Afghanistan is said to be a graveyard of many empires  but a divine gift to scores of  writers. Stunning and tragic,  victim of violence and conspiracies , hotly debated and often ignored, Afghanistan is the place everyone chronicles and no one seems fully to understand. And when noted Historian & Author William Dalrymple first announced about his forthcoming  book on Afghanistan during  Jaipur Literature festival   2012, I was  eagerly awaiting for its release with a berated breath.

First  about the author William Dalrymple. His  earlier books, notably  the ‘White Mughals’ and ‘The Last Mughal’  have been received well by the readers interested in political history. He has acquired a reputation of meticulous research, using characters whose virtues and vices are duly brought out, anecdotes (all stemming from his extensive research) , and  lastly a style of story telling which ties in his research and the characters beautifully. 

And now about the book. 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 Shah Shuja ul-Mulk, the Grandson of Ahmad Shah Durrani(Abdali) on the throne as their puppet. Along their inward march, the British faced little resistance. They  were thrilled with the ease of their victory and having settled they loved Afghanistan and its climate. They introduced cricket in the country and even considered moving their summer capital from Shimla to Kabul. But then, they started doing what all armies do — taking interest in the local women. This caused a great deal of resentment  with the Afghans fearing that the British were turning their country into a huge brothel .And within  two years of occupation, the Afghan people , led by Abdullah Khan and Wazir Akbar Khan ,rose in answer to the call for jihad and the country exploded into violent rebellion. The First Anglo-Afghan War ended in Britain’s greatest military humiliation of the nineteenth century: an entire army of what was then the most powerful nation in the world ambushed in retreat through the high mountain snow drifts, and there utterly routed by poorly equipped Afghan tribesmen.

Return of the King is an enthralling and elegantly written account of this  retreat from Afghanistan. The ghosts of the present haunt this book about the past. The author is far too an intelligent and subtle a writer to make too many overt references to the current War in Afghanistan but The Return of A King cannot help but resonate in light of  recent invasion of Afghanistan. Today, the U.S. was committing the same mistakes imperial Britain did, and the country’s geo-politics was responding in very similar ways. The same cities are seeing an exact replay of what happened hundreds of years ago.

The book is grand in scope, encompassing court life, the Great Game and military history. Dalrymple’s thumbnail biographies and marshalling of his material (which balances pace with detail) are excellent. Unlike most accounts of the retreat from Afghanistan the author gives due weight to the stories of Shah Shuja and Dost Mohammed. It seems that the author has uncovered some new sources to do so too.

The climax of the book revolves around the brutal and sad demise of the retreating British soldiers (and their Indian comrades), but this book is of equal interest due to the  follies of British politicians and intelligence officers. The only wise intelligence officer of the British administration,  Mohan Lal, a Kashmiri pandith, is alleged to have made repeated  pleas to his masters to mend ways or face a downfall. Failure to heed to his warnings  became a contributory cause to the defeat of British empire.

Speaking at Jaipur Literary festival  2013, the author made  mention of  an incident of  seduction of wife of  an Afghan noble, Abdullah Khan by an official  of the occupation army which provoked a Jihad against the colonial army finally culminating in their humiliating defeat. When I sent a link of this news to a dear friend, Dr. Altaf Hussain, with the comment that We Kashmiris need to pick a lesson  from the story, he retorted back “and India too”. I must admit to the superior wisdom of my friend  but whether India takes the point or not is another question.

The book consisting of  567 pages is reasonably priced at Rs. 500/- & odd (Post discount).I recommended it to those who are interested in the romantics of political history.

(The author is a practicing chartered Accountant. Feed back at