Book Review: The Mysterious Mr Jacob by John Zubrzycki (Random House India, 2012). Pages 368. 

Mysterious Mr Jacob

In 1891 Mr Jacob, a jewellery merchant of mysterious origins, plans to sell the most expensive diamond of the world, ‘The Imperial’, to the Nizam of Hyderabad. The deal goes awry and Jacob is accused of fraud. He ends up fighting a big trial against him. The Mysterious Mr Jacob is an engrossing account of an inscrutable man forgotten in the pages of history, which, John Zubrzycki, the author, effectively constructs by painstaking research and passionate storytelling.

‘The Imperial’ becomes the talk of the town in the following years and its name morphs into ‘Jacob diamond’. Such is the attention for the trial at the time that Frederick Heath, an author, states that whenever Alexander Jacob Malcolm’s real story will be written in the future ‘we shall possess a living romance not coined from the gold of some great imagination, but fashioned out of plain metal of fact—romance that will rob fiction of one of its greatest powers, and invest actual life with a wonder and mystery that even in our strangest dreams we never imagine it could possess.’ Through this book, John Zubrzycki accomplishes just that.

The book opens with Jacob landing in India from Turkey at a young age. Growing on the streets he learns quickly: as a scribe in the Princely states of India, in a jewellery firm, learning occult practices of the time, and finally understanding the business of precious stones. He speaks Hindustani, walks on water, maneuvers to become the favourite of Indian princes, and is even asked once to act as the British special attaché to Afghanistan. Seeing more opportunities with the princely-states of the19th century India, he steers clear of the structured and hierarchical British organization. Over a period of time, he graduates from being an ‘amateur magician, part-time astrologer, and occasional spy’ to India’s most famous jeweller— using his charisma to sell gems to the rich and famous.

The enigma that he creates turns him a celebrity for the western world too. It inspires references, books and movies on his character. The elusive Mr Jacob flirts with the West’s fascination of occult, hooks them with the romance of Arabian nights and the Great Game. His celebrity status reaches its climax when he decides to make the biggest deal of his life by selling the Imperial diamond to the Nizam of Hyderabad. But it is at this point that his career halts and the deal that could have given him ultimate success becomes the reason for his downfall. He is accused of cheating and what follows is a sensational trial. He wins the trail eventually, outsmarting the Nizam and the British Raj, but the ‘thrill of the hustle’ of the trader in him probably leads him a bit too far. Once rumoured to be ‘rich almost beyond the dreams of Aladdin’, he finally dies in 1921 a lonely death with a paltry sum of Rs 382 in his account.

The Mysterious Mr Jacob is an exhaustive account of the man and his mysterious life with well-researched collection of newspaper clippings and court records. His life, like the gem itself, is presented as a legend, shrouded in mystique, as if hidden in a room with its windows and doors shut, rendering therefore, only a peek of the sparkling personality from cracks, crevices and keyholes. But beyond the lure of the initial hook of glamour, the mysterious Mr Jacob himself shines spectacularly in this book.

Riveting and engaging, this book proves, yet again, that often, fact is stranger than fiction. Rating: 4.5 / 5.

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