Book Title: The Return of a King
Author: William Dalrymple
Publisher: Vintage Books
A serious work of history, William Dalrymple’s latest, The Return of a King, is a perfect read for anyone looking to delve into Afghanistan’s past. The silk route has been a hackneyed avenue for proxy wars for years together now – and was the hub of all conflict in the days of The Great Game. The chronicles of Britain’s ill-fated occupation of Afghanistan between 1839 and 1842 in this tome have come together in a classy rendition of history that leaves behind the text-bookish mould.
Think British Army deserters, hoards of spies and archaeologists as they deal with what Dalrymple calls “hookah-smoking” and “pyjama-wearing” traders from East India, and their “dashing Rajput warlords”. To Dalrymple, Afghanistan’s deliverance from under the yoke of British occupation in 1842 was a milestone in history as momentous as a combination of Trafalgar, Waterloo and the Battle of Britain. The British invasion was an attempt to keep Russia at bay in the region – which was achieved easily. The problem, though, was leaving Afghanistan. Even as the occupying forces found themselves greeted with hostility, they indulged themselves in vices of every kind. The King, Shah Shuja, was appointed by the British, and therefore quite the puppet in their hands. His ties with the British naturally make him unpopular among his people, and violence decides to rear its heads in the hands of protesters who decide to revolt against his rule.
The parallels Dalrymple draws with today’s Afghanistan are uncanny. One cannot help but pause at relevant moments in the book to weigh in on how the US troop drawdown in the country today has been reflective of a time of immense turmoil. Even as the US attempted to free Kabul from the Taliban, they were really no defence against much of the radicalism that prevailed. For anyone intrigued by how history repeats itself and how policy pretty much follows suit, this book is a great read!