Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Non-fiction: Review of Koh-i-noor: The History of the World's Most Infamous Diamond by Anita Anand & William Dalrymple

I do not consider myself a materialistic person. My only bodily ornamentations are a wedding ring and watch. My home is simply furnished, and organized for practicality. And my car is a Volkswagen Passat sedan, as average as might be. And yet when traveling, I want to see the most striking places in the world. I want to visit the best treasures of humanity’s past and see what the highest of culture has on offer. I can’t afford a five-star hotel, but I enjoy seeing how kings of old lived, their castles and thrones, and their fates, as dramatic or ordinary as they may be. I love being at places like Chichen Itza or Angkor Wat and imagining what life might have been like, their exoticism off the charts. That is my only explanation for wanting to read William Dalrymple and Anita Anand’s Kohinoor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond (2016), as otherwise, I couldn’t give a damn.
History is parsed in different ways. From biographies to the evolution of countries or cultures, details of particular conflicts to people interviews, we learn about the past along different lines. With its biographical elements, rises and falls of empires, and numerous waypoints between, Dalrymple’s Kohinoor is a jagged line, a criss-crossing of more standard lines of history, and comes across quite engaging for it. Given the diamond spent the majority of its life in the Middle East and India in times far more uncertain and turbulent than now, not to mention opulent and grandiose, its history is filled with intrigue and excitement. For want of a better term, its history would fit snugly in the tabloids of Shah Jahan or the Persian courts.

Like the film Twenty Bucks, Kohinoor tracks an object as it bounces around in society, from discovery to present-day whereabouts. In the great diamond’s case, this is a path filled with tragedy, murder, royalty, lavishness, assassination, theft, and a great deal else on its way to its current resting place. The pyramids have stood for thousands of years as nobody is able to put one in their pocket and walk away with one. Not so with the Kohinoor. It’s been in many pockets, from kings to paupers, and inspired many a legend in the process. Quite literally, books like Wilkie Collins’ Moonstone and films like Indiana Jones are rooted in the mysticism and lore surrounding the infamous nature of the Kohinoor.
For scholars and enthusiasts steeped in Middle Eastern and Hindu history, Kohinoor will offer little new; Dalrymple skims the surface of many ‘great’ events over centuries of time, the book written from the diamond’s perspective. For those who know little, it will be an exciting, daring journey. The history of the Middle East and Hindustan in the time of the Kohinoor is the stuff of legend. Regardless who reads it, however, the diamond’s story links cultures, societies, and continents in a way that very few other things can, and for that will be of interest whether the reader cares about precious stones or not.
But perhaps the most interesting aspect of Kohinoor is the question it indirectly asks: what’s next? Almost certain to outlive myself and the people reading this post, where is the diamond’s next stop in time? Will some clever thief create a new pocket for it to reside in? Will it be destroyed in war? Will it become a political gesture and returned it to the Middle East, and if so, under what circumstances? And as the book proves, there are other possibilities. Overall a minor lesson in Daoism, the undulating line the diamond cuts through history teaches us the perennial nature of humanity, and the impermanence of material things.

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