|Powered by a shot of double espresso William Dalrymple poses for the t2 camera at The Park on Thursday.
Picture: Rashbehari Das
The man who pens page-turners out of political histories is back with another 500-odd page saga. Set in the murderous mountains of Afghanistan, where “blood feuds became almost a national pastime”, William Dalrymple’s Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan [Bloomsbury, Rs 799] is the tale of Britain’s biggest military and diplomatic defeat in the 19th century. It’s also the tale of the mild Afghan ruler, Shah Shuja ul-Mulk, and his desperate attempts to clutch on to power as the British puppet, and the call for jihad by the cunning rebel, Dost Mohammad Khan. Above all, it’s the tale of how humans and history are held captive to the whims and fears of those occupying power — then Britain and Russia, now the US and the UK.
Eighteen thousand British troops going into Afghanistan, one man coming out — you couldn’t have asked for a more dramatic starting point to tell this tale...
Oh yes! When you write a narrative history book of this sort, there are several things that have to come together. You have to have an exciting, worthwhile story, have fascinating characters, have some relevance in the present day… all these things are important. I work at the confluence of history and literature. I’m not producing a book for the social sciences or an academic audience. I’m writing a general book for a general readership, in the same way a novelist would. So I take as much trouble with my writing as my research.
How much did the modern-day parallels in Afghanistan lead you to write about the First Anglo-Afghan War?
This subject was appealing because of the parallels, because of the trajectory of the story… because again you had westerners meddling in Afghanistan, going in with barely a shot being fired, taking over the country easily, then facing a growing insurgency. The deeper I got into the research, the more the parallels came to light, to the extent that Shah Shuja turned out to be from the same sub-tribe as [present Afghanistan president] Hamid Karzai and the tribe that brought down Shah Shuja are now the main foot soldiers of the Taliban. So it’s a very, very immediately resonant story.
Then you go into the Great Game — this whole competition to control Central Asia between the Russians and the British, and these fabulous shadowy characters of history — like Ivan Vitkevitch, a Polish prisoner who learns Kyrgyz and Uzbek and Tajik, becomes a leading Russian secret agent for the very people who exiled him. And him taking on Alexander Burnes, who’s this over-sexed god, also a rather glamorous and dashing figure. Then Sir Macnaghten... he’s in fact buried here in Calcutta, a bookish former judge who’s out of his depths [in Afghanistan].
Return of a King, you say, forms loosely the third in your historical trilogy, set between White Mughals and The Last Mughal?
Correct. It’s a book about Afghanistan, obviously, but also a book about India. I’ve now written three big, fat history books over the last 10 years, which deal with the last 50 years of the relationship between the East India Company and India. Strangely — and may be fortunately for me — not many people have written about this period.... The shadowy period when the Mughal empire is going down and the British are on the rise, this period I find very interesting. Because the stereotypes are breaking.... White Mughals starts in the 1790s and The Last Mughal is largely about the terrible insurrection in 1857 and midway between those two is the First Anglo-Afghan War. It’s the greatest defeat suffered by the British at the supreme peak of their economic strength. In 1840, Britain controlled about 50 per cent of world trade. And they are massacred, outnumbered, driven out in the most dramatic way by a bunch of peasants in the hills, using weaponry that’s some 300 years old. It was a huge humiliation for them.
And it’s very important to what happened in 1857. Because the men who lead the army’s retribution, destroying Kanpur, Lucknow, laying waste to Delhi, are the young men of the Anglo-Afghan War. There’s very much the same cast of characters running between these books and I think anyone who’s enjoyed those two will find something here too.
Had there been greater scholarship on this “shadowy period of history”, do you think Bush and Blair could have avoided the present mess?
I think both Bush and Blair were uniquely historically illiterate. As Edmund Burke famously remarked, ‘Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are destined to forever repeat it.’ You couldn’t have a more dramatic example of that than what’s going on now [in Afghanistan]. Apparently when [British Prime Minister] Sir Harold Macmillan was handing over power to Sir Alec Douglas-Home in the ’50s Douglas-Home said: ‘Have you got any advice for me, sir?’ And Harold Macmillan replied: ‘Well, as long as you don’t go and invade Afghanistan, I’m sure it’ll be all right!’ But no one seems to have told Blair that! If only that advice had been passed down, many thousands of lives would have been safer.
