This November, author William Dalrymple, 48, could make history. The historian and author has been shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize 2013, UK’s most prestigious non-fiction award for his latest book Return Of A King. The book is about the First Anglo-Afghan War and the defeat of the British troops against simply-equipped Afghan tribesmen. Dalrymple details Great Britain’s attempt to control Afghanistan by putting an ousted king back on the throne, a plan that went horribly wrong. He speaks to Joanna Lobo about meeting Hamid Karzai, briefing the White House and his fourth attempt at the Samuel Johnson prize.
How do you compare the situations in Return Of A King to present-day Afghanistan?
There are many parallels. The West is back and occupying the same cities, the tribal configurations have remained the same. In both cases it wasn’t a straightforward military defeat. The British did not have to leave, they chose to...likewise the Americans haven’t been defeated, they left because they gave up. It was an economic defeat — the stalemate was expensive in terms of money, weapons and people.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai is said to have read Return Of... A King ahead of a meeting with US President Barack Obama?
Hamid Karzai read my book very thoroughly indeed. He invited me to Kabul in March. I spent a week with him talking about his life. According to his staff, he gave me more time and access than the whole international press corp received in the last two years. I will be writing about that for the NYT magazine. I am also considering writing a history of the Indo-Pak conflict but am holding back because this could be the best possible way of losing every single friend I’ve made. I may have to keep away from both countries if I write this.
You have written about the connection between India, Pakistan and Afghanistan
I think there is a link there. The critical fact remains that there are elements in the Pakistani security establishment that support the Taliban. They are terrified of India and are quite against the idea of a pro-India government in Kabul. Pakistan is very afraid of India. There are several people, intellectuals even, who discredit this fact but it is true.
Do you think there is a real threat of a nuclear war in the future?
There is certainly a possibility. There is no probability, it can definitely be avoided. One of the things I found out during my research from two sources was that the Pakistani Air Force had fixed nuclear pods to the underside of the F16 jet wings during the Kargil War. The Americans came to know via satellite. It was during this time that Nawaz Sharif was called to Washington and on being questioned, he admitted that he had no idea.
In May you briefed security and defence personnel at the White House. What did you tell them?
Well I wasn’t telling them how to run their whole occupation. I gave them the lecture that I give elsewhere about my book. I wasn’t sitting around with Michelle Obama and the kids as some people reported. The White House has quite an excellent tradition of inviting historians to come and speak. How else will politicians learn the lessons of history if they aren’t taught it?
This year has been quite a rewarding one for you and now the shortlist. How does it feel?
It’s been a good 12 hours for me. I am just back from being awarded the GQ Indian Writer of the Year and now the shortlist. I have been nominated thrice before but not one of them made it through the shortlist. It seems like a jinx, a curse. This is one prize that one always escaped. I haven’t read any of the other books but I think Margaret Thatcher is definitely the favourite, an establishment choice if you like. What I am most pleased about is that with this shortlist, I am halfway to being an Indian writer of repute.
Do you not consider yourself an Indian writer?
It feels nice to be called an Indian writer. I cannot be completely Indian, it’s a classic case of any immigrant. At times I feel very close to this country and at times I feel like a stranger. The reality is I am a gora, I look different, I have a British passport. I am happy because this is the first time an Indian-based author has been shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize.
But Indian authors are winning awards globally.
India has a long tradition of making it to fiction prize shortlists but lags behind in non-fiction. There has been a disparity where India appears weaker in the non fiction categories — history, academics, travel writing, journalism. Now, there is a wave of non-fiction coming out of India.
There are amazing Indian writers like Ketan Mehta, Ramachandra Guha and Sonia Faleiro. All awards are important and as the director of the Jaipur Lit Fest, they help me select which authors to invite.
What is your selection for next year?
Jhumpa Lahiri. She will be coming to Jaipur next year. I love Jhumpa Lahiri. I have her latest book on my bedside. She is fantastic. I think she is at the top of the profession internationally.
Book: Return Of A King
Publisher: Bloomsbury India
Pages: 610 Pages
Price: Rs 799