Rediscovering history - The New Indian Express

Rediscovering history

Published: 18th December 2012 08:34 AM

Last Updated: 18th December 2012 05:58 PM

The legend is that 18,000 troops marched into a valley and only one man made it out to tell the tale. A legend that piqued historian and travel writer William Dalrymple’s interest when he noticed the parallels of the war. The story behind the disastrous (for the British) First Anglo-Afghan War of 1839 to 1842 is the subject of his latest book ‘Return of a King’ that Dalrymple was promoting at the Madras Club in the city recently.

 “I started reading about the war in 2006, as NATO’s war in Afghanistan started going badly,” he said. Like NATO, the British initially faced little resistance in Afghanistan. An easy conquest was slowly followed by resistance and defeat.    

 Karzai is more popular and has a democratic mandate. The Taliban is more fractured than the resistance in 1842. In outlining the narrative that his new book follows, Dalrymple touches upon the Afghan sources that, he says, have never been used before in English in writings about the First Anglo-Afghan War. These new sources provide the Afghan side to a story dominated by the British perspective. Excerpts from the interview:

Why the shift from travelogue writing to history?

Not a complete shift because there has always been a huge amount of history in the travelogues and a quite a lot of sense of place in history books… I wrote my first three travel books and indeed Age of Kali as a young man without kids running around with a backpack and suddenly in 1994 my daughter was born and it’s no fun at all going around … leaving your wife holding the baby. Not only is it not morally or ethically right to leave your wife holding the baby, it’s no fun to be missing out of these precious moments and so that is exactly when I wrote the White Mughals. But it wasn’t in a sense an unwelcome imposition because I very much felt that I had done all I could do with the travel book with Holy Mountain and I think that... is probably as good as I will ever manage (in that format). Maybe in the years to come I will have some idea, a new idea, and then do it again. But at the time it felt like I had three (travel books) one with In Xanadu, a very much youthful jeu d’esprit. City of Djinns was rather a different thing living in one place and was a different kind of book. And Holy Mountain was a more adult version of In Xanadu – fewer jokes, more seriousness and I thought that was a good moment to move on. Then followed these three big history books: White Mughals, The Last Mughal and, this one, Return of a King, which I think of very much as a trilogy. They are all narrative histories they are all about the relationship between India and Britain or South Asia and Central Asia and Britain. And they are all set in a very tight frame. They are all set within 50 years of each other…

And that’s become my specialist patch. I know that patch well now… and I kind of feel now, that I am at that stage again where I ought to try my hand at something different… My next project… I would love to some sort more close to cultural history. There has been nothing since A L Basham’s The Wonder That Was India, a great sweeping history of Indian culture. You’d have to find a very clever map through that landscape… too vast a field to begin to become comprehensive.

That’s actually one of the things Girish Karnad raised against Naipaul. He said that he didn’t look at the cultural history of India.

Girish based that criticism of Naipaul on an article I had written (“Trapped in the ruins”, The Guardian, March 20, 2004) in The Guardian and it was very flattering. An interesting debate because Girish generally doesn’t admire Naipaul in many ways... I do admire Naipaul but I think he is just wrong about his history and I can read India: Wounded Civilization and recognize it to be a brilliant essay but look at it also as a historian and recognize its history to be wrong. And those two aren’t necessarily contradictory. One is, you admire the prose, the argument, the verve with which he makes an argument, and the brilliant way he constructs an argument, puts it on the page, while disagreeing with the conclusion that he draws. I have no mental problem with separating those two things.

So you were talking about the cultural history?

Yes, there is this wonderful book I am reading at the moment which is a big cultural history of Russia by Orlando Figes Natasha’s Dance.

How would you find a structure for something like that?

That is exactly what I have to find… I have to find some way of doing it. Some handle…

You seem very productive!

