The last decade is marked by authors who are not white, male or British/American. The world is more colourful and nuanced for their stories. Clubhouse rooms of multilingual readers & writers introduced me to rich subcontinent literature. There is so much that brown people haven’t even begun to say. Subcontinent literature is rich with colour. There is diversity, complex history, linguistic politics, and intergenerational trauma. The Kohinoor diamond is a promising start.
The Kohinoor is a sore spot for most Indians. It sits glaringly with the British crown jewels, 75 years after independence. India is fighting battles for 1 billion + people; we haven’t the resources to chase another stolen treasure. Language politics are enmeshed with religious politics and economics. These are deep wells of pain for the entire subcontinent. They jostle with the farce of the British monarchy at a time when even their own nation cries against them.
I picked up ‘The Mountain of Light‘ by Indu Sundaresan when I spotted it on a pavement stall. It felt appropriate. The other book I bought was ‘Home’ by Manju Kapoor. The latter felt more in line with my preference for quick prose. Then I turned to this one. Historical fiction is often steeped in prejudices & regressive social beliefs. I was hoping for different after reading recent subcontinent literature.
The blurb mentions the kings who ‘surrendered’ the Kohinoor to the British. They call it a reward but it is a bribe. It reminds us that Indians of privilege sold the country to invaders for scraps of personal power. A usually forgotten fact is that the Koh-in-noor was mined in Golconda, in modern-day Telangana. Most of the Kohinoor’s narrative (including in this book) revolves around North Indians and Europeans playing toss. Truly, where did the stealing begin? Was it too much to expect an author whose name suggests a South Indian origin to pay cognizance to this? Such are the issues of the subcontinent even today.
The book disappointed, even setting aside nuance. Characters were forgettable, the Kohinoor no more than a shiny toy tossed between selfish agenda.
I am still glad I tried reading ‘The Mountain of Light‘. I read to expand my worldview, the way some people travel for the same reason. The internet is customised supposedly to cater to me. But this is so corporations can better manipulate me to buy or vote. Personalised search results make for echo chambers, not reliable sources of knowledge. Social media is the big baddie of propaganda. It’s vital that I read things that bother me, which are not comforting, with which I disagree. It keeps my mind a warrior, instead of a pampered monarch too sunk in comfort to notice danger. Ultimately this experience tells me, my mind is the Kohinoor diamond. Every capitalist, politician and stranger is out to grab it for malicious reasons. I have to stay alert if I don’t want to be colonised.
‘The Mountain Of Light’ by Indu Sundaresan – Colonial Ugh
Here is my Goodreads review:
This story follows the Koh-i-noor diamond through its various usurpers at every point in British-colonised India. There are Hindu/Sikh Maharajas, Mughal kings, British generals, East India Company officers. Everyone is vying for a piece of the power that this diamond represents. The prose is both consistent and accessible, considering the story is over a century old and spans different ethnicity.
As an Indian reading about my colonised history as told by an Indian, I came to this book prepared to hate the European invaders. Some passages speak of their racism, like when we hear about the woes of Emily’s life. This is an affluent white woman with the power to turn down a proposal from the Prime Minister of her country to follow her ambitious brother for more money. Her chief lament is that there are too many servants in her Indian quarters. Then suddenly, there’s an attempt to humanise the same characters with talk of their personal heartaches. It feels incongruent, to say the least.
And this is not limited to the ‘evil English invader’ characters. The Punjabi/ Mughal/ Afghanistani characters are entirely unsympathetic as well. Every single one of them is wealthy beyond compare. And millions of desperately poor people perform back-breaking labour for their vanities. But we’re supposed to care about their petty egos surrounding the Kohinoor diamond.
Before we get a chance to care about a set of characters, the book has already moved to the next grabbers of the diamond. This is complete with lavish descriptions of their surroundings and cardboard characterisations. The book is written in the style of ‘exotic India’. The style might cater to white/Western audiences but it isn’t that nice about them either.
I tried to solder on but it got too hard. Trying to care about a diamond (which is never described except as big and shiny)? Empathising with quests that justify powerful, privileged people being exploitative, treacherous villains? I stopped at page 141 after a laboured description of a white man enjoying a beedi, leching at a young girl picking flowers. Oof, enough.