Koh-I-Noor has enraptured the imagination of the world since centuries, so much so, that for some, it has become the symbol of sovereignty, and for others, the blatant example of colonial greed and rapacity unleashed on the colonies by the colonial masters. Seeped in part-myth and part-history, the history of the diamond is replete with bloodshed and gore; curse and mystery and maybe that’s why it has fascinated the generations of writers and storytellers.
Essie Fox’s The Goddess and The Thief is the latest offering in the ever-increasing corpus surrounding the Koh-I-Noor. Set in Victorian England, the book fully exploits the myth, the violence, the supernatural elements associated with the diamond. The story begins in colonial India and unravels in Victorian England. Alice Willoughby, born and brought up in Benares and then in Lahore is brought back to England and left in the care of her aunt so that she can learn, ‘What it is to be an English child. What it is to be a Christian.’ Her aunt Mercy, a spiritual medium is anything but kind to her and exploits her to further her own ambitions whether it’s money or Alice’s tender age when she is perfect to be used as a prop in seances organized by her. Although miserable, her life changes when the devil incarnated, Mr. Tilsbury enters her life. From there, Alice becomes more and more a part of their world and is unwittingly drawn into a conspiracy to steal the Koh-I-Noor diamond from the Queen.
While the events surrounding the theft are mysterious, what follows thereafter is all the more intriguing. Holding true to the curse apropos of it, the diamond exerts its power and influence on everyone who comes in its proximity. For one man, it becomes a symbol of everything he has lost and its possession the only way to reclaim its lost throne. For another, it represents the way to unravel the secrets of the universe and to become immortal. It’s not the theft of the diamond which builds the suspense in the book, but the obsession of those who seem to claim it.
Atmospheric and detailed, the author uses the historical events and personalities to push the plot forward and brilliantly interlaces them with fiction. The Great Exhibition held in Britain to showcase the Koh-I-Noor diamond is interspersed with supernatural elements and so does, the death of Prince Albert which paves the way for the theft and so on. The characters from history come alive in the pages of the book in all their glory and might and the reader is given a glimpse to the shifting loyalties, political intrigues, and betrayals, which is very much a part of the colonial history. Although at times, the Hindoo mythology used in the plot seems to be rather a stretch though it serves its purpose as most of the supernatural elements are extricated from the Hindoo mythology – the cult of Aghoris, the promise of immortality, the tale of Shiva and Parvati.
Primarily narrated in the first-person voice, the book is more than a historical mystery. The also serves as the critique of the nature of the Empire which unabashedly exploited the wealth of the colonies to attain its glory. ‘What right have the British to raid other lands for nothing more than the material gain, to force the natives to bow to their gods, to depose rightful regents from their thrones? If that is not desecration and theft then I would like to know what is!’ The author constantly juxtaposes the sunnier and greener pastures of India with the dreary, gloomy weather of London and the East becomes the promised land where everyone dreams to return to. The sensuous nature of the Indian culture is pitted against the repressive Victorian morality.
Gripping and descriptive, The Goddess and the Thief narrates a surreal tale with the impending sense of doom hovering over the narrative.
Written in the Victorian style, the book holds the imagination of the reader until the end. Though largely drawn in black and white shades, the characters in the book are portrayed with sympathy. Even though Mercy is largely represented as unkind and rather villainous to Alice, the narrative shows that Victorian England with rather limited avenues for women doesn’t leave her with many choices as an unmarried woman. And for all her evilness, she does provide a stable home for Alice. Tilsbury, obsessed with his desire for the diamond performs unimagined feats to possess it and take advantage of both Alice and Mercy in the process, is not malevolent through and through. His love for Alice and Charles restores him in the reader’s eyes if not much, then at least a bit. Alice is the most enigmatic of all. Holding a moral compass, missing in most of the characters, she is not exactly an angel according to Victorian standards. She gives in to her desire and is more like Tess than Jane Eyre in her portrayal.