I am very gregarious. I like parties and I like going out. But I combine that with a sort of Protestant work ethic. I write every day and I cut down on long writing commitments. The only thing I do other than writing is Jaipur which is eating up now about a quarter of the year. So I get a lot done simply because I don’t do anything else. I am not teaching for example. A lot of academic historians get caught in university administration… I just avoid all that. Which means I can actually do rather more work of history than many of my friends who are academic historians at institutions. They envy me because I can spend two months in Afghanistan. They can do that on some holiday but rest of the year they’re stuck at the history department negotiating finance or government grants or shit like that.

It must help that you’ve written some very popular books on history.

It’s very odd there are not more historians here managing to reach out to general readers the way their peers in the west do. Writers like Simon Schama… I don’t agree with Niall Ferguson’s views but I can only admire his productivity and his reach. And the energy with which he goes about his TV career. India is choc-o-bloc with brilliant historians. But in general they haven’t achieved the same levels of popular reception as Indian novelists or Indian travel writers. If I go into a big Borders (bookstore) in New York. I will find there all the Indian novelists. I will find there Suketu Mehta’s work and a lot of the non-fiction writers work but you’d struggle to find, or maybe find Partha Chatterjee or maybe find Ram Guha or Sanjay Subramaniam but it remains true that Indian historians have not conquered the reading public of the world.

Are they not trying?

I look at my contemporaries in England. People like Antony Beevor are writing groundbreaking books about Stalingrad which are winning the Wolfson Prize for History and the Samuel Johnson Prize, the big non-fiction prizes and they’re going on… Stalingrad sold 3 million copies. And to me that is a wonderful model. That provides a means for a historian to earn a living, to reach out to the public. That book was preceded by six years research in Soviet archives and Nazi archives…but it reads as gripping as a novel. My friend and colleague Ram Guha disagrees with me on this. He quotes all sorts of wonderful writers in Bengal and Hindi who are, he says, read in every valley in Uttarkhand and that may be true and I am not in a position to judge that. But it is certainly true that Indian writing in English has conquered the novel shelves in bookshops around the world and since then is making huge inroads into non-fiction but for all the brilliance of Indian historians, they don’t seem to be getting the audience yet. I mean there are many ways to be judging a successful book and if we were to just judge on sales, Chetan Bhagat would be the greatest towering literary genius of our days but equally it is true that as a result literate Indians are being fed a diet of less history than their equivalents in Britain or America. In America, every year there is a new biography of an American president. They seem to have an insatiable appetite for reading about presidents and you meet these scholars who spend eight years doing a Lyndon Johnson biography or James Adams and in Britain we have an insatiable appetite for the Second World War and the Tudors. Every year there is a new book on Elizabeth the First or Henry the Eighth or D-Day. Maybe it will happen. This year we have seen Pankaj Mishra’s book in Asian intellectuals which is the sort of book that has had a very international reception.

Speaking of history, you’ve mention that for Return of a King, you’ve used Afghan sources, not used before in English, to write on First Anglo-Afghan war and that those sources had been published in India before 1857. It would seem they are not obscure sources…

They are not obscure sources, and this is the surprise and this is very similar to the situation with the Last Mughal in that those Mutiny papers were not virgin there were scholars ... who had read these things and there is one man called Aslam Pervaiz who had written a full-length biography of Bahadur Shah Zafar but they did not appear in any English work.


Simply because I think people did not have the language skills and don’t make the effort and the previous generation didn’t regard it as important to make an effort. There is no way anyone today would write a history of Stalingrad without looking at Russian or German sources and yet up to now if you look at a wonderful book Thomas Barfield’s Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History , which is one of the best modern books on Afghanistan but it does not use one single source of diary. And there are many books on India which are the same...

Is that not criminal in a sense, to not try?

Well previous generations obviously didn’t regard them as important. It seems odd to us but there is a shelf of books on the First Afghan War and a shelf of books on the Mutiny and... this is the only book...

There are no Afghan sources used?

