014

Kim's Review : The Mountain of Light (Tale of the Kohinoor Diamond)

The Mountain of Light is Indu Sundaresan's sixth title after her Taj Trilogy : The Twentieth Princess, The Feast of Roses and Shadow Princess. She has also written a book of short stories - "In the Convent of Little Flowers" and an independent novel "The Splendor of Silence"

The only reason, I haven't read The Splendor of Silence yet, is that it is not yet being printed in India.

"The Mountain of Light" is Sundaresan's latest novel, which follows the trail of the Kohinoor Diamond across geographies and potentates from 1817 to 1854 from Afghanistan to Britain via Lahore.

While most characters in this book are based on fact, she has played around with the timelines a bit and given identities to characters deemed to have been minor players in the history books - this is almost standard procedure for works of historical fiction, which some readers fail to realise and accept as fact, even though authors give disclaimers in their books.

Indu's story starts with a deposed Shah Shuja and his wife Wafa Begam seeking refuge from his brother at the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh at Lahore. To entice Maharaja Ranjit Singh into protecting him, Shah Shuja promises him the 186 carat Kohinoor diamond. However, he takes his time handing the pricelss gem over, meanwhile enjoying the hospitality of the Punjab Empire, until Maharaja Ranjit Singh literally forces his hand.

Shah Shuja consequently is reinstalled on the throne of Afghanistan by the British. With the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, a fight erupts for the control of the Punjab empire amongst his sons. The British step in here too and install the Maharaja's youngest son - the 10 year old Dalip Singh as a puppet ruler, while they carve up the Punjab empire and loot the Royal toshakhana (treasury is a simplified translation)

The Kohinoor is sent to England by Lord Dalhousie (one of the most hated and resented Governor Generals of India) in the hopes of utter secrecy, but in Indu's book turns into an open secret.

The story ends extremely pitifully for the Maharaja Dalip Singh who dies in penury in an Artists loft in Paris.

Indu's tale not only brings alive the Political and Economic Machinations of the East India Company, it also tells the tales of minor characters (who while not critical to the story line, is an interesting insight into relationships between people of various social strata who might not have ever interacted if not for the tumultuous events in India.

It is very easy to hate the officials of the East India Company as described in Mountain of Light, but Indu has a much more sympathetic outlook for Queen Victoria. Given that until 1857, it was the East India Company that was running amok in India and claiming all its riches in the name of the Queen. While she wasn't consulted before any action taken on her behalf, she was only informed of events after they had taken place and that too via an extremely long drawn out voyage of the post from India to England via Egypt.

The first part of the book describing the rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, is quintessential Indu. Rich descriptions of the court, its customs, its jewelry, the status of women and foreigners are easily woven into the narrative.

The second part starts with the annexation of the Punjab Empire and the "crowning' of 10 year old Dalip Singh under the "guardianship" of Henry Lawrence and the tale moves along with brief romances and the dismemberment of Punjab.

The third part for me, especially the voyage by sea and land from India to London seemed to be more in the Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot style rather than Indu's usual style and it is a great contrast to the rest of the story.

The final part which takes place after Dalip Singh has been removed to London is painful. While the Queen acknowledges him and fetes him (unlike the later treatment of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Lucknow) and grants him peerage equivalent to a Royal of Europe, financially, he is still at the mercy of the East India Company's pension and faced with racial discrimination because of his origins even to the extent of being nicknamed "The Black Prince of Perthshire".

Queen Victoria tries to make a match between him and Princess Victoria Gowramma of Coorg (also an Indian Royal, converted to Christianity), which he isn't interested in. At the same time, his desire to be married to a British Lady (of meager fortune and from a non-Royal family) is turned down and the only reason seems to be his non British background.

Its a very well written story and I consider Indu Sundaresan one of the best authors in the Indian Historical Fiction genre.

Rating : 3.8 / 5

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