The tell-all book on Kohinoor, the world's most contested diamond is here
Writer-historian William Dalrymple is giving interviews for his newest book Kohinoor: The Story of the World's Most Infamous Diamond (Juggernaut Books). A book that he has co-authored with Anita Anand, a British radio and television journalist and author of Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary.
Dalrymple is giving his third interview of the day. The venue is Bikaner House. He stares at his empty mug on the table, before requesting for another cup of coffee.
What he perhaps doesn't know is that the canteen staff is now busy attending to a VVIP. Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje is here for a meeting, and his coffee will have to wait.
He starts talking about the Kohinoor diamond - a story that should have ideally been told long, long ago by an Indian historian - and how he took a six-month break, from a bigger book he is currently working on, to write this up.
He tells Catch what it took to rid the most famous diamond of the world from "the fog of mythology", why Kohinoor is also the most "infamous", as the title of the book suggests, diamond in the world, and why it was never the biggest in the world ever.
He talks about the great curse of the diamond - laughingly suggesting that "if a polity survives the great curse of the diamond it can survive anything".
He is "99 percent" certain that the Kohinoor - the object of desire, the powerful symbol of sovereignty, the mythical gem - whichever way you look at it, originated in India, even though there are several countries laying claim to it now.
"Even the Taliban!" he chuckles.
By now he seems to have forgotten about his coffee. Just as well, because it will not be served -- at least not till I say bye to him.
"Willy here. Can I get some coffee, please?" I hear him say as I walk out.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
LH: I learn from the book that the Kohinoor is not the biggest diamond in the world, but the 90th biggest...
WD: ...May have slipped below the 100th mark (chuckles).
LH: So why do we regard it as the greatest gem in the world?
WD: It is not the greatest gem in the world in terms of its physical presence, but it has history, rich and bloody. The truth that this book shows is that the Kohinoor turned into the rockstar of the gem world in 1851.
The Mughals loved gems, especially rubies and spinels, which were not even used much, and they put the best diamonds and the best rubies on the peacock throne - a reflection of the throne of paradise... No diamond was as luxurious as the Kohinoor.
At the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Britain, when 3 million people queued up to see it, it became a symbol of Imperial triumph. It was on the front pages of newspapers, and that is the moment when it became an icon.
LH:You write that those who saw the Kohinoor were not impressed by its size.
WD: No one. In the Great Exhibition it was considered dull because it was a difference of taste between Britain and India. In India, they liked large, uncut gems. In the West they liked brilliant cuts and balanced symmetry. It didn't glitter enough so they cut it right down (laughs). It is more shiny and pretty now (laughs) but not the biggest...
LH:In the title of your book you call it 'infamous'. Why?
WD: Whether or not you believe in the curse or not, many of the owners came to be cursed.
Nader Shah was assassinated, Ahmed Shah's face was eaten up by maggots, Nader Shah ordered that his son Reza be blinded, a jug of molten lead was poured over Nader Shah's grandson's head, five of Ranjeet Singh's successors were murdered, assassinated, poisoned, clubbed to death..
And when the ship taking it to England sails over the sea cholera breaks out and the whole crew is affected (laughs).
So objectively speaking it has this divisive and bloody past. And to this day, there are five countries claiming it - Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, India and the Taliban (laughs).
LH:So why do you think some of us Indians want it back? We are such a superstitious country anyway.
WD: (laughs) Why indeed! If a polity can survive the Kohinoor it can survive anything...
But the case that can really be made is - it was a media creation in the Victorian period. It became famous after the Great Exhibition, it's an extraordinary story.
LH:How did you get interested in this story?
WD: I got interested when I was writing Return of the King. I had gone to Afghanistan - to Kandahar and Herat to gather information. I read about the Kohinoor (in the texts there). The Kohinoor was there around the time of Shah Shuja, his brother loses it, and the first thing he does when he comes to power is to search for it, and finds that the Kohinoor is being used as a paperweight by a mullah, and the Fakhraj ruby is found hidden under a rock.
Then it was at the Jaipur session of JLF two years ago that I realised that Anita and (diplomat) Navtej Sarna had both written around it.
When we went on the panel it was thrilling, when we came off stage we decided we must do a book. But then Navtej was made the high commissioner in London and he couldn't do it for political reasons.
Anita and I carried on with the project.
We consulted many of the great scholars on the subject, what we found was a consensus on a number of things - most importantly that there is no clear history before Nader Shah. It was after it became famous that people started reflecting on it - oh-it-must-be the Kohinoor. But it could have been the Darya-i-Noor. There were many, many big diamonds around. What we realised was that there was an extraordinary story to be told.
LH:Why is it that no Indian historian has ever attempted to write about the Kohinoor?
WD: (laughs) You have to ask them.
I think in general history in India is only an academic subject. In general there hasn't been a strong historical tradition of writing to be read...
This is an important issue in history and I will argue it is a central part of India's history. But I am glad we have been able to put together this research.