Shiny and dark

The Guardian Weekly - - Books - An­thony Sat­tin

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”.

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