William Dalrymple | "The greatest pleasure for a traveller who is writing a book is to nearly get killed"

William Dalrymple | "The greatest pleasure for a traveller who is writing a book is to nearly get killed"

William Dalrymple is recalling his research for Return of a King (Bloomsbury, February): “The greatest pleasure for a traveller who is writing a book is to nearly get killed. If it’s too easy, there’s no story afterwards. If you get killed, well, there’s no story either.”

In his rollicking look at the First Afghan War, Britain’s military incursion into the region in 1842, Dalrymple has certainly gone a mile or two further than most historians with his research—Bloomsbury could conceivably have included hazard pay in his advance. At the airport in Kandahar—dubbed the assassination capital of Afghanistan by the Western media—a sniper shot out the back window of Dalrymple’s car. Later, while visiting a shrine, he witnessed an IED blow up a US patrol vehicle.

He was keen to retrace the route of the retreating British soldiers from the First Afghan War, and was told that though the area was “hairy Taliban territory”, all had been calm for six months. However, the day Dalrymple set out, the government launched a massive offensive to burn the region’s poppy fields, resulting in pitched battles and scores of casualties.

Dalrymple and his guide were “driving merrily unaware along towards” the battles, and only avoided the fighting because they stopped in a village whose residents insisted on honouring his guide, a former Afghanistan wrestling champion, with a seven-hour feast. “We were saved by our gluttony,” Dalrymple laughs.    

The dangerous research conditions were worth it in the end, as Dalrymple unearthed some gems. In Lahore, Pakistan, he stumbled upon the largely heretofore unused complete archive of Britain’s spymaster of The Great Game—the term for the long, hot-and-cold war between Britain and Russia for supremacy in Central Asia during the 19th century. A friend in St Petersburg was able to get him the (recently declassified) remaining archives of Russia’s spymaster of the same period.

But the mother lode came courtesy of a bookseller of Kabul. In a tiny bookshop in the oldest part of Kabul were the libraries of a number of grand families who had fled Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion. Within that were six Persian-language contemporary sources, never before used in English, which told the story of the war from the Afghan side, including the memoir of Shah Shuja al-Mulk, the “King” of Dalrymple’s title.

“The holy grail for a historian is having three things come together,” Dalrymple says. “First is new material, second is a good story with a tight narrative and great characters, and third is something that has global and contemporary appeal. I was lucky enough to have all three.”

Hubris and a dodgy dossier

Part of the appeal to the modern reader of Return of a King comes in the lamentable parallels the First Afghan War has with Britain and the US’ current forays into Afghanistan and Iraq—including the tribal divisions that the West seems unable to understand, and hubris on the West’s part that the military campaign would be easy. Shah Shuja, the unpopular puppet Britain tried to install as ruler in 1842, came from the same sub-tribe as current president Hamid Karzai. There was even a “dodgy dossier”; a doctored report from a British “intelligencer” which said Russian agents were infiltrating Afghanistan. The report whipped up British political opinion and resulted in Britain’s invasion. The irony is that Russia did not try to move into Afghanistan until they saw the report too.

“I started thinking about the book in 2008 or 2009,” Dalrymple explains. “I realised that all the elements of the two wars that we were in, this horrible slow-motion disaster, were there. You know what’s going to happen because it already has happened in the First Afghan War.”

Yet for all its current geopolitical echoes, Return of a King’s strengths are—like Dalrymple’s two other history titles, the bestsellers White Mughals and The Last Mughal—in the characters and its combination of sprightly readability and serious research.

Keeping readers interested is what drives Dalrymple. “What I try to do is write what I enjoy most in history books as a reader: that it conforms to the shape of a novel, has a small, tight narrative with a limited group of characters—all of whom are interesting—and the action takes place in a limited area or a concentrated period of time.”

Staking territory

Edinburgh-born Dalrymple has lived in and written primarily about India since he graduated from Cambridge in the late 1980s, after travelling there “by accident” because a trip to Iraq fell through and a friend was going. He published his first travel book In Xanadu in 1989 at the tender age of 22, which he says is fortunate. “I never had a range of options open to me. I’m almost completely innumerate; I can never turn up to a meeting on time, so corporate life was out. I always thought I was going to turn out to be either an author or an archaeologist.”

Three other travel books followed, with the second, City of Djinns, a sort of love-letter to his adopted city of Delhi. He switched to history with White Mughals after the birth of his first child. “It’s much more difficult to be a travel writer with a family. With White Mughals I could write it from the library.”

His history books have centred around the sub-continent and Central Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries. “My younger self would be surprised to learn my middle-aged self would write about that period,” he says. “I was always a medievalist. But I’ve ended up obsessing about this period, this transition from Mughal to British. It’s a neglected period.
“It’s not the high point of Mughal power and it’s not the high point of British power. It’s like a borderland, a little territory which I’ve claimed.”

Personal file

1965 Born in Edinburgh, educated at Ampleforth College, North Yorkshire
1984-9 Trinity College, Cambridge
1989 Moves to India. In Xanadu published. Other travel books include City of Djinns and From the Holy Mountain. Awards include the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award (1994) and the French Prix d’Astrolabe (2005)  
2002 White Mughals, his first history book, published  
2006 Co-founds the Jaipur Literary Festival; The Last Mughal published

Book data

Publication date: 04/02/13
Formats: HB/EB
ISBNs: 9781408818305/ 9781408828433
Rights: US (Knopf), France and Poland, more tbc
Editor: Michael Fishwick, Bloomsbury
Agent: David Godwin, David Godwin Associates

William Dalrymple's Top Five

White Mughals
HarperPerennial, 9780006550969
Dalrymple’s first straight history book centres on an unlikely 18th-century romance involving a British East India Company employee.  

Books sold: 168,000 since 2002

From the Holy Mountain
Flamingo, 9780006547747
Dalrymple retraces the footsteps of two sixth-century monks from the Byzantine empire who travelled from the Bosphorus to Egypt.  

Books sold: 94,000 since 1998

The Last Mughal
Bloomsbury, 9780747587262
Dalrymple tells the story of the court of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II and the 1857 Siege of Delhi.  

Books sold: 65,000 since 2008

The Age of Kali
Flamingo, 9780006547754
A series of essays on travels in the sub-continent where Dalrymple encounters figures such as Benazir Bhutto.

Books sold: 65,000 since 2008

City of Djinns
Flamingo, 9780006375951
A look at the history, stories and characters of Delhi, Dalrymple’s adopted city.

Books sold: 56,000 since 1998