But Bush and Blair might argue, ‘We got Osama bin Laden eventually!’
Yes they did, but on their way, they blundered into Iraq, which had nothing to do with al Qaida whatsoever! Had the Americans gone into Afghanistan, taken out al Qaida, built some infrastructure and got out, then history would be very different and Karzai and democracy would be secure. Instead, they got in there, successfully put Karzai in the saddle, then lost interest and invaded Iraq, just as in the 1840s, [Lord] Auckland goes off and starts the Opium War with China… taking the eye of the ball, everything falls apart.
Moving on, you’ve made Delhi your home. Do you feel disappointed with your adoptive home given how unsafe it’s become?
What I realise is that the same things which attract me to Delhi are also the things that have contributed to this tragedy. What I love in Delhi is the way the present has embraced the past, the way Delhi has expanded, rolled over the ancient madarsas and tomb towers and Mughal gardens… wherever you go in Delhi now there’s a golf course, a roundabout, a park… it’s amazing.
But it’s also an uneasy co-existence. Delhi is really now the New York of India. It’s the big city, together with Noida, Gurgaon, Faridabad, it’s the second largest urban space in the world, after Greater Tokyo. But in that process of expansion, not only have you rolled over the tomb towers of Old Delhi, you’ve also rolled over these villages, and in the villages that have been absorbed into Delhi are — and this also includes migrant labour — people with completely different mindsets, moral attitudes, education levels find themselves cheek-by-jowl on the Delhi streets, where there are girls in miniskirts, going to watch Life of Pi on their own or coming back with their boyfriend. Two utterly different worlds. That, I think, is where the tension begins, that you have two worlds living very closely together, who have very, very different outlooks, different expectations from life, very different moral values.
In a sense, it’s not very surprising that Delhi is a very violent city. It’s a much more violent city than Calcutta or Bombay and women, in particular, feel much more vulnerable — and always have done — in Delhi. This has obviously got a lot of publicity now but women have been telling me that they feel unsafe in Delhi for 20 years.
And I think, in an odd way, that tension between little worlds, between different time frames — you have people living, in many ways, in the 12th century and people living in the 21st century side by side — is what I find fascinating in Delhi… where its excitement comes is also where its danger lies.
I love living in Delhi… I mean I’d guard my daughter and my wife carefully, but I’m staying.
The last time we chatted, you said you had a “trickle” of Bengali blood in you. If you were to write a political history of Bengal, which era would you pick?
I do, one-sixteenth part Bengali blood. But I haven’t thought of writing on Bengal, no. I have flirted with the idea of doing Warren Hastings, which is a great story but a lot of it is a courtroom drama and I don’t know how to handle that. He spent 20 years in court and John Grisham has made court battles terribly exciting, so…. (smiles and shrugs).... I don’t know what my new project is yet but I’d love to do something with artistry... a big, sweeping art history or cultural history book.
Have you ever thought of writing a current political narrative? Bengal politics alone would give you enough food for thought...
(Laughs) It certainly would! No, in the last 10 years there’s been growth of a very strong team of long-form journalism, from non-fiction writers — Suketu Mehta, Sonia Faleiro right up to political works, like Ram Guha or Basharat Peer. So I feel that space is quite crowded. Historical narratives is a territory I feel happy to be occupying.
A recent book you loved?
After I finished the main writing of this book in April and started editing it, I had a lovely reading year. I loved Kate Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, probably the best book on Indian poverty I’ve read. Then John Zubrzycki’s The Mysterious Mr. Jacob, the story of a diamond trader in Hyderabad... gripping, gripping book. Among novels, I liked The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers... wonderful Iraq war book. I was one of the judges for The Guardian first book award and we gave that to him. What else? Yes, Monisha Rajesh’s Around India in 80 Trains, Pankaj Mishra’s fantastic book, From The Ruins of Empire, Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton… it’s been a very good year for non-fiction.
How is the film on White Mughals coming along?
Well, it’s the third time we’ve sold the rights! The current people doing it are the producers from Game of Thrones, teamed up with Ralph Fiennes [as director]. It’s in the scripting stage.
What about the casting?
That’s much later and I won’t be doing the casting. I can, of course, tell you the Indian actresses I’d like to meet (chuckles). Well, Freida Pinto. I think she’d make a terrific Khair-un-Nissa!