Ihave always been intrigued by the historical novel. Some of it is composed around real historical figures, events, and locations, and, then, intertwined with fictional characters, episodes and places. The reader may take recourse to flights of fancy, wondering if any of the apparent fiction could have at least some truth in it, or inducing him/her to undertake research to find out, if not any revelation of their veracity, then at least some other relevant facts. Just imagining the possibilities would in themselves be a tantalizing prospect. When Waqar A Khan, founder of Bangladesh Forum for Heritage Studies, handed me Shazia Omar's Dark Diamond to take a look at, I was taken in. It is a historical novel involving the legendary Moghul Viceroy of Bengal during Emperor Aurangzeb's reign, Shayista Khan (he was, as the author correctly identifies, a Subedar of the province, and not a Lord, in the manner of the British, as the back cover of the book would have it).
Shazia Omar has already had a novel published called Like a Diamond in the Sky (Penguin, 2009), and, in her note, explains her reasons for writing a historical novel: “I discovered Subedar Shayista Khan: a poet, warrior, Sufi and visionary. Though Bengal flourished under his rule, he occupies only a few dry paragraphs in history text books. Thus I set out to give him some flesh (albeit, scarred flesh)….” Several of the characters in the novel are real: besides Shayista Khan, Shobha Singh, Shivaji, Admiral Nicholson, William Hedges, Wara Dharmaraja, Tavernier, Nasim Banu, Champa, and Pari Bibi, but some others are fictional, and, as the author testifies, Ellora is the only character that has come out entirely from her imagination. The novel is fast-moving, on occasions racy without being vulgar, and ties several stories together with some dexterity. There are rambunctious characters of European origin (probably fictional), and a liberal dose of magic.
The central character of the story is a brilliant black diamond, “once midnight indigo, once stormy violet (that)…glowed like a star from Hell.” That last depiction embodies the centrality of the novel, one that serves to bind different stories together. Mined in the fabled city for precious gems, Golconda in southern India, the black diamond, called Kalinoor, symbolizes a curse around it, manifested in the fates of people who have possessed it or have been in quest for it. Bad luck seems to follow them, really brought about by human greed. John Steinbeck had written a brilliant little novel, The Pearl, to symbolize some of the baser human instincts that ultimately leads to ones misfortunes, or, even downfall. In Omar's novel, though, the black diamond holds more connotations than just the ill wind that surrounds it.
Kalinoor began its journey by bringing terrible misfortune to the man who first mined it, Hira Lal, a tantric devotee of the goddess Kali, and his wife Rupa. The stone seems to have become Kali's curse. We are then introduced to shady European characters like the buccaneer Captain Costa, a widely traveled sea dog with a number of tricks up his sleeve that came in handy in the aid of his friend, Shayista Khan, Madeline du Champs, with her own dark history, and a few others. Through Madeline, Omar delivers a feminist truism, although in the period that the novel is set, this would likely not have been commonly perceived (notwithstanding the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in England almost a century earlier!): “Women are stronger than you think.”
The bulk of the story is set in and around 1685, when the Subedar was an elderly man of eighty four, but still robust, alert, and a fierce and canny warrior. He had fought and defeated a wide variety of enemies, but he had also accomplished much in improving the lot of his people and province when not fighting, probably none more so than that of Dhaka. Imprints of his manifold accomplishments can still be found in Bangladesh's capital city. The vibrant nature of present-day Chowk Bazaar was to be found then and probably with greater colour and fervour: “…in the heart of Chowk Bazaar…lounged sinister mercenaries waiting to catch whiff of a golden opportunity. Here merchants could sell stallions from Arabia, camels from Egypt, gems from the coast of Masulipatam, dark secrets, pink lies, promises and primroses by the dozens. Here one could trade in silver, copper, counterfeit coins and scabbards bejeweled in rubies of cherry red. Here one could hire cutthroats to execute with words or swords any brutality for a reasonable price.”
Hired assassins figure in some of the stories that make up the whole that is the novel, and the Subedar who is one of their targets. Then there are his numerous enemies by choice or interest, all of whom he overcomes through his fighting skills, aid of trusted allies, friends, and family (one of his sons sacrificed his own life for him), follies of his enemies, and sheer chutzpah and good fortune. He was also a lover of women, although he was not a wanton. The prosperity and safety of Bengal remained his lifelong quest and passion, and he even doubted the sagacity of his nephew, Aurangzeb, in this regard. The family angle is explained, some in poignant detail, with his aunt Nurjahan's marriage to Emperor Jehangir through some wily maneuverings, his support, against his better judgment, for his cousin Emperor Shahjahan in his fratricidal conflict with his brother, his coquettish sister Mumtaz Mahal's marriage to Shahjahan, and, again against his better judgment, his abandonment of Prince Dara in favour of Aurangzeb.
One of the more fascinating characters in the story is Champa, although the reader will find that chunks of her story are almost certainly fictionalized. She turned out to be similar to a modern-day liberated woman, although one is not sure just to what extent she behaved, or was allowed to behave, as is depicted in the novel, by the society of her time. She was estranged from her father, who was an accurate reflection of modern-day Muslim zealots, and was raised by her grandfather, who dabbled in black magic, and, as it turned out, was a fanatic of another kind and a villainous character. Alim, Champa's father, once explained his estrangement from his father to her, in the process, making clear his and his father's predilections: “I had to leave Champa. Your Dada was obsessed with his search for Kalinoor. His mission lured him away from the only Black Stone that matters, the Kabaa of Mecca. Kalinoor is a symbol of the flawed human condition: the lust of Duniya! How could I stay with him after that?”
Omar has some astute observations regarding human nature and the surroundings he/she lived in. So, “Bengal was a place where one could indulge in worldly pleasures or mystical magic.” On another plane, through Shayista's thought: “Marriage corrupts love by removing mystery and gratitude…replacing it with duty and expectation.” Then, in a tangential reference to buying sex, “Wealthy people were never lonely.” And, before becoming Shayista Khan, when he was called Talib, he “saw that ruling with emotions led to disaster. Love did not conquer all…. Only with totalitarian authority could loved ones be protected. He had to rule with cruelty to protect the innocent…. So Talib became the ruthless warrior Aurangzeb wanted, Amir-ul-Umra Shayista Khan.” Yet, “with Aurangzeb's ascent began Shayista's descent.” These are historical observations.
But the book is a work of historical fiction. And Omar delivers some astute observations of her own through some of her characters: “Why do men always mask their weaknesses?” Furthermore, this rich portrayal: “Didi Ma produced a smile as insincere as a whore's orgasm.” Although there is no record of Champa ever having said so, her free and forward-thinking persona is portrayed thus: “Champa believed that the mind without the body could never connect to the spirit. The experience of living, breathing, dancing were holy to her! Besides, dancing is fun.” Finally, “While men with money and power were respected and obeyed, women needed beauty to command.” In the last section of the book, in her bid to bring things to a closure of convergence, she seems to hurry, to push through. She seems to be in a haste to get across her own message of love conquering all. Nonetheless, Shazia Omar should go a long way in her literary career. She has the potential. Dark Diamond is an engrossing read.
The reviewer is an Actor, and Professor and Head, Media and Communication department, IUB.