Basharat Peer interviews William Dalrymple about his new book in the Hindustan Times:
William Dalrymple can be deceptive. He cultivates an image of nonchalance. It is rare to see him pontificate about the difficulties of research across languages, and the art of popular history in a social setting. He is most likely to speak about a hike or a trip to Istanbul. Then, a few years pass and he has produced another tome of meticulously researched history. Dalrymple's gregarious exterior hides a disciplined writer, who disappears from public view for months, looking for unused manuscripts, finding the right translators, and typing for hours on a wooden desk in a hut in a corner of the garden of his house in Mehrauli. For his new book, Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-42, Dalrymple worked in archives in Delhi, Lahore, and Kabul, and found the most important Afghan accounts of the first British-Afghan war in an old Kabul bookshop. Here are excerpts from an interview:
What made you write this book?
There are a lot of books about Afghanistan, but few about Afghan history. What brought me to write this book was thinking about Afghan history after rereading Peter Hopkirk's classic The Great Game. It is a bit dated and features a lot of “treacherous Orientals”. Return of a King is the first book about the first Afghan war using Afghan sources, telling the stories from an Afghan point of view as well. It is the defining conflict that the Afghans remember as the source of their independence that they alone in this region never succumbed to colonial rule. 18,000 soldiers of the East India Company marched into Afghanistan in 1839 and, according to legend, one man returns alive from this debacle. The British army is destroyed at the peak of the British Empire.