The Kohinoor diamond has a long and complicated history.

Does the Kohinoor belong to India William Dalrymple Anita Anand on their fascinating new bookJuggernaut Books
Features Books Saturday, December 10, 2016 - 17:56

"Bring back the Kohinoor!" is a cry often heard in India when there's a debate on colonialism and the excesses committed by the British under their rule in the country. The Kohinoor diamond is a physical reminder of how the British ransacked India and exploited the country's resources for their own interests.

But does the Kohinoor belong to India? The diamond has had a long, complicated and bloody history, sometimes rivalling even the graphic scenes we've ghoulishly devoured from "Game of Thrones". Historian William Dalrymple and journalist Anita Anand narrate the intriguing tale of the coveted diamond in their book "Kohinoor: The Story of the World's Most Infamous Diamond". 

The News Minute caught up with the two authors on their experience of collaborating on the book, the valid questions that it raises, and the troubling narratives from history that are often forgotten.

Excerpts from the interview:

William has said in an earlier interview that he became interested in the Kohinoor after he came across references to it in Persian manuscripts he was researching for a book. And Anita has worked on a book earlier on Dhuleep Singh's daughter - how and why did you both decide to collaborate on this book?

Image courtesy: Bikramjit Bose

William: There was a third person at the Jaipur Literary Festival a couple of years ago, Navtej Sarna, who has also written about the Kohinoor, and the three of us went on a panel together. And it was electric! Because none of us knew the next bit of the story. I knew the first bit in Afghanistan. Navtej knew the Ranjit Singh bit, Anita knew the end of the story with Dhuleep Singh. So, we just sat there and came up with "We must do a book!". But then Navtej became the High Commissioner in London...so Anita and I decided to carry on. We had a lot of fun doing it. I wrote the first half and she did the second. So, we only had to sit down together for the beginning and the end. We wrote a lot of emails and were on the phone every other day...whenever we made a discovery about a glorious new example of the curse of the Kohinoor, when we found someone had been poisoned or bludgeoned or had molten lead poured over their head! 

Image courtesy: Suki Dhanda

Anita: In Willie's as well as my last book, the Kohinoor was a bit of a glimmer in the background. It was not front and centre. And Willie had this brilliant idea of sort of uniting - he does this time to time at JLF - he puts people who can talk about a subject together on a panel. And he had this idea about the Kohinoor. There was me, Navtej Sarna, who is an expert in history and was the High Commissioner in London and has now gone on to New York, and himself. We all had this sort of relay race through history onstage. And I was sceptical. I had no idea how this was going to work. But something extraordinary happened. When each one of us took centerstage, the audience was completely enraptured. We realised that there were other parts of the puzzle that we did not know. So, we were sitting in the greenroom and the lightbulb went off...we thought we should put this book together. 

William was once under sniper attack when he was researching a book in Afghanistan. Did anything exciting happen during the research for this one?

William: I used the same sources that I brought back, the same research that I'd used for the other book in 2009-2010. It turned out to have a lot more about the Kohinoor than I realised. So, I was able to get two books out of the sniper journey! It was worth taking the risk. 

Anita: Neither of us was shot at during the writing of this book. Unlike most of the protagonists in the book, we were not close to violent death! Because of the research we'd done for our earlier books, we knew the landscape. We knew where to go. And a lot of my research was done in London. Willie was very lucky. He got hold of some absolutely extraordinary Persian manuscripts and texts from Afghanistan and I had access to all sorts of secret files...police files...and all that kind of thing, sitting in London. So, I'm sorry to disappoint you! So far, we haven't been touched by the curse of the Kohinoor...although I do have a stinking cold.

Portrait of Nader Shah (1688 – 1747). After his invasion of Delhi, he left with priceless loot, including the Peacock Throne, the Koh-i-Noor and all the treasure accumulated by generations of Mughals. Safavid school, 18th century.

The book traces the long and bloody history of the Kohinoor and how it ended up in Britain as part of the crown jewels. Considering how many times it's changed hands, it's valid to question the demand for its return. But leaving that aside, do you think we should read colonial rule and the excesses committed during it in the same light as the ones that came before? 

William: It's a very good question. Ultimately, history is full of horrors, conquests, and acts of secession and dispossession. History doesn't stop when colonial rule started. Colonial rule is part of the long ebbing and flowing of the tides of empire which have happened in history. The Romans came and went, then it was the time of the Byzantines and the Persians, Arab empires...China...and the British have had their moment in the sun and that's a part. So yes, one has to say yes. I think these are very much part of the same human desire to conquer and control. It also shows you that these empires go as quickly as they come. There are very good reasons to be angry at colonial rule. Terrible things happened in colonial rule. Anger is the right response. But also, I think one should see it in the historical context...that empire was the normal form of rule for most of the world, for most of history. The job of the historian is to write these things honestly and clearly. It's not the job of the historian to give prescriptions. In this book, we've laid out the evidence. We've separated fact from fiction, mythology from facts, and we've presented a case. 

