In pursuit of a king

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By William Dalrymple braved snipers and criss-crossed Afghanistan to bring to life the story of a disastrous 19th century British expedition into the country, says Samita Bhatia
  • Published 20.01.13

William Dalrymple braved — and escaped — sniper shots in Kandahar in Afghanistan as he went digging around for new material for his latest historical saga, Return of a King. He carries a picture of the bullet-ridden car on his mobile phone as remembrance of that heart-stopping moment.

As a historian and journalist, Dalrymple’s prepared to take small risks, but insists he’s not suicidal. “I’m not the kind of war correspondent who makes for the first sniper and tries to interview him!” he laughs.

Dalrymple, the Scottish writer and historian who’s made India home, is all charged up. Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-1842 (Bloomsbury) hit Number 1 on bestseller lists within weeks of its India launch. What’s more, his 2002 chartbuster, White Mughals, is to be made into a film directed by English actor Ralph Fiennes (the villainous Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter).

Once the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) gets over he’ll be off to launch Return of a King in Britain and the US. He’s never been busier.

In his newest book, Dalrymple has tackled the First Afghan War — the disastrous British military foray into Afghanistan, between 1839 and 1842.

In telling the story of this catastrophic expedition and the British-backed reinstatement of Shah Shuja, the last Sadozai Durrani ruler, Dalrymple has brought together a giant cast of characters. The book also offers archival images of the dramatis personae and maps.

Afghanistan has been on Dalrymple’s radar since 2006 when he was finishing writing The Last Mughal. “I saw parallels in the current war in Afghanistan and the previous war in 1839,” he says. He knew about that war as his favourite book is

Peter Hopkirk’s classic, The Great Game.

He had started reading up on The Great Game — a term used to describe the rivalry and conflict between the British and Russia in the 19th century for supremacy in Central Asia — as he thought it was a great subject for a book.

So, he trooped to the archives in Lahore in late-January 2010, when he was in Pakistan on the last leg of his Nine Lives book tour. In the Punjab State Archives he “mined” the almost unused records of the first Great Game spymaster, Sir Claude Wade.

During his research Dalrymple visited the Bala Hisar fortress in Kabul: abandoned Soviet APCs inside the
fortress; (top) troops at the site, which is now the Afghan intelligence corps headquarters

Return of a King (the third of the trilogy that includes White Mughals and The Last Mughal) saw him make two six-week trips into Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010. He visited Jalalabad, Kandahar, Herat and lots of places in-between. He did a big sweep of archives and visited many of the war’s key sites including Bala Hisar, once Shah Shuja’s citadel and now the Afghan army’s intelligence corps headquarters.

But mainly he was hunting down Afghan sources. “Hardly a line has been written about this war, which has made the slightest attempt to access what the Afghans were thinking,” he says.

The National Archives of Kabul didn’t offer much. However, he found a rich haul at a second-hand bookstore in Kabul. The book dealer had been buying up the private libraries of Afghan noble families when they emigrated during the ’70s and ’80s. A thrilled Dalrymple laid his hands on eight previously unused Persian accounts of the war. “I left the shop £500 poorer though,” he smiles.

Does he approach his history books as a historian or a novelist? He says: “I approach history books as works of literature. The word history has ‘story’ embedded in it.”

Research for his books usually overlaps. Even when he was busy with The Last Mughal, he was doing background reading for Return of a King between 2006 and 2008. Between 2009 and early-2010 he did serious archive research in Lahore, London and Delhi. He wrote between May 2011 and April 2012 which was followed by five months of rewriting.

“My wife says that I have never been more abuzz than when I was working on the book,” he says.

Writing always happened on the patio/sundeck in his sprawling Delhi farmhouse where his last three books have been written. The Dalrymples practically live off the land. They are largely self-sufficient and grow vegetables and get milk and meat from their goats.

“By nature I’m garrulous and an extrovert but I have a capacity to lock down. I have a steely side to me that’s extremely disciplined,” he says. His working day begins at 6am when he makes corrections on the previous day’s writing. By 10am he’s working on new material and writing through till 2.30pm.

A break for answering emails and routine tasks — paying the bills, shopping and taking the dogs out — follows. And he gets back to writing between 5pm and 9pm. “And finally I’d fall asleep like an old man in front of the television,” he laughs.

Now that he’s donned his JLF cap he’s busy finalising the nitty-gritty. He says that since he and Namita Gokhale (with whom he co-founded JLF) are writers, it gives them an edge. So, Dalrymple’s international list of authors is two-thirds made up of people he’s met before.

He was irritated last year that despite having a host of cerebral writers the festival went into a meltdown over the absence of Salman Rushdie and the presence of Oprah Winfrey. “We vowed to make JLF 2013 a celeb-free year and to cut all the frothy bits. So, my list has the super- academic and intellectual authors. It’s going to be a bleak year,” he chuckles.

Expect to hear historians Orlando Figes (author of Love in a Very Cold Climate), Frank Dikötter (of Mao’s Great Famine fame), Pico Iyer, Pakistani authors Nadeem Aslam and Mohammed Hanif and Sebastian Faulks from London. Since art is a focus, guests include Glenn Lowry, director of New York’s The Museum of Modern Art and sculptor, Anish Kapoor.

And he’s already thinking of his next big project — a sweeping cultural history of India.

Dalrymple — whose travel books like In Xanadu, City of Djinns and From the Holy Mountain are still talked about and selling — rules out travel writing. “Travel writing should be a young man’s genre and is less for a middle-aged man with kids. But perhaps when my kids have flown the nest I will return to it.”