By Shikha Sreenivas
“Everything you have ever heard about the Koh-i-Noor diamond is, to put it in one word, bullshit,” said William Dalrymple, at the packed literary dinner, at the Times Litfest Bengaluru 2017, presented by ACT Fibrenet.
Dalrymple stood on the stage facing a full house, as he described the ‘bloody’ journey of the diamond in a low booming voice which made for a delightful storytelling session. His story can be found in Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond, which he co-authored with Anita Anand, a British-Indian journalist with the BBC, (who could not be there that night). The first half of the book is written by Dalrymple and is the early history of the diamond, while the second half by Anand, who details about how the Kohinoor fell into British hands.
Dalrymple began the session by describing the travels that the diamond made in the last century across continents, leaving murder and blood in its wake. Published by Juggernaut (available both in bookstores and their website), the book tries to separate the mystery and legend that shroud the diamond, from the hard facts.
“There was a time when the Kohinoor was being used as a paperweight,” Dalrymple chuckled, because the owner did not know what it was apparently. And wherever the Kohinoor has gone, disaster has followed — an Afghan ruler had his face eaten by maggots, queens who have had their heads beaten with bricks by handmaidens who were said to be “combing her hair”… It carried this misfortune across the sea, Dalrymple explained, because when the ship took off, it was discovered that there was cholera on-board.
“By the time it reaches Portsmouth, there are only 5 sailors left. The day the Kohinoor reached London, the Prime Minister died,” Dalrymple told the audience, who, by then, were terrified to the point of amusement. When Queen Victoria was finally given the Kohinoor, she had stitches across her forehead, a result of having been attacked on the road just two days before, Dalrymple explains. So the bloodbath of the diamond continued.
Dalrymple also explained his writing process, as a response to one of the audience member’s questions, who had asked Dalrymple how he chooses the books he wants to write about. “You have to find something you are willing to work on for three to four years, something other people will want to read, and you have to be adding something new to the existing material out there,” he answered, practically.
— Times Litfest BLR (@timeslitfestblr) February 10, 2017
Earlier that day, when we spoke on the phone, Anand explained one of the reasons the book is important is to right some wrongs. “One of the reasons the book was accelerated out was because of the Solicitor General’s comments last year, where he said that India would not be asking for the diamond back because it was a gift from Ranjit Singh to the British Empire. But I thought that’s just wrong on every level.” The book uncovers the real story, which shows that the British took the diamond by force from Duleep Singh, Ranjit Singh’s son, just as Ranjit Singh had taken the diamond by force from the previous owner.
Anand explained the process behind the extensive research required for the book. “If you have a thread — follow it,” she said. “And it will take you to the most extraordinary places.” Anand began her research with newspapers that had anything referring to the the diamond. And not only did she go through the newspapers of UK, but of all the colonies, most of which were writing about India. Then, Anand explains, she delved into the official papers and archives. Dalrymple, on the other hand, worked with a lot of text and material which were centuries old, and many of which were in Persian.
Laughing about one of the recurring anxiety dreams she had had while writing the book, “I write down a note of something I found. And then suddenly, a whole pile of papers fall on the book, and I can’t find what I wrote down, and I wake up thinking, ‘Oh my god, why didn’t I put it in a safer place!’”
Anand’s previous book Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary was triggered by an old photograph of a woman in a magazine, who was a suffragette. “And I thought her skin looked brown,” Anita said, explaining how that single question created an itch she couldn’t stop scratching, until she found out more about this girl, who, similar to her, was born in London, but of Indian descent.
“The Kohinoor had a little cameo in Sophia,” Anita said. Sophia was the goddaughter of Queen Victoria and the daughter of Duleep Singh (the last owner of the diamond before the Queen).
Anand explained how the idea for the book was born, right around the time when they were almost done with the whirl of promoting their respective books. “William often throws ideas at the wall, and just sees what will stick,” she said. “And he said, ‘Hey, look! The Kohinoor is a little bit in all of our books!’”
“Writing is just the most lonely thing I can think of that you can do,” Anand said. She explained that when you are so immersed in somebody else’s life — surrounded by dusty boxes all day and squinting at old documents, and when you come home, your partner wants to speak about your kids or the gas bill. But you just want to talk about that folder you found in the corner of a shelf,but, it could be dull to them. “But when you have a co-writer, filled with wonder like William, it’s brilliant because you just think off of each other all the time!”
Laughing at the bloody trail through the pages of Kohinoor she said, “We were trying to outdo each other with the gory research. He has a lot of gory stuff in his half, and he would ring me up. And I’d say, ‘You think that’s cool? Look what I found!”