Book: ‘The Great Game’ by Peter Hopkirk

This book has provided great relief in recent weeks, while I struggled with writer’s block and persistent insomnia. I had picked it up years ago, while staying in Delhi and had then left it half-finished for some reason. I picked it up again a few weeks ago.

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Peter Hopkirk’s “The Great Game” was originally published in 1990. It covers a part of history that people like me never learned about in school – the 19th Century struggle between Britain and Russia for Central Asia. It’s a shame our schools don’t cover this in more detail. Not only does the Great Game provide excellent lessons in colonialism, inter-state relations. and politics, it also highlights the historical impacts of colonial interests upon Indian and Asian history. Russia spent the better part of 200 years trying to invade India while Britain spent the same time defending her interests in the country. Both interfered in the politics of Afghanistan, Punjab, Kashmir, and Leh, often resulting in disastrous episodes such as the 1842 Kabul Retreat (which saw 16,000 Indians and Britishers killed or captured).

In spite of being somewhat eurocentric, Hopkirk shows a rare sensitivity to the Asians who got caught up in the great game. His book portrays interesting non-European characters – Mohan Lal, a Kashmiri in Afghanistan whose warnings to the British went in vain and Mirza Shuja, one of the many ‘Pundits’ trained by the British to map the Pamir and Karakoram mountain passes. More than anything, Hopkirk’s book opens a facet of Indian history that we don’t discuss any more, a facet that shows India’s deep links with larger Asia. Much has changed, of course. For instance, there are no more trade caravans running from Ladakh to Yarkhand. Yet, much remains unchanged. Places like Hunza, Chitral, Kashgar, and Lhasa remain as elusive to most Indians today as they did to explorers in the 19th Century, albeit for different reasons.

What I found most unsettling was the familiarity of historical events. Russian aggressions against the Ottomans sound no different from contemporary sniping between Moscow and Istanbul. Colonial wrangling for the markets of Bokhara and Samarkhand have only been replaced by modern contests for oil, gas, and infrastructure in Central Asia. British misadventures in 19th Century Afghanistan feel almost identical to modern conflicts in the region. It was even rumoured that when the Taliban killed Afghan president Mohammed Najibullah in 1996, the latter had been trying to translate Hopkirk’s book into Pashto, so as to illustrate past mistakes and help ensure they are not repeated in modern Afghanistan.

In any case, this is a great book to read.

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Link to book on Goodreads.

Link to book on Amazon.in.

Featured Image: “Remnants of an Army” by Elizabeth Butler

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