By Syeda Samara Mortada
“Love is the funeral pyre where the heart must lay its body.”
~ Dark Diamond
From the beginning of the novel, I could picture every page like it was a scene from a historic movie from the Mughal era — vibrant and mystical, yet with clouds of darkness settling in. The colorful and multi-layered characters seemed to fit right in with the grandeur of the palace, as well as the hidden truths and loves lost. There are certain themes that recur throughout, greed and love being two of them; but that does not go to say that they go hand in hand, or do they?
Shayistha Khan, Subedar of Bengal is our central character, aptly portraying the traits of Mughal warriors, and could well be inspired by a real one. His innermost characteristics, some of them being his Robinhood-ish philosophies, the messiah to the poor, avid reader and believer of God are almost in stark contrast to his hard exterior, further hardened by war and its lasting effects on a nation. He is presented in strong juxtaposition to Pir Baba, who is also the grandfather of Champa (the female lead of the novel). Pir Baba’s one and only aim in life is to get the Kalinoor, which is rumored to be in the possession of Shayista. The Pir’s deeply rooted superstitious values as well as physical prowess at times feels like a stretch too far but overall works well to give the character its profile and once again feels like a true calibration of Pirs in our part of the world.
However, whilst analyzing the female leads of the novel, they tend to fall a little short of one’s expectations simple because “women empowerment” is specifically mentioned in various instances of the novel. Of course, one may argue that this representation, Champa’s, for instance, is revolutionary in the context of the timeframe of the novel. Champa without a doubt is a strong character especially if we get a sense of her age, surroundings and growing up years. However, there is some confusion about her stance in life. While she is hell-bent on saving the madrassah (which houses many girl children) from the wrath of the Mullahs who feel that music and books will lead young women away from the ways of God, she is also a dancer who appeases Shayistha and others like him, probably as a result of instructions from her Dada. Champa cannot stand the Mullahs and everything they represent; however, she tries to stop Shayistha from killing her father, who is also a Mullah even when he is on the verge of taking her own life. Again, if she is the ultimate symbol of goodness and kindness, then why does she not stop her Dada from his evil-doing and practice of black magic, even when she is very aware of its effects on those around her? Her love-hate relationship with Shayistha is also one that is hard to decipher.
Then there is Madeline, who, in search of the Kalinoor, travels all the way to India from France to save her father’s life only to realise that she has been stabbed in the back by her own father, and in the end seems to lose her purpose in life and meets an unfortunate death. Madeline’s character is one with a lot of potential, but somehow doesn’t reach the height that the build-up promises. The most interesting female lead, however, according to me is the Subedar’s wife, Nasim, who remains an enigma till the very end. Is she actually in love with her husband and craving his attention or is she only afraid of losing the status and luxury that power brings with it? Is she a woman losing sleep over her youthful days, a protector of her territory, the equivalent of Lady Macbeth, or a mother who has lost too much to start over again, or just a regular woman with her own sets of insecurities?
Overall, Shazia Omar seems to have put in a lot of research and detailing into each of the characters to give it the historic feel that is the essence of this novel. One notices her growth as a writer and quick turnover from her previous works. However, as has been previously mentioned, as a reader I would have been happier had I seen the female leads take matters in their own hands to accomplish what they believe in rather than depend on the men in case of obstacles, of which there are many, especially because historic research would reveal many women who fought battles to claim their rights — both literally and metaphorically.
In the end, for me, the main attraction of the novel remains the Kalinoor, literally translated to Black Diamond, the crude sister of the Kohinoor, the anti-hero capable of causing mass destruction and ruining everyone and anyone who lays a hand on it or decides to keep it; that which has a special vengeance to those who love. Perhaps that is what gives it an almost human-like quality, which like a true villain ultimately results in the death of those around it. Or perhaps it is a very pertinent metaphor for love itself. Shazia has knowingly or unknowingly spoken to the hearts of many who like me believe in the fact that when love becomes the reason of death, it can no longer be termed as “love”.
The reviewer is a communications professional working in the development sector and a strong advocate of gender rights. She is the coordinator of Bonhishikha, an organization that works towards gender equality using arts as its main form and a regular contributor of Bangladeshi national dailies. Samara completed her MA in Women’s Studies from University of York, UK and BA in English from East West University, Dhaka.