Sundaresan (The Shadow Princess, 2010, etc.), author of previous novels about India, produces a 19th-century saga about British colonialism, Indian nationalism, and the transfer of a symbol of power from the hands of one monarch to the next.
Deposed Afghani ruler Shah Shuja has some pretty magnificent arm candy: the 186-carat Kohinoor diamond, currently the centerpiece of an armlet entrusted to his beautiful wife, Wafa Begam (who’s cleverly hidden it). The husband and wife spend their days languishing in lush Shalimar Gardens as unwilling guests of the ruler of Punjab, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who wants the diamond. Following the couple’s failed escape attempt, the maharajah withholds food, and Shuja caves and hands over the jewel. It turns out Shuja’s a pretty weak person who, with British and the maharajah’s help, manages to retake his throne—but soon is deposed again. Now that Ranjit Singh possesses this treasure, he turns over the armlet to his much younger, favorite wife, Maharani Jindan Kaur, the daughter of a water seller. She provides Singh with a baby boy, Dalip Singh, whom she’s determined to put on the throne after his father dies. Over the years, England’s domination of the region strengthens, and many more soldiers and civil servants are stationed there. The British East India Company inventories the treasuries of the local rulers and claims ownership of their riches for England. Dalip, under the guardianship of an English couple, finds himself being feted by Queen Victoria’s court, but he’s also snubbed for his ethnic origins, an affront that lasts a lifetime. Through Shuja, Ranjit Singh and Dalip, Sundaresan constructs engrossing and vivid worlds, but the author’s storytelling technique is disorganized and overly complicated, as if she’s determined to cram every scrap of data she’s uncovered in her extensive research into the story. The inclusion of numerous characters—many inconsequential—is confusing and necessitates frequent references to a list of primary and secondary characters placed at the beginning of the book. At one puzzling point, the narrative imitates an Agatha Christie mystery replete with a theft, a long list of suspects and a death, which adds little value to the book.
Regrettably, mountains of unnecessary detail and disorganization obscure what might have been an intriguing saga.