The phrase seems pure early Kipling, resonantly conjuring a sepia-washed of espionage and derring-do in the Hindu Kush and the Korakorum: the Great Game. As Riaz Dean points out, the coinage comes not from Kipling – though his novel Kim brought the knife- edge geopolitics of the northern Indian border evocatively to life, and gave them an indelible rinse of romance – but from Captain Arthur Conolly, in a letter of 1840. Historian Gerard Morgan gave the term short shrift : ‘It belittles what was a deadly serious affair marked by many serious diplomatic and strategic blunders from which few emerge with credit.’
Dean’s particular focus here is on the truly remarkable work done in the service of the ‘game’ by the men who mapped the territories of Afghanistan, Turkmestan and even forbidden Tibet, carrying on a desperately dangerous interplay of exploration, cartography and espionage in what is the most unforgiving of landscapes.
Forceful, fiercely driven administrator-scientists such as William Lambton and George Everest (painted here as intriguingly different characters) push along the visionary Great Trigonometrical Survey, a decades-long mission to triangulate the subcontinent; Captain Thomas Montgomerie initiates the deployment of daring native ‘pundits’ such as Abdul Hamid, Nain Singh and Kishen Singh to gather information in the northern mountains.
All of this takes place with the havering say-so of the London-Calcutta administration, in and between countless regional sub-states and potentates, and under the nose of an imperial Russia with one eye on British India.
Within this big picture, it is Dean’s instinct for telling and cherishable details that really sets this magnificent book apart. As we zoom and pan from the horrors of the Afghan Wars to, let’s say, the technical requirements of baseline measurement (‘Lambton concluded that a one-degree variation in ambient temperature would increase the overall length of his chain by 7½ thousandths of an inch’), we see that this is not just a contrast drawn for drama but a central fact of the ‘game’ – fastidious, pedantic and painstaking in every sense.