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Rare is a book that makes you sit up and take notice. Rarer still is one that sends a chill down your spine. William Dalrymple’s latest offering, Return of a King, does both and then some. Over the last two decades, Dalrymple has firmly established his reputation as a writer who knows how to narrate history without making it boring. He does that without resorting to gimmickry. He has only improved upon that trait in his latest outing.
The Anglo-Afghan War, for many, is a lost tale. With the exception of Punjab where a few see the era through the prism of the triumph of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, it has been forgotten. In the West, racks of books have been written on the debacle, including many life stories of the protagonists of the Great Game, Alexander Burnes and Ivan Vitkevitch. However, over time it slipped out of popular imagination.
Edmond Burke famously quipped, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The story of this debacle has come back to haunt the West as another defeat looms large in Afghanistan.
Return of a King is the story of two warring tribes of what is now Afghanistan – the Sadozais and the Barakzais, and the British misadventure of hoisting one of the rulers, Shah Shuja, on the “usurpers” Barakzais and a largely unwilling Afghan population. This, followed by the bloody rebellion that wiped out the 18,000 strong Company Army came to be known as the First Anglo-Afghan War.
Dalrymple brings in previously unused sources in English, including the fabulous translation of Maulana Hamid Kashmiri’s Akbarnama (the poetic biography of Barakzai Wazir, Akbar Khan), Waqi’at-i-Shah Shuja (Biography of Shah Shuja) and Naway Ma’arek. He has illustrated troubling parallels between the war fought 170 years ago and the one being waged now.
In fact, this stark resemblance is chilling: the British preference for heeding arm-chair bureaucrats rather than people like Alexander Burnes who reported from the ground, the desire to introduce Western customs, the knee-jerk reactions and more. The Americans today seem to have taken every leaf out of the debacle of their trans-Atlantic cousins 170 years ago.
The story also tells a lot about the Afghan mindset. Most of it is conveyed through the actions of a rather fractured Afghan resistance that took on the British. Backstabbing, treachery, and unspeakable brutality runs amok as readers realise that Afghans had no moral superiority over their imperial invaders. It also signifies how circumstances make legends out of strong characters such as Wazir Akbar Khan, who trounced the British in the absence of his father Dost Muhammad Khan, who otherwise would have been lost into oblivion.
But what makes this book a class apart is the way several sources have been woven together to present a balanced account of the War. You have colonial sources, including diaries and letters of officers on the ground. The Afghan point of view is taken up through aforementioned books. Then you have diaries of the Gorkhas and other Indian sepoys who participated in the war, most notably that of Moti Ram. You also have this rather spectacular account by Mohan Lal Kashmiri who, although on the payrolls of the British, was emotionally detached and rational to a frustrating degree.
On the other hand, the author has also made a valuable contribution by stripping legends like Burnes and Ivan Vitkevitch of whatever flab they acquired in all these years. More than their brilliance, what stands out are their ultimately fatal failings. Burnes’ escapades make for an engrossing read whereas Vitkevitch’s rise from a Polish prisoner-in-exile under Russia to the protagonist of the Great Game leaves you stunned. Indians will also find it particularly intriguing how Maharaja Ranjit Singh is presented with his own share of triumphs, failings and eccentricities.
The character sketches, especially of William Macnaghten and Charles Masson, are gripping. Somewhere between their failings and triumphs, one can start to understand how the best minds during the colonial era worked. It is in the art of historical narration of a much-told tale that the novelty of Return of a King lies. To call it anything less than a triumph would be an understatement.