Shiny and dark
Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand Bloomsbury, 240pp
Size, as we know, is not everything. You might only be the 90th largest, but you can still emerge with a sizable reputation. This is one of several lessons to be learned from the story of the Koh-i-Noor diamond, way down the list in terms of size but, as this new book’s subtitle suggests, looming large in the imagination.
The origins of the Koh-i-Noor, the “mountain of light”, are unknown, but it seems safe to assume that it emerged out of alluvial deposit somewhere in India. Its first verifiable appearance isn’t until the 18th century, where it decorated the Mughal emperor’s Peacock Throne in Delhi and where it stimulated envy and greed in the emperor’s rivals. Over the following 100 years, it brought torment and tragedy to a range of people in Delhi, Kabul and Lahore.
The history of the diamond is quickly told – it’s a rock, after all, so there’s only so much story it can have. But the history of the many who have coveted the diamond is long and involved, full of wonder and awe, treachery and bloodshed. It is told here by William Dalrymple, known for entertaining travel writing and sweeping histories, particularly of the British in India and, most recent, in Afghanistan, and by Anita Anand, whose previous book told the story of the granddaughter of the last Indian maharaja to own the diamond.
Dalrymple tells the earlier history, when the diamond was established as an emblem of power and sovereignty. He does this with his habitual panache, sweeping along the trail from the Mughal court in Delhi to Persia, where the diamond was taken by Nader Shah in 1739, to Afghanistan and then in 1813 to Lahore, where it was worn by the great Sikh maharaja Ranjit Singh. There are enough grand durbars with the diamond strapped to princely biceps and terrible moments of eyes being pricked by needles and brains being fried with molten metal to keep the pages turning.
Anand’s task is more complicated, for she covers the history of the stone and its owners since the cremation of Ranjit Singh in June 1839. The story of the diamond’s arrival in London, its display at the Great Exhibition of 1851, the recutting of the stone by Prince Albert and the Duke of Wellington to give it brilliance has been told before. Why tell it now? Dalrymple explains that when the British acquired the diamond,
India’s governor general Lord Dalhousie commissioned Theo Metcalfe to write the diamond’s story and the clerk duly complied, constructing an “enjoyably lively but entirely unsubstantiated” narrative “based on Delhi bazaar gossip”. Dalrymple and Anand have gone some way to rectifying the situation. But much remains unverified and open to interpretation. And much remains mired in inaccuracy. Dalrymple’s much anticipated book on the East India Company may well provide more background to this story.
Anand closes the book by looking to the future and wondering whether the Koh-i-Noor might be returned to Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan or India, all of whom have claims on it. She also imagines it on the head of a future Queen Camilla. But perhaps it will stay in the Tower of London, where our current queen has left it, declining to place it on her head. And why should she? After all, it is only the 90th largest diamond in the world. Each of the Queen’s two Cullinan diamonds are significantly larger and they come without the Koh-i-Noor’s baggage. New Naturalist Library, launched in 1945 and still going strong. I’ve always loved these precise and recondite books in which eminent scientists delve deeply into the lives of animals, or bring landscapes to life through profound engagement with history and ecology. Taylor is a scientist, an ornithologist who has written several RSPB field guides. In The Way of the Hare, we get little in the way of transformative personal narrative or poetic reverie, but we learn a hell of a lot about hares.
Did you know, for instance, that Boudicca used to keep a live hare up her dress? Or that the hare, topping 70km/h, is Britain’s fastest land mammal? Or that there are more than a million brown and mountain hares in Britain, exceeding the number of roe deer, badgers and foxes combined? Or that female hares can become pregnant with two litters at once? Anything is interesting if you know enough about it, but the hare is a particularly fascinating creature, with its mad March mating romps, its hind-leg boxing matches, its uncanny associations with witches and the moon. Taylor’s book is so replete with leporine lore, so completely absorbed with the lives and (often grisly) deaths of our hares that you can’t help but see the creatures with new eyes.
Hares are difficult to pin down. “They know that humans mean bad news,” Taylor writes. So we get many passages in which she tries and fails to see hares, trudging gamely across marsh and moorland only to return disappointed. There’s a touching honesty to these frustrated journeys, and Taylor almost seems to admire the hares’ reluctance to perform for her camera. Even her attempts to take a picture of the hare that’s supposed to show himself in the full moon are fruitless: “Unfortunately it is almost exactly the wrong time of the month for moon-gazing …” There’s a rigorous, admirable honesty about the disappointment that so often lies at the heart of nature-watching (and makes all the sweeter our fleeting successes).
Taylor is almost as enigmatic as the creatures she’s writing about. We get the occasional, rather strange authorial aside, where we can imagine her editor urging her to put a bit more of herself on the page. We’re granted brief, dim visions of Taylor – most often alone, but occasionally with unnamed friends – engaged in fieldwork, or out on rainswept yomps. This is an author who feels most at home in the world of observable, scientificsci fact, who’d rather be writing abouta cladistics and taxonomy than of herh own hare-buoyed heart.
The prosepr is, perhaps unavoidably, rather dry a and workaday. This is a sober, scientific text,tex full of sentences that seem
to hark ba back to a gentler time. “Joining your localloca mammal group is an excellent way to find out more about your local hares and other mammals,” Taylor writes, prompting a little squeal from the 12-year-old12-y nature nerd in me. WH A Auden said that in the company of scientists he felt like a shabby curate i in a room full of dukes. In this detail detailed, absorbing study, Taylor makes us all dukes for a day, granting us a privileged glimpse into the life of the hare; a life which she describes at the end of the book, allowing herselfhers a brief romantic flourish, as one of “courtship dances, leaping and chasin chasing and pelting flat-out across an open ru rural field in the mellow glow of a spring springtime sunset”.