That’s what I was told by many scholars...There is a woman in Germany called Christine Noelle, she’d used them (the sources) in an economic history of Dost Mohammad’s reign. But this is the first book on the First Afghan War itself to use them and it really wasn’t difficult to get them, perhaps a bit dangerous at times. This is what happened to me looking for manuscripts in Kandahar (shows me a mobile phone photo of a bullet hole through a car window). It’s not exactly the same as going to the Indian National Archives.

Do you miss that part of working on something? The travelling?

I love it. I mean the really exciting part of writing a book like this is the travel, the looking at manuscripts, the detective stuff... the grind is writing the book which happens in year four, year five. And then you have to close off for a year.  When I write ... I’m not much fun to live with because I’m always thinking about it. I get up very early, I get up at half past five because I get that wonderful three hours between 5.30 and 8.30 when no one’s calling me...but the pro quid quo for that is I’m sitting down with my family for supper, they put on 24 or The Killing or something like that and daddy’s snoring!

Do you really believe China will be the next to go into Afghanistan (as mentioned by an Afghan in the book)?

China certainly played this far more cleverly than the British, Americans, Indians or Pakistanis. They bought the entire mineral rights and they’re not giving it back all without a shot being fired. “Why didn’t we think of that?” (Laughs).

You said in Britain it’s like folk wisdom that you don’t invade Afghanistan but there was an Anglo Afghan war II and III. So what did they learn from the first war?

Very little. Each generation seems to need to relearn this one.

But the results were better in II and III right?

In III. II and III weren’t quite as catastrophic as I. II was a kind of draw (laughs)... It is not actually militarily impossible to conquer Afghanistan. It’s just very very expensive to do it and you’re not getting anything back.

You’ve said this current war is a result of Bush and Blair being ignorant of history?


But do you think that having known their history, they would have done anything differently? They would have still gone in.

Well, no there were many other things you could do. Certainly what they shouldn’t have done is to allowed themselves to be sucked in the way they were. Technically would have been possible to put Karzai on the throne, set up a democracy and got out then. And what they didn’t do because they got distracted by Iraq. They were very popular in the beginning... In the early days the occupation was not an unpopular thing at all... but they never spent any money on roads or education or dams or any of the infrastructure. To this day when you arrive in Kabul there is a battered road in the city centre, not a streetlight anywhere. The poorest town in Pakistan, Bihar or Jharkhand is better off than Kabul and it’s worse from there...It’s a desperately poor, underdeveloped country. Afghanistan with a 100 years with a clear wind might make it up to Pakistan level. 

There is a National Intelligence Council report to the National Intelligence Agency in the US which says, among other things, that there are 15 states that are in danger of becoming “failed states” by 2030, including Pakistan and Afghanistan. Comments.

I’m not very keen on this phrase “failed state”. It seems to be used by Right-wing American agencies for very particular purposes. There is no question that Afghanistan has a very, very long and uphill task ahead it. And in terms of development, education, very bottom of the rung of all the countries in the world. The child mortality rate, GDP per capita, education, women’s literacy, in these areas there are very few countries in the world as badly off. And no one is optimistic about the future and what’s going to happen after NATO moves out.

You’ve said Afghanistan might become more fragmented?

It will almost certainly become more fragmented. That is a given. Whether it breaks up completely or becomes a federal...

What will that mean for the region?

Well, it’s not going to be great (laughs). It is very difficult to be very optimistic... It is impossible to imagine in the long term what will happen. I’m much more optimistic about Pakistan. Pakistan is a much more developed country than many people in India think and in all sorts of ways ahead of India. The roads for example in Sindh. Last year I was travelling through Rajasthan bumping around in an Ambassador on potholed roads, having a lovely time but you know, no one can tell me this is sort of development heaven. And the following week was in Sindh which had these fantastic Saudi-style motorways, cruising down them in a landcruiser at 90 miles an hour. There are all sorts of areas where Pakistan is weirdly ahead of India. And many many areas in which it is behind.

How is it ahead?

