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  Age on Sunday   18 Dec 2016  A jewel of imagination

A jewel of imagination

Published : Dec 18, 2016, 12:07 am IST
Updated : Dec 18, 2016, 4:15 am IST

A gory, gruesome and gripping dramatised historical novel about the infamous koh-i-noor diamond.

Anita Anand (Photo: Suki Dhanda)
 Anita Anand (Photo: Suki Dhanda)

As Guddan and the three other ranis were carried closer to the pyre they removed their bracelets and threw them into the numerous hands which stretched towards them... The maharaja’s head and shoulders had been placed on the ranis’ laps to make it look as though he was sleeping. They, in turn, sat perfectly still around his corpse, also with their eyes tightly closed... As the fire consumed them all, the drums and the roar of the crowd confounded his senses. A pair of pigeons flew into the column of climbing flames. Wings alight; they plummeted onto the pyre, causing the crowd to crescendo in a frenzy of ecstasy. It was said the birds were also willing Satis for Ranjit Singh  

The gory picture painted of sati at Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s funeral haunts you long after you have read The Jewel in the Crown, written by Anita Anand. This forms the second part within the book — Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond, co-authored by her along with William Dalrymple.

The stark description of sati is stomach churning. As a writer, does it get challenging to not only write such scenes but also ensure they have the desired impact?

“You hit upon my one weak spot in that whole writing. I was haunted by that scene. I felt sick, reading about it and writing it down. So I had to take a break for a couple of days because it was so overwhelming. The lightness with which the main eye-witness  treated this act and how immune he was to this horror going on is sickening. It is such a horrible thing to have happened. I tried so hard to find out the names of the 12 slaves. I didn’t want these girls to be  remembered as slaves but as human beings with an identity,” she reveals.

The book is gory and gruesome, and yet makes a gripping read. The Koh-i-Noor (Persian for Mountain of Light) is a much sought after prized possession that has India, Pakistan and Afghanistan clamouring for it. As you read the horrific narrative, it could be perceived as a cursed diamond. So why is there so much of interest in it? “The diamond represents so much more than itself in people’s imaginations now. For the British, at that time, it represented the whole of Eastern Empire, a tangible symbol of dominion and power. For Indians and Pakistanis, it represents cruelty of the colonial period. For the Taliban and the Afghans, it represents a part of their heritage  period. It is a jewel of imagination, a big expensive gem which stands apart. If you ask people to name a famous diamond, they will instantly mention the Koh-i-Noor. There are 100 bigger diamonds in the Tower of London. The Cullinan, for instance, is huge like a baseball, but nobody knows the name of this diamond (unless you are a jeweller),” points out Anita.

She believes that the trajectory of the idea of it being a curse came into public bloodstream after Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s death. “There have been gruesome killings before too. But where there is beauty, there is always atrocity. Three maharajas, one crown prince, one prime minister, one queen were killed in this game of thrones’ bloodbath. The reason why it’s perceived as a cursed gem is the idea of it having a dark power and the British ran with it. In fact, the moment it enters British territorial waters, Queen Victoria gets attacked, she is hit on her head and ends up with a black eye,” recounts Anita, who recreates the dark narrative of how this precious gem was taken from a young boy (Maharaja Duleep Singh) along with his kingdom and handed over to the British.

The book also chronicles the role of Rani Jindan, Duleep Singh’s mother, a feisty historical figure and a fiercely brave young  mother who ruled the empire with her son in her lap. So why was she has not been celebrated the way other royal figures have been like Padmavati or Rani of Jhansi?

“Rani Jindan is one of my favourite characters in all human history. She is an amazing woman who decides she is not going to be a puppet in  the court. She opts to rule with the child on her lap till he is old enough to take over. It takes tremendous character to do that. We are bad at recording women’s history. Nothing would please me more than someone doing an in-depth study of her life. If nobody else does it, I will attempt it in a few years time,” confesses Anita, who was working on another book on the relationship between Britain and India for three years,  when she was asked to co-author this book. “It’s in my bone marrow,” she says rather passionately.

Tags: kohinoor, padmavati, william dalrymple, ranjit singh