Immortalised in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim as master spy and gem trader Lurgan Sahib, Alexander Malcolm Jacob lived a life every bit as exciting as anything any author could have imagined. Now, John Zubrzycki, a former Delhi-based foreign correspondent, has pulled together extensive research to tell the story of The Mysterious Mr Jacob, bringing Nineteenth Century India well and truly back to life.
Magician, diamond merchant and spy, Jacob was thrust onto the world’s stage in the early 1890s, when the then Nizam of Hyderabad, Mahbub Ali Khan, accused him of fraud. In what would have been the biggest and most lucrative sale of his career, Jacob offered to sell the Nizam the world’s largest brilliant-cut diamond, only instead to find himself ruined and penniless. The gem is now known as the Jacob Diamond, in recognition of its link to the related court case, one of the most sensational ever held by the Calcutta High Court.
Though the book is ostensibly about the trial that would eventually ruin Jacob, Zubrzycki has much to unpack on the way to the courtroom. For Alexander Malcolm Jacob is, if not mysterious, very hard to pin down. Fond of dramatic stories and exaggeration, Jacob’s early years remain something of an enigma, though Zubrzycki, elegantly pulls together a few strands to build something plausible, in spite of mysteriously missing archives, long lost information, and there being only one confirmed picture of the man.
What’s certainly true of Jacob is that he captured the imagination of many of his contemporaries, whether with his supposed tricks of sorcery, or simply with his eye for a sparkling bargain. And it’s testament to Zubrzycki’s writing that that truly colourful character comes to life on the pages of his book. Zubrzycki makes it easy to visualise Jacob’s shop, in the Himalayan foothill region of Simla, and to imagine the man himself welcoming the most important names in the British Raj to peruse his many wares.
Dipping into his own tales of searching for Jacob’s trail, it’s clear this was a personal mission for Zubrzycki, and his love for India and its rich history shines through.
Well researched and wonderfully written, John Zubrzycki’s The Mysterious Mr Jacob is more than just the story of one of the world’s most brilliant diamonds. It’s also a brief glimpse into the tantalising and much romanticised world of the British Raj, following in Zubrzycki’s own tradition of bringing the past to life through figures almost lost to history.
The Mysterious Mr Jacob: Diamond Merchant, Magician, and Spy is available now through Transit Lounge Publishing