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