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All historians should attempt to rewrite history as they see it: William Dalrymple

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Dec 07, 2012 at 05:53pm IST

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In the spring of 1839, the British invaded Afghanistan for the first time. Led by lancers in scarlet cloaks and plumed shakos, nearly 20,000 British and East India Company troops poured through the passes and re-established on the throne Shah Shuja ul-Mulk. On the way in, the British faced little resistance. But after little more than two years, the Afghans rose in answer to the call for jihad and Afghanistan exploded into rebellion. The First Anglo-Afghan War ended in Britain's greatest imperial disaster of the nineteenth century: an entire army of what was then the most powerful military nation in the world ambushed in the snows of the high passes, and there routed and destroyed by simply-equipped Afghan tribesmen. This first disastrous entanglement in Afghanistan has important lessons for the present. Using a wide range of new sources from Afghan, Russian, Indian and Pakistani archives, including a series of previously untranslated Afghan epic poems and biographies, "Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-1842" is a definitive analysis of the First Anglo-Afghan War, and an important parable of colonial ambition and cultural collision for our times.

The author, William Dalrymple, joined IBNLive readers for an interaction on his book and more.

Q. When is the formal book launch happening? Asked by: Susanne

All historians should attempt to rewrite history as they see it: William Dalrymple

"Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-1842" is a definitive analysis of the First Anglo-Afghan War.

A. Tomorrow in Delhi and then the tour begins for RETURN OF A KING!

Q. What happened to the families of British soldiers? Were they killed or did they too flee? Asked by: chinmay

A. Many were killed, some were captured and the rest enslaved. I met several Afghans who claimed their great grandmothers were British memsahibs captured on the retreat from Kabul. That's all folks! Go buy the book!

Q. What could India stand to gain from a war-torn and dilapidated economy? Defence or Natural resources? Asked by: Honestraj

A. Very little, except that it matters so much to Pakistan. If the Indians were clever, they could may be reach a deal whereby they agreed not to interfere in Afghanistan in return for a Pakistani promise not to interfere in Kashmir.

Q. Mr Dalrymple, what is the most special thing about this book and what made your mind to write a complete book about only one war? Asked by: Bhushan Sharma

A. The two things I am most proud of in this book are the prose and the research, especially finding the fabulous Afghan sources.

Q. Sir, you are a first-rate historian. Please elaborate how the first Anglo-Indian war affected Indian historical course. Asked by: chinmay

A. The First Afghan War was hugely important as a precursor to the 1857 Uprising. Accounts of British defeats in Afghanistan electrified the elites of north India. There was a huge demand for accounts of how it happened and it was in sepoy regiments which were deserted by their officers that the Mutiny began, led by veterans of the Afghan war like Subedar Bakht Khan.

Q. You are seen by some as a revisionist historian. Do you agree? Asked by: nagendra

A. I'm never quite sure what that means. All historians should attempt to rewrite history as they see it. There is no point just repeating what earlier generations of historians thought.

Q. What is the aret of this book and which company has published it? Asked by: nagendra

A. The book is the first to be published by the new imprint Bloomsbury India.

Q. Does the ongoing NATO war confirm that Afghanistan is a difficult country to win against, something that the first Anglo-Indian war proved? Asked by: subbalakhsmi

A. It's hard to disagree with that!

Q. Sir, did the Afghans succeed because the British were unaccustomed to the inhospitable and rugged climate? Asked by: chinmay

A. That was one factor. Economics was a major factor as well. It almost bankrupt the East India Company to occupy Afghanistan as Afghanistan could not be taxed into paying the cost of its own occupation in the way India could. The same factor was very important in causing the Soviets and the Americans to wish to withdraw their troops. Their defeats were as much economic as military.

Q. If you were to describe one defining moment you experienced while researching/writing this book, what would it be? Asked by: Priya

A. Getting a sniper shot through the back window of my car at Kandahar airport!

Q. Is it difficult to find a market for non-fiction books that chronicle history? Asked by: Ankita

A. No- there is a huge demand for well written history that is barely being met at the moment, at least in India. Everywhere else in the world biography and narrative non-fiction are major genres but they hardly exist in India as yet. Only Ram Guha is excavating the same seam and he is at work on a very different subject: 20th C Indian political history.

Q. Would you classify 'Return of a King' as fiction or non-fiction? Asked by: Sandhya

A. I only write non-fiction. My one effort at fiction-- a terrible short story commissioned by the Spectator -- was enough to convince me that fiction was never going to be my strong card...

Q. So much about India, especially Delhi (The Last Mughal & White Mughals) and now straight to Afghanistan? Was this pre-planned, as in a way to plan out your future historic books, or did something specific steer you towards it? Asked by: Debolina Raja Gupta

A. This is partly a book set in India too. It's as much a book about the East India Company as White Mughals and the Last Mughal.

Q. You've re-created so many stories behind so many historical monuments. Have you ever thought of coming out with a book of photographs, depicting these monuments through a new eye and angle? Asked by: Debolina Raja Gupta

A. Not a bad idea, Debolina!

Q. Almost all your historic works have been centred on and around India. Is your long-term love affair with India a reason for this, or is it vice versa? Asked by: Debolina Raja Gupta

A. Yes, India is now my home and the centre of my life. I love it here and don't imagine I will ever leave for good. Most of my ideas for future books have Indian subjects, though there are books I would love to write about Scotland and the Middle East. At some point I would love to revisit the subject matter of From the Holy Mountain and write about the Ottomans.

