Friday, December 27, 2013

Book review: The Mountain of Light, by Indu Sundaresan

Indu Sundaresan’s newest novel opens with an author’s note on the events surrounding the 186-carat Kohinoor diamond’s controversial journey from India to England. It’s an unusual choice to include this information up front, but to her credit, the story isn’t any less dramatic for knowing its outline in advance.

What the author’s note tells, the rest of the novel shows. Gracefully written with an underlying somber tone, The Mountain of Light details the personalities, social concerns, and deeply felt emotions behind the politics.

Five distinct episodes are related in chronological order. In the first, set in 1817, Shah Shuja, the former ruler of Afghanistan, lives in Lahore’s lush Shalimar Gardens as a “guest” of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, who sets the Kohinoor as the price of Shuja’s freedom. The last, set in a Paris apartment in 1893, focuses on Dalip Singh, Ranjit’s son, the deposed last ruler of the Punjab. As an elderly man, he looks back on his arrival in England nearly forty years earlier when, as a 16-year-old boy, he was forced to watch his empire being dismantled and the Kohinoor taken away. Tying all of the strands together are the glorious diamond and the tightening grip of the British and their East India Company on India.

Seen from the viewpoints of individuals from both countries, the stories are full of both great and foolish men; intelligent, forceful women; cross-cultural romances that don’t pan out; and promises that aren’t kept. While many of the British are sympathetic to the Indian people and realize the destructive effects of their presence (“We’re not a very friendly people, are we?” remarks Fanny Eden, sister of Governor-General Lord Auckland), the tragedy of their situation is laid bare. Even the guardians of young Dalip Singh, as kind and loving as they are to him, are left powerless against the forces of imperialism.

Along the way, the Kohinoor changes hands multiple times, by means of deception and theft or as a gift given under pressure. One suspenseful chapter takes the form of an adventurous mystery in which the diamond is stolen aboard ship as it’s secretly transported to England. The writing is lush yet focused, with vibrant descriptions of India’s beautiful landscapes and sumptuous treasures.

With its wide-scale historical perspective, The Mountain of Light may not be the best choice for readers who like attaching themselves to a single protagonist; as literary fiction, also, it deserves to be read slowly and carefully. Most of the characters once lived, which makes the reading an enjoyable educational experience. All in all, it’s an insightful and enlightening look at historical change and how one of the world’s largest diamonds came to take its place in the British crown jewels, a status that’s still contentious today.

The Mountain of Light was published by Washington Square Press/Simon & Schuster in trade paperback in October ($16.00 / $18.99 Canada, 314pp, plus detailed afterword, glossary, and readers' guide).  Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy at my request.  See also Indu Sundaresan's guest post on this site: The Journey of the Kohinoor Diamond.

6 comments:

  1. I liked this story so very much. Agree with you, her books are not meant to be rushed through. You've got to read slowly to keep track of whats happening, who is who and to get the full meaning of the story.

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    1. Yes, exactly. Seeing how much I enjoyed this one, I need to go ahead and read the others.

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  2. Thank you for this review. I've been considering buying this book, but wanted to wait until I'd read a few reviews first. Now I know that it's one I'd like to read.

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  3. I'm happy to see the mention of the East India Company here. I think one of the real failures of contemporary literature is to ignore "the elephant in the room" in our culture--corporate power.

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  4. This one should be on my TBR list. Indu Sundaresan was mentioned as a favourite author by some of the Indian participants in my latest historical fiction survey.

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    1. I've likewise heard that her novels are very popular in India. There's a miniseries based on her earlier Taj trilogy in the works there now.

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