Roads being an example. The size of middle class houses. The average middle class house in Pakistan is bigger, better furnished than the average middle class house in Delhi, weirdly enough. But I think you get a very skewed picture of Pakistan in the Indian media for obvious reasons. And I am no more an admirer of Pakistan’s political system than anyone else is. Nor indeed am I anymore of an admirer of the Pakistani army (laughs).

You’d mentioned in an essay in The Guardian about how Syria was, before the civil war, a place of great tolerance...

Not political tolerance at all but had a great tradition of religious and cultural tolerance. It was a very odd country to visit because if you had come from somewhere like Turkey where development was much better, I mean Istanbul feels like Paris compared to Syria, and it had political parties and all sorts of stuff which didn’t compared to Syria. But in Syria you saw much more overt displays of religious minority activity, groups carrying crosses through the cities, large pictures of the Virgin flashing by and people sticking large crosses on the back windows of their cars which you would not see in Turkey.

And the Christians under Assad were much better off, partly because they were implicated in their regime... And the Christians are going to be very hard off, as are the Sufis, as are the Shias, as are the Kurds and other minorities. It’s a chill wind blowing through Syria at the moment and I think, like Egypt, it is likely to go through a Salafi Brotherhood phase before we see anything else. I think the Saudis are actively working to make sure the whole region is going to go through a year of puritanism. My strong feeling is that, in general, history shows that periods of puritanism, as for example happened in India during the Aurangzeb reign and the reigns that followed are followed by periods of ecstatic revelry like under Mohammad Shah Rangeel. Or Charles II in England after Cromwell. So it’s not a permanent thing but I think we’re going to see all the breweries in the Middle East close down, (laughs) and not many bikini shops.

What’s to look forward to at Jaipur this year?

Well after all that tamasha last year... it was very frustrating to be there because 1,20,000 people turned up to see the most incredible array of 250 authors, every session was packed and yet you open the paper the following day and it was all either about Oprah or it was about Salman Rushdie. The presence of one or the absence of the other. And there was NO reportage in most of the papers about all the incredible stuff going on. So this year we’ve tried to steer clear of all controversy. And we’ve avoided celeb names. I personally think that an ideal would be to ... have a model of cappuccino with a really big espresso shot and froth on top (laughs) and that’s a  good model  (laughs) - you don’t want to JUST hear about post-colonial critics going on...(pause) but this year we have lots (laughs) of post-colonial critics.

...We have Chakravarthy-Spivak we have Homi Bhabha...

Quite sober, huh?

It’s more sober this year – deliberately. I’m bored of reading just about the celeb fest. We’re going to force the journalists to report

Something that started so small with an indie feel, seems to have become this huge, mass, commercial thing...

It’s not commercial enough for any of us to have paid ourselves yet (laughs).

It appears commercial.

We’re providing, for free, without government grants education, entertainment for a 120000 people who don’t have to pay for a single thing. So I get pissed off when people say that it’s become commercial - I’ve never been paid more than expenses for all the years I’ve given up a quarter of the year (to work for the festival). And the newspapers in which these claims are made ... are choc block with adverts so why can’t we have adverts too... you only clearly have a free festival if you’re spaces are sponsored. So you have a choice. If we were Hay on Wye we’d be charging 20 quid (Rs 1800)... we would be charging Rs 2000 a ticket if we were doing international standards which of course would cut out not only poor students and poor people but also a lot of the lower middle class and would only be a festival for the Delhi elite. That is the tough choice. Either you rely on sponsorships in which case you would have to have banners for Tata Steel or DLF or something like that or you charge tickets... The route we’ve chosen is to go the democratic model. So when I see in Open magazine an article saying “why do they have upmarket drinks sponsorship” and then turn over the edge of the article and see a Teacher’s advert. That literally was the case. I think fuck you (laughs) Hartosh Singh Bal... I am very fond of Hartosh but both times very silly articles. Literally he said, fashion designers and liquor brands and it was edged on one side by a Jockey underpants, not exactly fashion but was sort of textiles and clothes, and the other side by Teachers...

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