Q. How long did you have the idea for this book in your head? And how long did it actually take for you to research on and finish the entire draft? Asked by: Debolina Raja Gupta

A. From start to finish about seven years: quite a lengthy affair, even by Dalrymple standards. But of that the first two were given over to preliminary reading while I was writing Nine Lives, and three for serious archive research. I only started writing in May 2011 and finished the first draft in April 2012. I was still making major changes to the second proofs six weeks ago.

Q. I've heard Maharaja Ranjit Singh did not allow the British to use his territory for the Afghan expedition. What was the reason for that? Was it a wise decision? Asked by: akshay

A. It was a very wise decision. The British Army of the Indus laid Sindh and Baluchistan waste as they passed by. Ranjit was a class act. The British wanted the Sikhs to fight a British war for them. In the end Ranjit Singh got the British to fight his war for them, and take out his mortal enemy Dost Mohammad.

Q. What are your words of advice to budding writers? Asked by: Rhea

A. Keep writing, clear space to write properly and don't give up: your early drafts will always always depressingly bad, even for established writers. And always remember: re-writing is every bit as important as the writing. Read widely. Strive for perfection.

Q. Could you elaborate on the research you did for this book? Asked by: Rasika

A. My main research effort was concentrated on finding Afghan sources to compliment the already voluminous British accounts of the war. So I made extensive visits to Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010 and came home with nine previously unused Persian-language accounts, including two wonderful epic poems and the autobiography of Shah Shuja. Many of these Afghan accounts were originally printed on the Persian presses of India in the run up to the 1857 uprising. I also accessed the archives of the Russian and British spymasters of the incipient Great Game in Lahore and in Moscow. Then there was the fabulously detailed records of the Calcutta government and military high command in Bengal, now filed in the Indian National Archives in Delhi. It was a massive project that took nearly seven years from first idea to completion.

Q. What can I do to get an autographed copy of the book? Asked by: Sailee

Flipkart is offering signed books for all pre-orders.

Q. Which is your favourite book? Asked by: Monisha

A. My favourite novel? "War and Peace". Favourite travel book? Robert Byron, "The Road to Oxiana". My favourite books of short stories, Daniyal Mueenuddin's "In Other Rooms", "Other Wonders". My favourite history book- Steven Runciman's "Fall of Constantinople, 1453". Or are you asking me my own books? Well I always love my most recent baby, in this case "Return of a King". I think it's much the best of my three history books, and much more tightly written than either White Mughals or Last Mughal.

Q. What do you attribute your success as an author to? Asked by: Jason

A. Haha.. my books, I presume!

Q. Do you take critics seriously? Asked by: Suhas

A. India has a very mixed bunch of critics. Some-- Pankaj Mishra, Chandrahas Chadhury, Supriya Nair, Mihir Sharma, Samant Subramaniam - are fantastically bright and literate. But the second division contains some real duds. So while I take all intelligent criticism seriously, you can get some really silly stuff too that is best ignored...

Q. Considering that you cater to an audience with a slightly intellectual bent of mind, what is your next book about? Have you started writing it yet? Asked by: Jaya

A. I'm not sure yet, but I'm currently reading Orlando Fige's wonderful book, "Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia". It would be wonderful to try and write an Indian equivalent, for while I can't conceive on how you would begin to write a political history of India, it might be possible to write a cultural one, given the underlying cultural unity that exists in sub-Himalayan South Asia. I have a vague impression of the landscape I would like to explore, but no map through it as yet. Let's see...

Q. How difficult it is to come up with original historical research in this era of internet and Wikipedia? Asked by: Rajnish

A. In South and Central Asian history there are still huge opportunities to discover major caches of new documentation. Delhi, Lahore and Kabul all contain remarkable archives whose depths have not even begun to be plumbed...

Q. Do readers get a chance in future to have similar phenomenal books that give us a glimpse of the history of your birthplace, Scotland? Any plans? Asked by: Debolina Raja Gupta

A. I have all sorts of ideas for Scottish books, especially one on the Massacre of Glencoe, in which my ancestors played a lead role. But my life is currently in India and I'm not sure if or when I'll ever return to my roots...

Q. Hi William..This is Tim from Nottingham, UK..I have read so many of your books and they all have been excellent..My compliments to you..My question is will the Taliban take back Afghanistan in your opinion? Asked by: Tim, Nottingham(UK)

A. The Taliban already control 70% of Southern Afghanistan. They are likely to be a major force in whatever government or governments come to power after the Americans leave...

Q. What is the most photogenic spot/monument you noticed in Delhi during your fact finding mission while writing "The Last Mughal"? Asked by: Vikram Gupta

A. In Delhi I love the Zeenat ul-Masajid in Daryaganj which originally stood above the Yamuna waterfront. In Afghanistan for this new book it was the great Timurid madrasa of Gauhar Shah in Herat.

Q. Describe your book in one word! Asked by: Supam

A. Fireworks!

Q. Was the threat of Russian outreach to Afghanistan exaggerated or was it real? Asked by: chinmay

A. There was an effort to open diplomatic relations between Russia and Afghanistan. But this was manipulated by British hawks into a much bigger threat than it really was. By 1839 the British had persuaded themselves that the Russians were about to charge down the Khyber Pass and seize British India.

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