IT IS that time of year again when crowds of journalists, writers, publishers, agents, socialites, literary hangers-on, schoolchildren and, oh yes, readers gather on the grounds of Diggi Palace in Jaipur for the annual literature festival. Last year, an invitation to Salman Rushdie turned the festival into one of those grisly carnivals enjoyed only by political opportunists, the obscure thugs and soi-disant community leaders who use “hurt sentiments” as an excuse to threaten violence and the journalists who hang on every ill-chosen, ill-considered word. They’re at it again: the socalled scholars who want to ban books and their authors; the party zealots and jingoists for whom nothing matters outside the narrow, confining prism of nationality. How the organisers must wish, faced with the ranks of the righteous, for the time when their opponents were acerbic magazine columnists and the only threats were to a writer’s smugness, not his safety.
Six weeks earlier, I meet William Dalrymple, co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival, at a restaurant in Delhi. He is, not untypically, in bonhomous, expansive form. We are there to talk about his new book, an account of the first Anglo-Afghan war from 1839 to 1842, but with the hulking “monster” he has played so significant a part in creating almost upon us, we begin with matters Jaipur. He has made, he says, a particular “effort this time to remove from the list anyone who could be deemed to be ‘pop’ or ‘celeb’, so it’s a much more cerebral and intellectually pugnacious list than I think we’ve ever had before”.
Not that Dalrymple abjures the popular (his own books are ample proof of the contrary); it’s just that he is “so pissed off, frankly” by journalists’ fetish for celebrity and controversy: “People who were watching Jaipur only from the media would’ve got the impression that last year all that happened was that Rushdie didn’t come and that Oprah came in his stead. The fact that we had Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Tom Stoppard and David Hare, some of the greatest luminaries of our time escaped the reporting brilliance.” And the two-thirds, he is quick to add, of the festival run by Namita Gokhale, the “bhasha bit, which is even more underreported though those sessions are always packed”. Oprah, in fact, “invited herself, which is a measure of quite what a crazy beast Jaipur has become”.
Perhaps the comparison is facile, but the media’s coverage of the festival, the focus on its celebrity rather than intellectual heft, mirrors the press Dalrymple gets in India. Abroad he wins prizes, gives talks at the British Museum, writes in the New York Review of Books and is a visiting fellow at such universities as Princeton; here, at least in the pages of our newspapers and magazines, he is ‘Willie’, a bon vivant partying with the swells, a glad-handing impresario, as much as a historian and writer. Maybe it’s the enormous pleasure he evidently takes in his work, the self-admitted Boy’s Own streak that has him showing me a picture on his phone of a bullet hole in the rear window of his car in Afghanistan, a relic of a sniper’s missed shot. He beams, as if it’s all a rather jolly old scrape.
The photograph is from a research trip to Kandahar for his latest book, Return of a King, an account of the first Anglo-Afghan war. In his ‘Author’s Note’, Dalrymple quotes from the memoir of “one of the lucky survivors”: “It was, [the Rev GR Gleig] wrote, ‘a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, has been acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated.’”
As the US and Britain prepare to militarily withdraw from Afghanistan, the parallels are obvious. The idea for the book emerged in 2005-2006, as Dalrymple was finishing The Last Mughal, through conversations with the soldier-writer-politician Rory Stewart, then still working in Kabul with his Turquoise Mountain Foundation, about how dangerous Afghanistan had become, about the resurgence of the Taliban. “We’d been discussing taking the kids off on a big trip to the Minaret of Jam on camels and this by 2006 was becoming clearly impossible. Like many people, I grew up reading Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game, so I knew the outlines of the first Afghan war and the more I read, as the situation got worse, the closer the parallels looked. But it was only when I went to Afghanistan that it became dramatically apparent.”
“We in the west”, Dalrymple writes, “may have forgotten the details of this history that did so much to mould the Afghans’ hatred of foreign rule, but the Afghans have not. In particular, Shah Shuja remains a symbol of quisling treachery in Afghanistan: in 2001, the Taliban asked their young men, ‘Do you want to be remembered as a son of Shah Shuja or as a son of Dost Mohammad?’” Dalrymple remains astonished, as he tells me, that Hamid Karzai is from the “same tiny sub-tribe as Shah Shuja, the guy we put in 1840, the Popalzai, and the Ghilzai who brought down Shah Shuja are today the foot soldiers of the Taliban.”
There are details, though, as Dalrymple knows and points out, that the British do recall, naming a camp in Kabul after Thomas Souter, a captain and one of only two British survivors of the war. It is symbolic, whatever the cant about democracy and human rights, of the neo-colonial aspirations of the British and Americans. A lodge in Kabul, owned by a foreign correspondent, is named after Gandamak, the village where the last surviving British soldiers held out on a hilltop “encircled”, Dalrymple writes “behind a thin line of bayonets, as the Pashtun tribesmen close in”. Wollen’s famous painting of the scene became the enduring image of doughty British defeat. Of course, in reality, as Dalrymple tells me, with some relish, it is the “magnificent story” not of a brave defeat but of this “pompous army that sets off plumed, with foxhounds and bottles of cologne, with 120 camels carrying cheroots, another 120 carrying cognac and another 120 carrying the best claret and that these fuckers are destroyed in the snowdrifts and the mountains by a handful of Ghilzai shepherds.” If Dalrymple can be accused of a Flashman-style romanticisation of these Victorian imperial adventures, he cannot at least be accused of Niall Ferguson-like nostalgia for empire.
Shah Shuja, the hapless puppet king of the British, is like Bahadur Shah Zafar, one of Dalrymple’s sympathetic losers of history. The latter, Dalrymple says, was described to him by Amarullah Saleh, the former head of Afghan intelligence and a close reader of The Last Mughal, as “a despicable weakling”. Shuja is a classic Dalrymple character, drawn with a novelist’s sympathy (the pro duct of prodigious research reliant on Afghan book bazaars as much as British and Russian archives) for the failed, the cast aside, the misjudged. “Coming from a culture and a class that has had its day,” Dalrymple says, “and from a country that has had its day, I seem always to be interested in the end of things. From The Holy Mountain is about the end of Christians in the Middle East, The Last Mughal is about the end of the Mughals, this is ab out the end of the Durranis. I prefer sad songs.” It is a plaintive note on which to end, Dalrymple rheumy-eyed not just about the end of empires but the end of three books, nearly 2,000 pages and a decade devoted to 50 years of Indian history, that transitory period up to 1857 between empires when the British were still captivated, as Dalrymple is, by India, covetous of its culture as much as its wealth.
Shougat Dasgupta is Literary Editor with Tehelka.