Thursday, September 07, 2017

When History Repeats Itself

Each time I read a book by William Dalrymple, I wonder why our country does not produce such engaging scholar-storytellers. The book, "Return of a King" is no exception. It is meticulously researched and weaves a story that blends the contrasting versions of the victorious and the vanquished, into one 500-page, eminently readable tome.

In this book, the author also has is also a personal angle tucked away in the story. Dalrymple's great-great-grand uncle was an active participant in the Afghan wars, first as a bureaucrat in Punjab, and then as a soldier and prisoner-of-war in Afghanistan. So it also serves, to some extent, as the family history of a Scottish Highlander.

The book describes a period is spread across three centuries, from the time of Nadir Shah's invasion and plunder of Delhi in 1739 to the entry of British and US forces in the 1980s,  with the proclaimed intent of "fighting terror" and "restoring democracy" in what had become the stronghold of Osama bin Laden and his band of Arab fighters.

At the time of Nadir Shah, it was his Shiite Persian followers - the Qizilbash - along with his former soldiers, who formed the ruling elite of Afghanistan. The Sadozai clan was formed by a soldier named Ahmad Shah Abdali/Durrani who was to defeat the Maratha forces in the Third Battle of Panipat in 1761, while the Barakzai clan arose from a gunner is Nadir's army named, Haji Jamal Khan.

While the central theme is politics, intrigue and power-struggles between these two clans, the book makes you wonder about the Afghanistan that would have existed long before it was taken over by Islamic soldiers of fortune, and of the times when fighting "Jihad" against "Infidels" was not the rousing war-cry that destroyed a rich cultural heritage.

It offers glimpses of economic linkages cultural traditions that persisted even until the last century -- of Shikarpuri merchants whom kings approached to fund their war-efforts; of Nepali pilgrims visiting the remains of Hindu holy sites in the mountains; of regular raids that took place across the Khyber Pass into the plains; slave traders who flourished in the markets of Kabul, Khulm and Balkh, all the way to Bukhara.

You wonder what a different world it would have been a few thousand years ago, when Princess Gandhari of Mahabharata moved out of Khandahar to marry a king in the Gangetic plains, and then went on to blindfold herself and listen to a courtier's commentary of the internecine war that destroyed her dynasty.

Later, did Alexander's army too wreak vengeance on villages just as the British army did in the early 1840s? Did they also plunder and rape, torch villages and cut down all fruiting trees, just as the British did in the Jalalabad valley and in villages like Istalif, the Shomali plains (which is today home to the USAF base at Baghram)?

What thoughts would have crossed the minds of the thousands of people who were taken away as slaves - so many that an entire mountain range is now called the Hindukush ("Hindu Killer") where most perished? In this context, some of the narratives make you cringe, such as the one by Josiah Harlan that describes how Uzbek slave-traders sewed their captives to their horse-saddles:
"To oblige the prisoner to keep up, a strand of coarse horse-hair is passed by means of a crooked needle, under around the collar-bone. a few inches from its junction with the sternum; with the hair a loop is formed which they attach a rope that may be fastened to the saddle. The captive is constrained to keep near the retreating horse-man, with his hands tied behind his person, is altogether helpless" 
This story revolves around the return of a king, and yet, it reads like a play that has been performed many times over on the same stage. The costumes change, religious leanings change from Hindu and Buddhist to Islam; languages switch from maybe Kharoshti/Prakrit, Pali, and Sanskrit to Persian, Pashto, Dari and English, but the same tragedy gets repeated over and over again.


* GoodReads - "Return of a King" -
* Istalif village -
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