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Historian, travel writer, and co-founder of the Jaipur Literature Festival, William Dalrymple took to the Sydney Writers' Festival stage on Thursday to talk about his most recent book, Return of a King. I had the privilege of chatting with him before his impassioned address about his writing and how it has changed since his first published book over two decades ago.

Festival goers flick through William Dalrymple's, Return of a King, after his talk at the Sydney Writers' Festival 2013. Photo by Drew Rooke

Nineteenth century philosopher and poet, George Santayana, who famously said that “those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it”, would applaud William Dalrymple for his most recent masterpiece, Return of a King (2013). This is a book which proves the history of now infamous Afghanistan has not been learnt.

Dalrymple took to the Sydney Writers' Festival stage early Thursday afternoon to speak about this important work and the lessons we are yet to fathom. Earlier in the most spontaneous of interviews, he had told me that “you write a book because you are thrilled by that subject”, and his hour in front of a packed Sydney Theatre was proof of this.

The book is an engaging historical narrative recounting the British East India Company's (EIC) first invasion of Afghanistan in 1839 to reinstate Shah Shuja to the throne, gain control of what Dalrymple terms “the gateway to Asia” and cement their control of India and Central Asia. They did conquer the native Afghans, but ruled witlessly, were driven out by Afghan tribal forces and retreated with calamitous consequences in October 1841.

A penchant for history has not always been at the heart of Dalrymple's writing. He began with In Xanadu (1989), a work of travel literature retracing his own exploits across Central Asia in the footsteps of Marco Polo. However Return of a King completes a trilogy – started by White Mughals (2002) and The Last Mughal (2006) – with a focus truly shifted towards all things historical. Why the change, I asked?

He leant back, a little too excitedly and bumped the table behind, spilling his coffee. “Travel books are all one plot," he reflected, "and I was haunted by the image of getting older and older, aged 70 and having to bicycle around Ireland to get a story and certainly the work getting less and less fresh.”

The other reason: he married and started a family which is not very conducive, he laughed, to travelling through the most isolated parts of India in search of sacred traditions, the subject of his 2009 book, Nine Lives.

Now living in not-so-isolated Delhi, Dalrymple admits he has a strong love for India. I put it to him that perhaps he is addicted to chaos. "It's not so much the chaos, but more the colour and vivacity," he replies. "My life is always changing and what I love about India is that it changes with me."

In his address to the Sydney Writers' Festival crowd, Dalrymple passionately invited us to have a change ourselves, to journey away from damp, drizzly Sydne to Afghanistan in 1837. We had little choice but to accept. The sight of this broad-figured historian pacing the stage, backdropped by archives of exotic Afghan art, and echoes of his fervent, deep voice speaking of the EIC's incompetency and failures in Afghanistan, was completely engrossing to anyone there.

Even more captivating was Dalrymple's tales from the four journeys he made to Afghanistan in researching the book. Risking his life, he followed the path of the British retreat of 1841 which now lies in Taliban controlled territory and narrowly avoided a dramatic firefight at Gandamak between Taliban and Afghan government forces. I sensed in him a reminiscence and wish to return to Afghanistan as he told us these stories.

So thrilled by this subject is Dalrymple that he can speak in unbelievable detail using memory alone. He told the audience of intricate facts about the period of British invasion, like how the British cavalcade had marched in with 30,000 camels carrying cologne, clothes, wine and military supplies, or how around 16,500 British had died or been captured in the October 1841 retreat back to Jalalabad.

Using “the forgotten and unused documents by the other side, by the conquered,” Dalrymple says, distinguishes Return of a King from other books on this subject. These are sources that have never been used before, and he says without them, “it would be like writing the history of the Second World War without any German documents.” And finding them wasn't difficult, he recalls – all he had to do was speak with local Afghan historians, “the ones who know most about this.”

What Dalrymple reiterated through his hour on stage were the parallels between 1839 and now – Hamid Karzai is from the same tribe as Shah Shuja and the Taliban is made up of foot soldiers from the same tribes who fought the British. He was, however, more cynical about the more fundamental similarity of a foreign power embarrassing themselves in Afghanistan. “The British took their eye off the ball and turned to Hong Kong....entering another country while Afghanistan is still in turmoil would never happen today,” he chuckled.

“History is repeating itself.”

Hopefully Dalrymple's book will help teach us this oh-so-elusive lesson about Afghanistan that so many have ignored.

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