In The Guardian:
How could you write such an off-message book, I ask Dalrymple. Even though he’s travelled overnight from his farm outside Delhi to his publisher’s offices in Bloomsbury, and left his wallet in India, he giggles amiably. “We have a very good record of defence secretaries saying clever things about Afghanistan. ‘They won’t even have to shoot a single bullet’ – remember that? John Reid. I was on a panel with him last year and reminded him.” He laughs again, and admits that the timing of the publication of Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan is not entirely fortuitous. “There was an element of calculation that this could happen – that they could withdraw some troops.”
And is the fourth occupation of Afghanistan, featuring Hamid Karzai’s western-backed regime, a debacle? “Well, Kabul is the safest place in Afghanistan by a long way. It’s almost like a French finishing school – lovely-looking French girls working for NGOs and handsome-looking French archaeologists digging away. But when I was last there last year you couldn’t go outside Kabul in safety. I wanted to go to the wonderful Buddhist monastery one mile outside the city – one mile – but couldn’t. Jalalabad – you take your life in your hands. As you drive there, you see burned-out cinders of other cars that have been hijacked. Ghazni is so dangerous that I’ve never been there. And as for Kandahar …”
Dalrymple pulls out his phone and shows me a holiday snap from Kandahar. A single bullet has shattered a pick-up’s rear window. “I was with a security company’s driver out at the airport – fortunately behind bulletproof glass. A sniper shot to the back of the head. This is the driver,” he says, showing me another photo, “looking chuffed to have met me.” Why were they shooting at you? “Because we’re an occupying army and they assume I’m intelligence or army up to no good.” More:
For all their posturing and weighty pretences, the Indian elite’s life of letters is still strangely beholden to the British. Hartosh Singh Bal in Open:
The British travelling to pre-Independence India were an extreme example. Younger sons with limited means of getting ahead in the UK, would land up in India and presume to lord over hundreds or thousands of Indians. The relation between the two countries has changed dramatically since, but the effects of journey remain.
There is still a vast expat community that enjoys some of the benefits of such travel from the West to India. In many professions, the journey does not offer much—a doctor or an engineer from the West would not overawe his counterpart here—but there remain professions where the advantages are enormous, especially those related to the written word, a reflection of the fact that English mediates our own social hierarchy.
This is most notably so in the case of a foreign correspondent. What would be a reasonable salary in London is outrageous in Delhi. A residence in Golf Links or a farmhouse in Mehrauli is perhaps not the best beginning to an Indian sojourn, especially when you add to this a lack of knowledge of a local language and easy access to the people who frequent the Niira Radia tapes, but it has its comforts.
The money, important as it is, is not the only factor determining the journey up the social hierarchy. Not all foreign correspondents are equal; there is a hierarchy even among them, which has much to do with our perception of the world. The importance of their country of origin is only one factor, a factor that would explain why those from the US matter but does nothing to explain the pre-eminence of British journalists long after their country has ceased to matter globally.
They remain inheritors of a Raj that still lingers. It even allows some of them to cap their tenure with an India book. Who else would have the temerity to sum up a continent after a two- or three-year stay confined mostly to Delhi? More: