IT’S THE 1680s and the Mughal viceroy of Bengal, Subedar Shayista Khan, is fighting back enemies of progress, not least the maulvis who declare girls shouldn’t go to school. He wants Bengal (undivided then) to continue to flourish as a premium place of trade, commerce and culture. As the East India Company makes its move towards Bengal, Khan resists the attempts with all his might. Fact and fiction meet in this Bengal, which is a melting pot of cultures, where people from all over the world converge. The dashing Mughal warrior apart, a Bengali dancer, an unsaintly pir, a French beauty, a Portuguese pirate and a formidable mix of other characters ensure that this book of historical fiction is never boring.
At the heart of the story lies a “dark diamond” called Kalinoor, supposedly cursed, but not in the minds of the different protagonists who go to great lengths to protect or procure it. Its journey starts around 1185 in Hyderabad where Hira Lal, a tantric devotee of goddess Kali, first lays hands on the diamond inside a mine he is working in. Too scared to keep it at home, he decides to take it to the Maharaja for a reward. When things don’t turn out as he had planned, the goddess makes an appearance, cursing everyone who will possess the stone with great suffering and sadness.
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Five hundred years later, Madeline du Champs is seeking a safe passage to Bengal from Portuguese pirate Captain Costa to get some ancient recipes from the hills of Chatgaon (Chittagong) for her father’s ailment, but her eyes are on the diamond too. The pir, too, is in search of the diamond and, as he tells Champa, his granddaughter/danseuse/teacher, that though the Kalinoor was last seen in Golconda before the Mughal invasion, everyone knows that it had been stolen from there in the 1630s by the Mughals under Aurangzeb. Through his magical powers, he has found that the diamond is with Khan and the pir wants it to help him “channel God’s power to preserve Bengal”.
And yet, how would he pursue Khan to let go of his treasure? “Subedar Khan was not only the most powerful man in the Empire… he was as vicious as he was handsome, as brutal as he was just, as likely to execute a Muslim as a Hindu, and execute he did aplenty,” as per Champa. But he was also responsible for turning Bengal into a land of riches, thanks to culture and commerce. He was secular and acted swiftly when maulvis prevented a girls’ school from holding classes.
It’s when Shazia Omar describes Khan—he hasn’t been given his due in history books—that she goes a bit overboard. The swashbuckling hero is given larger-than-life treatment, as is Champa and Khan’s romance. But Khan’s story must be heard—he did his best to put down the “mullah mutiny” after the ulema asked followers to “impose strict vigilance on their morality lest they fall into the dark ocean of temptation”.
A liberal who did a lot to promote progress in Bengal, Khan was aghast to hear that the maulvis were “whining about liberty”. It’s a lesson from history that we have clearly not taken to heart, as forces in both Bangladesh and to an extent even in Bengal and the world beyond threaten to disrupt life all over again in the name of religion.
Sudipta Datta is a freelancer