Take Tanis Rideout’s Above All Things or Mary Novik’s Muse: history is stuffed with stories begging to be retold.
“Fiction and nonfiction both have to be true, but nonfiction has to be fact-checkable as well.” So says Phllip Gourevitch.
Indu Sundaresan’s The Mountain of Light might not be fact-checkable, but the root of the story rests in the historical record.
“The Kohinoor diamond, in the Toshakhana of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, had once adorned the iridescent breast of the main peacock on Shah Jahan’s throne.”
But the jewel represents a complicated history. There is no straightforward inheritance; the diamond is wrested from one set of hands, grasped only briefly, then yanked into the possession of another.
“Ranjit Singh had taken Lahore, and along with it Shah Jahan’s fort, and then he had taken the Kohinoor diamond. Now, Henry was here, in possession of the fort, and soon to be in possession of the diamond.’
As is clear from these brief excerpts, there is great conflict surrounding the possession of the power and wealth symbolized by (and embodied within) “The Mountain of Light”, the Kohinoor diamond.
Indu Sundaresan’s novel offers a series of tableaux which dramatize the tensions between individuals and nations, in the east and in the west, whose fortunes are literally and figuratively connected with this jewel.
“The possessor of the diamond is the supreme ruler of all South Asia – in that fistful of stone is strength, power, glory, all the brilliance and opulence of royalty. It isn’t just a piece of rock.”
Four time periods are represented (1817, 1846, 1850, and 1854) with a cast of characters broad enough to warrant a list of characters at the novel’s beginning.
(There is also a glossary at the back of the book for Indian words, although most of the meanings can be determined within the context of the story.)
The one consistent element of the tale is the diamond. One might say that it is a character in its own right, and certainly it does reflect the surrounding world in a way which draws attention to the most dramatic moments in the history of those who possess it. (Relatively speaking, readers’ attachments to the other characters are fragmented and fleeting.)
“There is a legend…that the Kohinoor must never be worn upon a ruler’s crown. The Mughal king Shah Jahan had it embedded into his Peacock Throne; my master has it in an armlet and wears it well away from his head. Other than that…I don’t know, mademoiselle. But diamonds of a fabulous worth have a way of bringing misfortune upon all those who possess them.”
For the bulk of the novel, readers are immersed in colonialism. “Why not reach out to the mighty British Empire, which had already pounced upon, and pinned down the Union Jack on so much of the map of India?”
Readers will find some predictable elements, familiar tropes, characterization in broad strokes.
On the side of the Union Jack:
“He had grown up in a mining town, and he could remember his father’s grimy face at the dinner table, the way he hacked off bread from the loaf, his drunken sleep every night, a bottle of grog rolling under his chair below his inert hand.”
And, beneath that symbolically pinned flag:
“Maharani Jindan Kaur met them under a gold awning, her back straight, her hands clasped in front. Of her face, they could see little; a veil swing over her head and fell almost to her feet in a swathe of shimmering white seed pearls.”
Of the two worlds, the images of India resonate more evocatively:
“Humidity hung in the air like a smothering veil, crept into lungs, created mold and mildew. Every piece of metal grew a film of rust; even the edges of mirrors were dusted brown.”
The tensions surrounding the possession of the diamond are sometimes subtle, sometimes overtly political. Sometimes only a few sentences summarize a swath of events, which readers who lack any familiarity will have to pause to absorb; the reach of the tale depends upon readers’ trust.
“They consider it to be spoils of war, and that it should go to the East India Company, to pay for the Second Sikh War, and it should be broken down and the money split up as prize money to the soldiers who fought in the war. But there is the three million pounds sterling worth of jewels, shawls, and goods from the Toshakhana, which will be sold off at the auction houses in Calcutta. Why this so? This jewel should belong to the Queen, not as part of the state jewels, but as her own, from me.”
“From the Maharajah to the Queen, your Excellency,” Mackeson had said faintly.”
The most fascinating element of The Mountain of Light is, however, the fact that the diamond’s story is true.
“Every tale had its long beginnings, middles, and even more elongated endings, no matter what it was about.”
In the afterword to her novel, the author outlines, in detail, the relationships between fact and fiction and the specific elements of her work in The Mountain of Light; this intersection between history and story is where a lot of good novels live.
Do you know much of this history? Or, would you like to? Do you prefer your facts to be dressed in fiction, or would you rather it all be fact-checkable?