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Riaz Dean on "Mapping the Great Game": 'This book is about the extraordinary pioneers who explored much of Asia during the 19th century to fill in large portions of its map'

Riaz Dean is an Engineer by profession and holds an MBA degree. When not writing, he works as a Business Improvement Consultant. He lives in Wellington, New Zealand now, after having lived in Australia, Germany and USA over the years. He is also a member of the NZ Society of Authors and the NZ Cartographical Society. He has recently come out with the book “Mapping the Great Game: Explorers, Spies & Maps in Nineteenth-century Asia”. As the title suggests, the book is about the extraordinary explorers, spies and mapmakers who explored this vast region’s terra incognita to fill in large portions of its map, and spy out the country for military reasons during the so-called Great Game.
Chirdeep Malhotra connected with him for an exclusive interview, in which he talks about his debut book, his writing journey, and how travelling the region of Turkestan informed his perspective about the region.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your writing journey.
After years of working for multinational companies in various countries, I decided to settle down in New Zealand and write the book that was in my head, bursting to get out. I have always been interested in stories about exploration and mapping, particularly the ones to do with Asia.
Now tell us a bit more about your book “Mapping the Great Game: Explorers, Spies and Maps in Nineteenth-century Asia”.
As the title suggests, it’s the true story of the extraordinary pioneers who explored much of Asia during the 19th century to fill in large portions of its map, and spy out the region for military reasons. Theirs is an often forgotten story, even in India, despite many of the explorers being Indians and much of the mapping being undertaken on the subcontinent.
What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?
I read a book about the Pundits (not to be confused with the Kashmiri Pundits) and was fascinated by their exploits and bravery. At the same time, I was struck by how little these native explorers were recognised for their efforts—they remain the classic unsung heroes of the British Raj. Furthermore, I realised that for a reader to understand their full impact, this story needed to be told within the context and machinations of the Great Game, and include the mapping efforts of their employer, the Survey of India.
At the time you started out with your research, did you foresee this project attaining the form that it does today? Did you start with the intention of doing a book? Or were you simply curious? At which point did you realise you had enough material to put into a book?
I have collected old books and maps about the exploration of Asia for many years; so I knew the subject matter well and had no difficulty in pulling together material for this book. Quitting my job and relocating to a new country was the impetus I needed to start writing.

‘Mapping the Great Game: Explorers, Spies and Maps in 19th-century Asia’, Penguin India Publishers.
How and when did this ‘Great Game’ and its ‘mapping’ begin?
The Great Game describes the strategic rivalry for Central Asia, as played out between two powers, Great Britain and Imperial Russia. Although the ultimate prize of the ‘game’ was India, most of the intrigue and action took place along its northern frontier in Afghanistan, Turkestan and Tibet. It began at the start of the 19th century, and the mapping followed hard on its heels. Both powers needed to explore and map this region if they were to dominate it.
Can you tell us more about your research and writing process?
As I mentioned, I had the raw material; but, being my first book, I had to learn how to best research and write it. I spent the first year, full-time, preparing a good draft copy. Over the following three years, working on it part-time, I added further research material and refined my writing. As with any author, especially those making their debut, a lot of work also went into finding a literary agent and securing a publisher.
The book talks about William Lambton and George Everest who led the Great Trigonometrical Survey, and native ‘pundits’ who gathered information in the northern mountains and were among the first to enter Tibet. While researching this, were there any other surprising finds or startling facts that got you interested? Can you share some of them with our readers?
The extreme dedication shown by the Pundits, and the likes of William Lambton and George Everest as ‘servants of the map’. They demonstrated this over many years, and at great risk to their own personal safety—for the Pundits, discovery meant almost certain death.
I was impressed by what I learnt about Lambton the man, as well as his pioneering effort. He set out to measure the shape of the planet across the subcontinent, which also led to the commencement of the Great Arc. After being completed by Everest (who then had a mountain named after him) it was lauded as ‘one of the most stupendous works in the whole history of science’.
How did covering and travelling the region of Turkestan inform your perspective on the region?
I have backpacked, solo, through much of India and Turkestan—the latter, when I retraced the ancient Silk Road from Istanbul to Xi’an. Travelling in an old jeep across the ‘Roof of the World’ that separates both halves of Turkestan, I got a sense of what the Pundits and Great Gamers would have experienced high up in the Pamirs. Not to mention the raw beauty of the mountains, which is simply stunning.
By the way, to do this, I had to learn Russian before I could travel through the five ex-Soviet ‘stans’ (previously Western Turkestan). Crossing the Amu Darya into Afghanistan and making my way to Kabul, I saw at ground level where the Anglo-Afghan Wars were fought.
Considering it took you four years to complete this book, how did you keep yourself motivated? What were some of the highs and lows along the way?
Motivation was never a problem, given my passion for the subject and love of exploration—although it was very satisfying to finally finish the book. My only ‘low’ was receiving the many rejection letters I did when seeking a publisher. Conversely the ‘high’ came when I secured one in India (this book’s ‘natural home’), and no less than Penguin Random House, the subcontinent’s largest publisher.
What are some of the lessons that can be drawn from the Great Game, which might be relevant to present day politics and policy-making?
The Anglo-Afghan Wars offer a good example: modern powers (Russia and USA) seem unable to learn from past (British) mistakes. And then there’s Tibet, where a people simply wanted to be left alone, but were invaded instead—a situation which should resonate with readers who hate to witness smaller countries being ‘interfered with’ by bigger powers.
What are you reading right now?
William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company.
What are you working on next?
A non-fiction book about the ancient Silk Road and its mapping (for release next year).
‘Mapping the Great Game: Explorers, Spies and Maps in Nineteenth-century Asia’ by Riaz Dean has been published by Penguin India. Read more about the book here and buy it here.


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About the author

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Chirdeep Malhotra

Dr Malhotra is Editor, Books and Features at The Dispatch. A medical practitioner, a bibliophile, he calls Jammu home. He has an interest in International Relations and World affairs. He enjoys writing, watching documentaries, and exploring the culture and local cuisines of Jammu & Kashmir.