The Kohinoor diamond was said to be cursed because this fabulous jewel often changed hands when disaster or defeat occurred. And sure enough, following England’s subjugation of India, the Kohinoor was taken from the treasury of Dalip Singh, heir to the throne of the Punjab, and sent to Queen Victoria.
Although the Kohinoor diamond has belonged to the monarchs of England for the last hundred and sixty-three years, the diamond has a deep reach into Indian history … the first recorded mention of the Kohinoor occurs in the memoirs of the Emperor Babur, who established the Mughal Empire in 1526, and received the diamond from one of the rajas whom he defeated.
Indu Sundaresan begins The Mountain of Light at a time when Shah Shuja, the former King of Afghanistan possesses the Kohinoor. Shuja and his wife, Wafa Begam, are ‘guests’ of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, ruler of the Punjab. Ranjit Singh keeps the couple in captive luxury, waiting for them to handover the Kohinoor. The time is 1809, the English are by now well established in India through the East India Company.
Subseqent chapters trace the Kohinoor’s path as it changes hands and as England exerts increasing control over the wealth and people of India.
Throughout the novel, Sundaresan offers superb descriptions of the culture and life of those who ruled in India. We visit the zenana, the harem housing women of the house, we see the clothing both men and women wear and experience the interactions of rulers and ruled. The author introduces us to Indian words with enough frequency to entice, adding authenticity without confusion. We see the grandeur of India, the courtesies and formalities of Indian royal life. The differences of Indian and English cultures and the assumption of English superiority are deftly exposed. And at every step we fear the encroachment of England, as those deputized to lead on behalf of English monarchs seek power, land and wealth.
The Mountain of Light if full of sharply drawn characters whose strengths and weaknesses unfold through dramatic scenes complemented by seamlessly woven backstory. Although many who come to India seek ways to replicate their home countries, some are deeply affected by the experience, for India gets into their souls. The poignant last chapter – Diary of a Maharajah – shows us Dalip Singh as a much older man recounting aspects of his life to his eldest daughter Sophia. It filled me with sadness.
This is a novel I highly recommend. If you’ve been to India, it will bring back wonderful memories; if you haven’t, it will lure you to visit. And in either case, you will learn much about this unique country’s history.