Anita: Yes, it's time to talk about what colonial rule means, both for British people and Indian people. I can talk about my side of the fence - in Britain, a lot of the time, this whole idea of colonial rule, it's looked at with rose-tinted spectacles. It paints lovely pictures of Maharajas and sundowners and all that. But the truth is much murkier than that. And I think a lot of people will be surprised, on both sides...it was argued that this was a gift to the British...there was no way that this was a gift. It was a very tragic story about a little boy who was forced to do something which he bitterly, bitterly regretted and it destroyed his life. Willie is a historian and I'm a journalist, so we're both passionately interested in uncovering the truth and that's what we've done with this book.

The last time the Koh-i-Noor was seen in public was at the funeral of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, in 2002, when her crown, with the Koh-i-Noor as its centrepiece, was placed on her coffin. Image courtesy: Getty images

What's your take on reparations? Shashi Tharoor spoke about it at the Oxford Union debate and his arguments resonated a lot with people back home. 

William: It's a very interesting debate. And I spoke on the same side as Shashi at the Supreme Court in London. I argued that colonialism was a destructive force for India, not a force for good. But the question of reparations, I simply don't know the answer. Can the Sri Lankan government ask the Indian government for reparations for the destruction of Anurdhapura by the Cholas in the 12th century? Should we be suing the Romans, the Vikings? Where do you stop? I think it's complicated and the Kohinoor is the most complicated of all. There are five parties laying claim to it - Iran, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Taliban!

Anita: I don't really have a take on it. I don't know, at the moment, what would repair the wounds of the past when they are so deep and grievous. As a truth teller, my first starting point is always please acknowledge what really happened. There was a British historian who took to the papers to say that the Kohinoor was a grateful gift from the Indian people to the British public for years of colonial munificence. That actually, more than anything, made my blood pressure rise! And that's what I'm concerned with - let's set the record straight. Truth reparations are my concern and that's what I work very hard to try and rectify. My last book was on a princess who'd been deleted from history...which I thought was so unjust and so wrong. 

The Maharani Jindan Kaur, Ranjit Singh’s seventeenth wife, and mother of the boy king Duleep Singh. As regent, she fiercly opposed creeping British inroads into Punjab. George Richmond, 1863.

Writing a book like this, on a diamond that's often used to fan national pride, did you at any point interrogate your own identities and locations, especially that of race? Or do you feel that it's not important?

William: We liked the fact that there was a balance. One half was written by a man, the other half was written by a woman. The white guy - I'm Scottish - was living in India and the brown woman was writing from London. So, it had a nice sort of balance about it. It's the job of the historians to establish facts. We're providing evidence for future cases.

 I don't think there's anything anyone can pick against in this book. It's not "anti-national"...we're only telling the story of the diamond. So, I'd be surprised if people get angry about this. We're not taking a political line. We've just narrated history in a straightforward and neutral manner. It's a complicated history and many people don't realise that the diamond spent all this time in Iran, Afghanistan and that the Taliban has a claim on it and so on. 

Anita: With this sort of connectivity, with Willie and me sitting in different countries...and believe me, the irony of a brown woman writing in London and a white dude writing in India, didn't escape us. There was a hilarious symmetry to it. We didn't worry about hurting nationalistic pride, that wasn't on our agenda at all. We're storytellers and when you do that, in a way, you transcend other people's agendas. This is such a mythologized subject, there's so much misinformation about it. So, it was worthwhile to say look, this is what the records and eyewitnesses say. This is what happened. 

History is not a subject that everyone likes to read and sometimes, that very fact makes it an easy tool for politicians to twist past events to suit their interests. How important do you think books like the Kohinoor are, looking at it from this angle? 

William: I think the Kohinoor is a very important subject, it touches on questions of colonial rule, reparations, colonial looting...but it also tells you about the complexity of history. It shows that things are not as black and white as people sometimes think. And that memory is selective. We remember the Kohinoor but we've forgotten the Daria-i-noor, we've forgotten the Timur ruby...these are accidents in history. It's a very interesting story and I think there's a lot to learn from this tale. It infringes on the present, it infringes on the past. It's also a jolly yarn! It's a fantastic tale in itself. 

Anita: Politicians may do what politicians do. But it's up to the rest of us to present the truth as it happened and question any twists and turns in the tale. And it's up to the discerning reader - the reader also has the responsibility - the readers of newspapers, the watchers of news...and readers of books like "The Kohinoor", to interrogate the facts themselves And hopefully, we've produced something that people can trust...it's well-researched...and it's up to them to make of it what they will. Once you write something - books or articles - you release them into the wild and they make their own way. But you do your best to equip them and that's what we've done. 

 

Published by Juggernaut Books

Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond  by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand

Available in bookstores and www.juggernaut.in

Hardback Rs 499

264pp + 8pp col-insert

 

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