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A RARE MOMENT

RETURN OF A KING: THE BATTLE FOR AFGHANISTAN, 1839-1842 By William Dalrymple, Bloomsbury, Rs 799

When it comes to rising to the occasion, there is no beating William Dalrymple. The Last Mughal had coincided seamlessly with the 150th anniversary of 1857, overshadowing most of the other publications that commemorated the event. Return of a King looks at Afghanistan at a critical time when it is nearing the end of another cycle of occupation and purge that it has undergone many times before.

Dalrymple’s sense of plot and timing, other than being a delight to his publishers, is a quality to be cherished by his readers. Very few writers think of propelling popular interest into more substantial goals such as encouraging the study of history, an activity best forgotten after the school years. Even fewer consider using this interest to push for changes — not merely in the way the past is looked at but also the present.

Return of a King has as its subject the First Anglo-Afghan war. Its story is not a particular favourite with either scholars or students, who see it as a needless diversion in the narrative of British expansion in India before the shock rebuttal of 1857. Dalrymple rescues this story from obscurity to show that it is in Afghanistan that the British, at the height of Empire, first met with a “rare moment of complete colonial humiliation.”

The lessons that they learnt from this “colonial” humiliation (let us excuse Dalrymple for his unfortunate choice of adjective) were deftly used in the brutal suppression of the Uprising of 1857. The same kind of retribution followed. The larger lesson — to avoid getting stuck in the maze that is Afghanistan — was kept in mind during the two other British encounters with Afghanistan. But that memory seems to have waned. Had it not, world powers —Russia and now America —would have remembered the warning of the Afghan poet, Mirza ‘Ata, “It is certainly no easy thing to invade or govern the Kingdom of Khurasan (Afghanistan).”

Dalrymple believes that the two central problems of Afghanistan are its topography and its mesh of tribes with their own distinct cultural code. But back in the 1830s, there was no way the British could have known that. Having managed to convert a joint-stock company into a territorial suzerain in India, the British were desperate to save their possessions from Russia, whose dalliances with Napoleon Bonaparte and aggression in Persia had convinced them of its hostility. The only way they could prevent this was by putting in place a friendly government in Afghanistan.

They did so by toppling Dost Mohammad, whose loyalties were misread, and bringing in the exiled king, Shah Shuja, who had been their guest for a while. In their arrogance, however, they completely underestimated the dislike the people of the country could have felt for a scheming foreign authority that not only upset the political status quo to suit its interests but also threatened its traditions and socio-religious mores. The Afghan backlash, orchestrated as a religious war or jihad against the kafirs, was so severe that the Army of Indus that had installed Shah Shuja got almost wiped out in the mad scramble to get out of Afghanistan through its treacherous mountain passes. Shah Shuja was killed, and Alexander Burnes and William Macnaghten, who executed the company’s diabolical plans in Afghanistan, were butchered by the rebels.

As in The Last Mughal, Dalrymple weaves this complex drama through the interactions of a wide set of actors —British, Russian, Afghan, Sikh — whose strengths and failings decided the course of history. If jealousy and professional rivalry between Burnes and Macnaghten pushed the company along a treacherous path, the anger over reduced pay or plain greed proved enough for many Afghan chiefs to raise the banner of revolt.

By placing the stories of individual struggles, despair and anguish at the heart of his narrative, Dalrymple, as before, tries to save history from becoming dry theory and to bridge the “chasm of time and understanding” that separates us from the people of yesteryear. The ploy, buoyed by his excellent prose and racy narrative, works wonders. Just as the much misunderstood Bahadur Shah Zafar had emerged the tragic hero of The Last Mughal, so does Shah Shuja in Return of a King.

What helps Dalrymple challenge accepted notions regarding characters and events is his unearthing of indigenous sources to tell the other side of the story that has gone unheard. Like the unused Mutiny Papers for The Last Mughal, he draws here on nine un-translated contemporary Afghan accounts, epic poems and autobiographies, including that of Shah Shuja. In Return of a King, the chasm of time and understanding is further breached by Dalrymple’s constant comparisons and reminders about the eerie similarity between the past and present in Afghanistan. The same tribes or sub-tribes face each other in the ongoing drama there, bases and cantonments of the Nato forces occupy almost the same sites as the British cantonments, the same misunderstandings plague the allies, the same battle cry for jihad against the occupying forces rent the air.

There are two things that rankle though. Despite their organizational skills, cunning and bravado, the Afghan rebels, who decimated a superior British force, do not seem to have earned Dalrymple’s confidence. He cannot stop insisting that it was tactical folly and weakness on the part of the British that did them in. The other problem is with the pregnant Alexandrina, daughter of Major General Robert Sale and the indomitable Lady Sale. As part of the retreating army, she must have undergone unspeakable hardship. Where does Alexandrina deliver? Despite his eye for detail, Dalrymple seems to have missed this bit.