Kitaab Review: Return of a King by William Dalrymple

by Deepika Srivastava

Return of a King by William Dalrymple, Vintage, 560 pp.

Dalrymple Afghanistan

If you are one of those who wondered if History could actually mean ‘His’-story, then this is the book for you. Dalrymple, with his fluid prose, narrates the incidents of the First Afghan War, or the British Invasion of Afghanistan in 1839-42, with utmost clarity and vivacity. This war holds even more significance for us Indians, as the uprising of 1857 is said to be inspired from the Afghan war. As the reader closes the book, he cannot help but feel sympathetic for Shah Shuja-the supposed hero of the book, the hero who ultimately met a shoddy death at the hands of his own godson, and the king who the title talks about.

Vigorously researched, so much so that Dalrymple nearly lost his life, while doing the same, and immensely readable, Return of a King is history and literature at its best. The anecdotes by Mirza ‘Ata, Shah Shuja himself, British officers add colour and personality to a book, which otherwise could have been a mundane narration of history. During his perilous stay in Kabul, Dalrymple unearthed a plethora of lost, valuable literary resources. He made use of Afghanistan’s national archives, discovered the remains of private libraries abandoned by their aristocratic owners, epic poems and reconstructed a web of factions and friendships among the Afghan leaders, a world which blissfully eluded the British. The screeching details take the form of capsule biographies of almost each character. His words make the worst military disaster of the 19th century come alive for the reader. 

The plot of the story revolves around how post his defeat by the Barakzai ruler, Dost Mohammad- the once dashing Shah Shuja found shelter in Ludhiana under the British where he stayed in exile for over thirty years. The British invaded Afghanistan in 1839, brought down Dost Mohammad and placed their ally, Shah Shuja as the king. This defeat resulted in the loss of supporters for Dost Mohammad; Shah Shuja too, did not receive a warm welcome back home. Dalrymple with subtlety, hints at the transiency of British victory by mentioning that, Ghazni was captured in three hours just due to pure luck. The underlying cause for this was the fear of being overruled by the Russians, the fear of losing the acquired colonies to them. Ironically, Dost Mohammad and his family took shelter in Ludhiana, with much reverence from the British, but to the displeasure of Shah Shuja. Shuja was a mere puppet at the hands of the British and had his hands tied most of the time.

Alexander Burnes- the cunning and sharp British diplomat invites much intrigue. Dalrymple ensures that his clashes with MacNaghten, his colleague and Viktevich, the Russian diplomat have all the elements of literary grandeur. They are crisp, witty, engaging, and perhaps form one of the most interesting and crucial bits.

The Burnes-MacNaghten clash is the prime reason for the British disaster. Though at times overpowered by other factors and other characters, the author successfully establishes it as the deeply dug concrete foundation which uprooted the entire British construction. Dalrymple brings the clash to life with dialogue that evokes imagery and reactions from the reader.  One unconsciously roots for Burnes whenever he tries to negotiate with Auckland, and is bound to feel despair at his failed attempts. MacNaghten’s self-esteem and Auckland’s tomfoolery invite the wrath of the reader, and he/r is left twitching his/er eyebrows while imaging an alternative scenario with open eyes.  MacNaghten, who had access to less reliable resources, convinced Auckland to launch an attack on Dost Mohammad, at a time when he was at his political zenith. Auckland’s decision to go with the second hand (MacNaghten) and ignore the first (Burnes) drilled the final nail in the coffin.

One cannot help but wonder how egoistic megalomaniac tendencies can destroy individuals and what they are responsible for, such as countries and their political futures.

What followed was-“a war for no wise purpose”, bloodshed, brutality, plunder, death-of the people and the British alliance. The description of the war is heart-wrenching and can make the reader cringe. The terrible cold and deep snow completely took over the British soldiers, Indian sepoys, women, children, camp followers, who were frostbitten, frozen to death and perhaps forgotten until now.

After Shuja was crowned the king again, the philandering ways of the British and Indian troops attracted much hostility and fostered the tribes to fight against them. Burnes too, having found himself politically sidelined, got absorbed in sexual pleasures, and his affair with an Afghan slave girl resulted in his brutal murder. The conversation about women and marriage between Ranjit SIingh and Auckland, though irritating, makes for an interesting read. It simultaneously balances and strengthens the strong conflict the book discusses. Ranjit Singh, the one-eyed Sikh ruler, was suave and cunning and used the British, as well as Shuja, to his advantage.

The final chapter of the war- the British army of retribution, led by General Nott and General Sale was a decent success despite the extreme difficulties it faced. One ultimately manages to rejoice for the British too.

Amid all this, it is General Elphinstone who gathers most sympathy after Shah Shuja. Severely wounded, and burdened with responsibilities from the British administration, he perished in the most hostile and helpless manner despite being away from Afghanistan, while Akbar Khan, Dost Mohammad’s son invites extreme intrigue and wrath. The treacherous and dashing ruler was a vital figure in the uprising against the British. He exposed MacNaghten’s duplicity to the other Afghan leaders.  Akbar Khan ultimately saw the evening star due to his own father, who poisoned him, in fear of losing his popularity. Dalrymple’s unbiased approach in the treatment of his characters is highlighted by the above mentioned characters. Though the General comes across mostly as a silent spectator and a part doer in the war, he leaves an indelible imprint on the reader; primarily because of the author’s riveting description of his demise. The character of Akbar Khan itself emerges so strong that it hardly beggars a literary description. This treatment of every character, every event-weak, or strong, such that it impacts the reader almost equally is perhaps the most remarkable attribute of this book. The reader is at a loss when he/r has to decide which aspect to leave out of the literary debate in his/er club.

The British view of the Afghans-admired for their courage, sophistication; abhorred for their cunning, treacherous-represents a paradox. The British too are portrayed in all dimensions; their bravery, idiosyncrasy, and compassion. All the characters, that of Lady Sale, Lady MacNaghten, Dr. Brydon, Mohan Lal, the Kashmiri informant and the numerous accounts leave an indelible imprint on the reader’s mind and invite his/er compassion.  Dalrymple discusses the entire episode of the war and its peripheral factors with complete neutrality. One walks, marches, plots, talks, kills and dies, with each passing word and sentence. At the end, the reader cannot help but wonder-“what if a few decisions were taken with vision, how many lives could have been saved.”

DEEPIKA SRIVASTAVADeepika is an interior architecture student in Ahmedabad, with a passion for writing. Very quiet, her unspoken thoughts often find expression through her crafty manipulation of the alphabet. Her entry was shortlisted for the Jaipur Literature Festival and a few of her articles have appeared at Youth Ki Awaaz as well. Follow her at her house of reflections-