"It was madness - to trace Mr Jacob!"

Feb 02, 2013, 00:44 IST | Fiona Fernandez

Australian diplomat and journalist, and India scholar, John Zubrzycki, stumbled upon the account of Mr Jacob, who was in the centre of one of the biggest scandals to have rocked the Raj. This wealthy curio dealer and businessman was the toast of India's nizams, he dabbled in the occult but died in obscurity in Mumbai. Fiona Fernandez met the author, to find out how the story behind this exceptional, mysterious individual, emerged

“I didn’t know where to start!” recalls John Zubrzycki, sipping on his kullad chai, in the author’s lounge at the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival, last week, when we ask of his leading man in The Mysterious Mr Jacob, and the painstaking research to piece together the truth about one of the most fascinating characters to have fallen off the British Raj map.

The only known sketch of Alexander Malcolm Jacob. PIC/Courtesy Raja Bhasin

“I stumbled upon his story while working on my previous book, The Last Nizam during my research about the sixth Nizam, Mahboob Ali Khan and also came across the Imperial Diamond, which is now called the Jacob Diamond.” In 1891, from his curio shop in Simla’s Mall, he offered to see the world’s largest brilliant-cut diamond to the Nizam. The deal didn’t meet the desired end, with the Hyderabadi royal accusing Jacob of fraud, even as the trial in the Calcutta High Court became one of the biggest, most sensational cases to rock the Raj at the time.

Jacobs’ story traverses central Asia and India — from his birthplace in southeast Turkey to Simla, Bombay, Delhi and Calcutta. “In 2005-06, during my research, I read half a chapter by an Indian historian about this interesting character. I was hooked. Later, in 2010, Jacob’s story was back in the reckoning when I read the Occult Review, 1913 where accounts by a certain Frederick Heath revealed more about the man, as he spent six months with Jacob, in Bombay.

The building in Colaba facing Regal cinema is where Mr Jacobs lived while in Mumbai; it houses Philips Antiques. It was one of the two places where he stayed during the last chapter of his life in India.

Two things emerged about him: Jacob was a master storyteller, you can only imagine how it must’ve been to sift fact from fiction,” he smiles. “He was immensely popular. Visitors to Simla couldn't leave without dropping by his curio shop,” Zubrzycki cites the Agra-Taj Mahal analogy to give us
an idea of his image in that era.

“Gradually, as facts of his life emerged, the truth became stranger than fiction. My search took me from London’s British Library to Syria and Turkey, and by 2011, India. It was a wild goose chase!” recalls Zubrzycki. Naturally, one wanted to know if thoughts to abandon this project surfaced during his travels: “Yes. It was madness — to trace Mr Jacob and to find crucial links to his life. The first record of his name dates back to 1872, in an entry in the Index of a file in the National Archives, which refers to the ‘Dismissal of Jacob from the services of The Maharajah of Dholpur.’ You cannot imagine how I was able to find that file,” he chuckles.

For his India chapter, he is grateful to researcher Anita Jacob (“no relation to Mr Jacob!”). “Her support was vital. After all, we were dealing with an extraordinary character who was a super spy, a swindler, a fraudster, a businessman, and at the other extreme, a master magician!” Without giving away much of this spectacular slice of forgotten history, Zubrzycki tells us of how Jacob spent nearly two decades of his life to clear his name of the charges but it wasn’t to be.

Jacob’s Bombay connect added to his mystique — “He left Simla for Bombay in 1903 as it was the most cosmopolitan of all Indian cities, and the trading nature helped him continue with his business.” He lived in Waterloo Mansions, now known as the Mercantile Insurance Company building that houses Philips Antiques, and later, at the demolished Watsons Annexe, which was near the Taj Mahal Hotel.

In January 9, 1921 he died and was buried at Sewri Cemetery, though his tombstone has been destroyed. It’s obvious, after reading his biography that Jacob died a sad man, who was unable to redeem his past glory, and place of honour in the history books of the Raj.  “The thrill of writing his biography cannot be explained...” Zubrzycki signs off. We’ll believe.

PS: Mention of earlier names of Indian cities is to retain the biography’s time frame and setting.
The Mysterious Mr Jacob, John Zubrzycki, R399, Random House India.

Did you know?
>The Bombay Gazette estimated that over the course of Jacob’s life, he had turned over at least £50 million of gems, jewellery and antiques
>His worth at the time of his death was a paltry ‘Rupees 382-0-0 after deducting debts.’
>He was the inspiration for the shadowy Lurgan Sahib in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, who met Jacob in Simla. 

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