Published by Washington Square Press
Publication date: October 8th 2013
There are many symbols of wealth and luxury but one of the oldest and most prized is the diamond and nowhere was it so plentiful and extravagantly displayed as in India during the reign of the maharajahs. The Mountain of Light: A Novel is Indu Sundaresan’s sparkling new novel about Kohinoor, the 186 carat diamond fought over, stolen, and prized above all else for generations in the Indian and Punjab empires.
Sundaresan takes historical events and people and recreates the emotions of both to give facts life. In The Mountain of Light, she begins with Shah Shuja who has been deposed from his throne in Afghanistan and has found refuge in Punjab. His wife negotiated his release from prison by promising the Kohinoor to Ranjit Singh, the maharajah of Punjab. However, once he is returned she adroitly sidesteps handing over the diamond until circumstances force it from her. From there we follow the key players in the history of Punjab rule and the machinations behind the British to take control of the area. Sundaresan includes some of the famous legends surrounding the stone, including that it was never to be worn on the head. The rulers of India, Afghanistan and the Punjab embedded it in their thrones or wore it as an armlet. It is interesting to note that the Kohinoor (recut down to 105 carats) is now set in the coronation crown of Queen Elizabeth II.
The Mountain of Light is the story of a gem of almost incalculable value but it is the individual stories that make the novel so readable. In many instances, she follows the jewel through the women who owned, protected and desired it, telling each of their stories from their unique cultural perspective. For all of history’s machinations to keep them behind the scenes in harems or quietly attached to brothers (if they could not find a husband) each of these women has a rich story to tell.
The end of The Mountain of Light is known from history books but, in Sundaresan’s hands it has a poignancy not found in textbooks. Dalip Singh was the last rajah of Punjab and only ten years old when the British removed him from the throne. The diamond belonged to his family but the British decided it was a spoil-of-war and sent it, in secret, to Queen Victoria to announce her position as the empress of India and to become one of the greatest jewels in her collection. Later, Singh follows the Kohinoor, still a young man and willing to believe that he has “gifted” this most precious of gems to his kind benefactor, the queen. It isn’t until the novelty of his presence in Great Britain as the feted pet of the queen dissipates that he understands how severely he has been short changed. British colonialism may be long past but its damage clearly shines in the facets of Kohinoor.