In My Hands Today…

Koh-I-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond – William Dalrymple and Anita Anand

On 29 March 1849, the ten-year-old Maharajah of the Punjab was ushered into the magnificent Mirrored Hall at the centre of the great Fort in Lahore. There, in a public ceremony, the frightened but dignified child handed over to the British East India Company in a formal Act of Submission to Queen Victoria not only swathes of the richest land in India, but also arguably the single most valuable object in the subcontinent: the celebrated Koh-i Noor diamond. The Mountain of Light.

The history of the Koh-i-Noor that was then commissioned by the British may have been one woven together from gossip of Delhi Bazaars, but it was to be become the accepted version. Only now is it finally challenged, freeing the diamond from the fog of mythology which has clung to it for so long. The resulting history is one of greed, murder, torture, colonialism and appropriation through an impressive slice of south and central Asian history. It ends with the jewel in its current controversial setting: in the crown of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

In My Hands Today…

Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan – William Dalrymple

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In the spring of 1839 British forces invaded Afghanistan for the first time, re-establishing Shah Shuja on the throne, in reality as their puppet, and ushering in a period of conflict over the territory still unresolved today. In 1842, the Afghan people rose in answer to the call for jihad against the foreign occupiers, and the country exploded into violent rebellion. In what is arguably the greatest military humiliation ever suffered by the West in the East, more than eighteen thousand cold and hungry British troops, Indian sepoys and camp followers retreated through the icy mountain passes, and of the last survivors who made their final stand at the village of Gandamak, only one man, Dr Brydon, made it through to the British garrison at Jellalabad. An entire army of what was then the most powerful military nation in the world was utterly routed by poorly equipped tribesmen. The West’s first disastrous entanglement in Afghanistan has clear and relevant parallels with the current deepening crisis today, with extraordinary similarities between what NATO faces in cities like Kabul and Kandahar, and that faced by the British in the very same cities, fighting the very same tribes, nearly two centuries ago. History at its most urgent, The Return of a King is the definitive analysis of the first Afghan war. With access to a whole range of previously undiscovered sources, including crucial new material in Russian, Urdu and Persian, and contemporary Afghan accounts including the autobiography of Shah Shuja himself, prize-winning and bestselling historian William Dalrymple’s masterful retelling of Britain’s greatest imperial disaster is a powerful and important parable of neo-colonial ambition and cultural collision, folly and hubris, for our times.

In My Hands Today…

Begums, Thugs, and White Mughals: The Journals of Fanny Parkes – Fanny Parkes, William Dalrymple

124434Fanny Parkes, who lived in India between 1822 and 1846, was the ideal travel writer – courageous, indefatigably curious and determinedly independent. Her delightful journal traces her journey from prim memsahib, married to a minor civil servant of the Raj, to eccentric, sitar-playing Indophile, fluent in Urdu, critical of British rule and passionate in her appreciation of Indian culture. Fanny is fascinated by everything, from the trial of the thugs and the efficacy of opium on headaches to the adorning of a Hindu bride. To read her is to get as close as one can to a true picture of early colonial India – the sacred and the profane, the violent and the beautiful, the straight-laced sahibs and the more eccentric White Mughals who fell in love with India and did their best, like Fanny, to build bridges across cultures.

In My Hands Today…

Sacred India – William Dalrymple

124435Sacred India is a close-focus view of spirituality in India with a very God-is-in-the-details approach. Lonely Planet tackles a bafflingly large subject with admirable grace in this loosely structured, accessibly sized coffee-table book. A florid painting of Ganesh, a hundred capped heads bowed in prayer, weather-beaten flags whipped in the Himalayan wind: all are diverse glimpses of India’s spiritual cultures. India’s four major religions–Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, and Buddhism–are gathered in an impressionistic collage of vibrant photos and text. Christianity, Jainism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, as well as tribal religions and gurus are also covered in smaller sections. The book’s photos are lavish in color and pungently evocative–but decidedly not opulent. They excel at the intensely personal (a lotus flower, a turban-swathed camel trader, a Muslim woman reading the Quran), but their zoomed-in style sometimes falls short of capturing the sense of awe and grandeur we like to associate with religion. Sacred India offers brief glimpses of a wide-ranging and multicolored land; but unlike the fable of the blind men and the elephant, the picture formed in the mind’s eye from these richly textured details will be greater than the sum of its parts.

In My Hands Today…

City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi – William Dalrymple, Olivia Fraser

Sparkling with irrepressible wit, City of Djinns peels back the layers of Delhi’s centuries-old history, revealing an extraordinary array of characters along the way-from eunuchs to descendants of great Moguls. With refreshingly open-minded curiosity, William Dalrymple explores the seven “dead” cities of Delhi as well as the eighth city-today’s Delhi. Underlying his quest is the legend of the djinns, fire-formed spirits that are said to assure the city’s Phoenix-like regeneration no matter how many times it is destroyed. Entertaining, fascinating, and informative, City of Djinns is an irresistible blend of research and adventure.