Saturday, August 30, 2014

#BookReview: Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan by William Dalrymple

On the jacket:

In the spring of 1839 British forces invaded Afghanistan for the first time, re-establishing Shah Shuja on the throne, in reality as their puppet, and ushering in a period of conflict over the territory still unresolved today. In 1842, the Afghan people rose in answer to the call for jihad against the foreign occupiers, and the country exploded into violent rebellion. In what is arguably the greatest military humiliation ever suffered by the West in the East, more than eighteen thousand cold and hungry British troops, Indian sepoys and camp followers retreated through the icy mountain passes, and of the last survivors who made their final stand at the village of Gandamak, only one man, Dr Brydon, made it through to the British garrison at Jellalabad. An entire army of what was then the most powerful military nation in the world was utterly routed by poorly equipped tribesmen. The West's first disastrous entanglement in Afghanistan has clear and relevant parallels with the current deepening crisis today, with extraordinary similarities between what NATO faces in cities like Kabul and Kandahar, and that faced by the British in the very same cities, fighting the very same tribes, nearly two centuries ago. History at its most urgent, The Return of a King is the definitive analysis of the first Afghan war. With access to a whole range of previously undiscovered sources, including crucial new material in Russian, Urdu and Persian, and contemporary Afghan accounts including the autobiography of Shah Shuja himself, prize-winning and bestselling historian William Dalrymple's masterful retelling of Britain's greatest imperial disaster is a powerful and important parable of neo-colonial ambition and cultural collision, folly and hubris, for our times.


Who doesn't love reading a Dalrymple! I sure do! Such a detailed study of a place, masterfully retold. 

When I started reading this book, I realised how less we know about our neighbouring countries. At least, I know very less. Afghanistan isn't exactly a neighbouring country (as much as the others), but it is a neighbour all right. A neighbour we hear and read a lot about. If you are a Bengali, you must have heard tales of the Kabuliwallahs travelling all the way from Kabul to Bengal, carrying dry fruits from their countries, to sell in India. Their stories have a mystical essence as well as a whole new world out there, to explore through the tales.

Return Of a King has in-depth account of the first Anglo-Afghan war, with Dalrymple presenting facts researched from Afghan, Indian and Russian archives. How Shah Shujah, who was ousted from his position, manipulates the British and gains his place on the Afghan throne. A story of the first 19th centure British invasion in Afghanistan; while it is basically a recount of the history, it is also a gripping novel. 

Best thing about this book is that a reader can literally jump into this thick, hard bound book of pure history of no worries about gaining incorrect knowledge of the history, because it's a Dalrymple book! And trust him to bring boring history back to life. Vivid sketches of recount of incidents, wars and invasions that happened decades ago are stated in a brilliant way, making them alive. A brilliant read, no doubt.

Rating: *****/5

[This review is for Bloomsbury India. The opinions are strictly my own and not been written under any obligation.]

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