Friday, May 24, 2013

"Much of the Western journalism in Afghanistan today assumes that any Afghan who takes up arms against the West is a fanatical intolerant Muslim who is doing it for religious reasons"

William Dalrymple's new offering, Return of a King, is a fabulous account of the First Anglo-Afghan War and its disastrous consequences. As another defeat looms large in Afghanistan, he talks about the obvious parallels and divergences in an interview with Saurabh Kumar Shahi

What prompted you to write a book on the First Anglo-Afghan War? Did you find enough curiosity among the readers to lap up this subject?

The reason I write any book is not primarily what the readers want, I have to say. The first rule to write a successful book is you need to be passionate about it yourself. Having said that, I must add that it is a consideration. There are thousands of books I want to write on subjects, like my family history etc., who no one else will be interested in reading about. So, readers are a consideration. But it is not the only consideration. While I knew it would not be as successful in India as, say The Last Mughal; as the subject is not directly related to India, I expected it to sell in countries who are affected in one way or other by Afghanistan, including the 50-odd countries that are part of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). So I thought it was a risk worth taking. Although you are right, it is not a famous story anymore. Very few people know this tale and fewer still know Shah Shuja. So it was a gamble. But the story was fabulous - the simple cinematic image of 18,000 soldiers marching in a country and only one man managing to return past Jalalabad is a driving force. It is such a strong and eternal image that it will work for a thousand years to come.

The impressive bibliography suggests that you brought in a whole new set of research materials for this book, including those from Afghan poets, chroniclers as well as British officers. Often such materials tend to be partial and exaggerated and incorporate folklore...
Sure, it is a different sort of source to the British colonial source. So, if you have a letter from Lord Aukland saying I want to move 5,000 troops from Barrackpore to Lucknow, you can be sure enough that 5,000 sepoys moved. When an Afghan poet says “A hundred thousand brave horsemen charged over the hill and made the Firangis flee for their life”, you obviously don’t take it with the same literal sense. But it is incredibly helpful in many ways, especially the way it portrays Afghan attitudes, and also who the people doing the fighting were – their motives. As with much Western journalism in Afghanistan today which assumes that any Afghan who takes up arms against the West is a fanatical intolerant Muslim who is doing it for religious reasons. The interesting part is that in Afghan sources you get very distinct reasons. The religious factor is there, and it is expressed as it is in rhetoric. But individual reasons are well defined by the Afghan sources. Abdullah Khan Achakzai participated because his girlfriend was seduced by Burnes. Aminullah Khan Logari joins in because his land is taken from him. However, you have to use them carefully. But you use British sources carefully too as they come with their own problems, including incorporating the imperial views.

It is not difficult to see some very obvious parallels between the 1842 war and now. Was there a deliberate attempt on your part to illustrate these parallels or were they so obvious that they would have come to light even without a little help from the writer?

I guess it was so obvious that I did not need to overdo it. The only times I explicitly talk about the parallels are in the introduction and conclusion. In the main body of the book, except the odd footnotes where I pass through a territory and say that it is now a US base or garrison, nothing is deliberate. Again, I have also pointed out differences. I think it is important to say that Hamid Karzai, with all his corruptions and failures, is at least a democrat. And similarly, Mulla Omer, although he has great following in some areas in the south, especially in and around Kandhar, is by no means a dominating central figure of resistance in a way that Akbar Khan and Dost Muhammad were in 1842. But readers would be awed by the astonishing parallels nonetheless.  

Source : IIPM Editorial, 2013.
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