William Dalrymple’s Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-1942 adds to an already prolific and impressive oeuvre in the genres of travel writing, history writing, and writings on the urban or spiritual Indian present. The book is a capacious, lovingly-detailed account of British policy and action in Afghanistan in the first half of the nineteenth century, with a concentration on the two brief years of indirect occupation by the British. These two years were quickly followed by a disastrous rout and consequent flight from Afghan politics for decades. It is believed that this revolt of the population against the occupiers partially inspired the mutiny/war of 1857 (“fighting first broke out in regiments where the sepoys had been deserted their British officers during the 1842 retreat from Kabul”). Even beyond this, the book has an obvious timeliness — updated neo-imperial powers today occupy and share Afghanistan, and parallels may be facilely drawn.
In this chronicle of the 19th century, Dalrymple seems to be paying homage to the great 19th century European novel, in both its British and Russian iterations — Russophobia had an important catalysing effect on British paranoia and their ill-fated imperial adventure in what is today Afghanistan. The material seems ripe, the air thick with plot, the characters all operatic in their ambition, sense of adventure, and high melodramatic self-obsession. And since, on the whole, South and Central Asia is woefully under-researched, and under-represented in readable historical nonfiction, a case can be made that commodious detail can go some way in addressing the lack. If we can even begin to start looking at the maps of South and Central Asia beyond our present state-mandated prisms, and see the contingency and volatility of all administrative constructions of the regions even up to the present day, the book would have served much of its purpose.
However, such a book cannot quite have the creative involutions of plot that make the 19th century novel satisfying. Dalrymple feels obliged to follow the linearity of the historical events of a King’s flight, exile, reclamation, and malign death. A linear following of events on this scale (the book is over 500 pages) will not be to everyone’s taste or stamina. Though many would be happy to be lost in the fierce and deeply magical worlds up and away beyond seemingly-impassable veils of mountain ranges, many would shy away from such a bulk of historical, military and bureaucratic detail. For those who persevere, there is the reward of a many-layered tale — the book is helped by its maps, pictures, fine paintings, and a useful Dramatis Personae at the beginning. It is well organised and plotted, though here again, the level of detail sometimes obscures the plot. Dalrymple has plotted his material better in much of his earlier work, especially White Mughals and From the Holy Mountain. It is as if there is an eagerness to use every available source, and though the book profits from the use of some new Afghan and Russian material, it is still rather overloaded in its use of British ones. Though individually, many of the selections are chosen with care and wit, as a whole they add up to far more than would have been required to flesh the story. Every layer of British bureaucracy — London, Calcutta, Simla, various cities in Afghanistan — is used, often to little benefit, as they only seem to repetitively show the fumbling, and often callous, incompetence of the British administration even with regard to their own officers. This seems especially true as one travels higher up the administrative order; it is hard to hold all the characters, details, and events of the book in your head. Every event that can be sourced seems to be laid out — many readers would prefer an edited, shortened version, with a slightly more refined thesis than the fall that likely follows imperial hubris. No doubt, in today’s world, this is a thesis worth re-committing to memory, but it mars the liveliness, humour, vividness and lightness of the combing of sources that earlier Dalrymple works often afforded. Perhaps the best way for a persevering reader is to read in very small doses over several weeks.
The excessive use of detail has further casualties than smoothness of reading. One gets little sense of cultural subjectivity if so much is lost in the welter of realpolitik. Early on, Dalrymple frames the book in a way that is in risk of re-stereotyping the Afghans: he writes, “in many places blood feuds [tribal, ethnic, linguistic] became almost a national pastime — the Afghan equivalent of county cricket in the English shires”. By following only the political fortunes of Shah Shuja ul-Mulk, the Afghan King, the book gives us little sense of the larger intellectual interaction between a powerful, opinionated, traditional and literate society in the high Farsi-speaking Safavid and Timurid tradition and a European one that was defining the modern in terms of the new ideals of science and contractual governance (even if only in theory). There is little sense of the intellectual ferment that the British presence in South and Central Asia must have occasioned in Afghani intellectuals and in the courts. Perhaps this Afghan commentary on the modern is harder to source, but Dalrymple is further handicapped by the relatively poor quality of the translated poems that might speak to such an intellectual or aesthetic encounter. It seems unclear, at least to the reader who does not know the relevant languages, if the poor quality of the poetry is a fault of the translator or the poems themselves. At any rate, it does little justice to what one might imagine of the Afghan cultural mind.
Thus, the danger that the wider world will never be interested in Afghanistan beyond its geopolitical situation is not assuaged by this book. The many scenes of graphic, public, individually targetted violence — the British Envoy’s head being “paraded on the tips of spears, while their trunks were dragged through the streets, then skinned, and their hides hung from a meat hook in the bazaar” — bear the risk, especially when we have no deeper sense of Afghani subjectivity, of re-flattening notions of atavistic tribal violence. How is one to respond to casual footnotes such as the following: “British women below officer class were left to fend for themselves. According to the tribesmen I talked to in these passes, a great number ended up in local harems, while the less desirable ones were sold as slaves”? This is a difficult question for any contemporary writer to address — how does one adjudicate extreme cultural difference without judgment, without resorting to excessively abstracted realpolitik, or excessively psychologised theories (for example, that a key Afghan leader’s real hatred for the British stemmed from the fact that a British officer had seduced his mistress and travestied the leader’s attempt to bring her back)? Though the question is difficult, it is unavoidable, yet the narrative avoids posing the question of vast and tangible cultural difference in a strong fashion even as it ostensibly engages with the history of a country. This is where detail actually manages to evade.
Govind teaches at the Manipal Center for Philosophy and the Humanities