Sunday, July 31, 2011

Empires Of The Indus - Alice Albinia

A brilliant work. A blend of history and travelogue narrated as though a thrilling novel. Very well written.

The title is very apt. ‘Empires of the Indus. The story of a river.’ For this is not the story of any one country or kingdom or race or culture or religion or any one period in history. It’s the story of all countries, kingdoms, races, cultures, religions and times that the Indus has ever seen in her life.

The author begins her story backwards – both in time and the river’s course.

She begins in Karachi where the Sindhu discharges into the Arabian Sea and travels along the river back to her source in China occupied Tibet.
It’s a sweeping narration covering a range on interesting subjects including scientific facts, myth, religion, mythology, folklore...and more.

Starting with the current and very recent political history of Karachi including partition, Jinnah and the Hindus remaining there mostly cleaning the gutters of the city, she gives an account of

1. Various people who tried to navigate the difficult Sindhu river – mostly the British
2. Sheedis – descendants of slaves taken from Africa to Sindh by Muslim traders and their unique culture
3. Various river saints, Sufi saints at various times
4. Sindhis and the cultural synthesis between the Hindus and the Muslims that they represent
5. Plight of the Sikhs who had to move from Pakistan to India but whose pilgrim centres and holy places are in Pakistan
6. Other rivers of Punjab that have been heavily dammed
7. The author's dangerous and risky journey to the Khyber pass, her meeting with political agents and officers to arrange for her travel through certain forbidden zones
8 . Her disguise in white as a Muslim woman through the countryside, stops made at small villages, the lives of people there
9. Exploits of Babar, Akbar, Aurangzeb, Mahmud of Ghazni
10. Homosexuality predominant in the Muslim community
11. Buddhism in the region
13. Coming of Alexander the Great
14. Hinduism, Rigveda, Aryans and Sanskrit around the Indus
15. Strange archaeological sights, rock carvings & engravings
16. Harappa, Mohenjo – Daro and the Indus valley civilization
17. Kargil war and Musharraf’s plan
18. The Stone Age,
19. Polyandry in the region – Ladakh, Tibet etc.
20. Her coming to Ladakh following the Indus and the culture of the place

And finally,

21. Her entering China occupied Tibet and the ensuing disappointment upon realizing that all these days she had been following a river that was not the Indus but the confluence of her tributaries - Gar, Zanskar, Shyok and Shigar – because the Indus had been dammed right at its source by China.

She weeps every time she talks to her husband over phone from Tibet. She is affected by the emptiness of the landscape like she was not affected by the many dangers she passed by during her journey.

She walks to the source of the Indus and meets a trickle of water. It is 35 to 40 million years old and the oldest river of the region. It comes not from melting snow but from the ground and flows all round the year.

Where it discharges into the sea, there’s just a trickle of water in the Delta because the river is dammed heavily in Pakistan all along its course for irrigation. And some distance after it begins, it has been dammed by China and just a trickle of water escapes the dam to follow its journey of three thousand one hundred eighty kilometres. The fanaticism of Islam has been erasing the Buddhist and the Hindu past of the river.
The folly of man is killing the river all along its course. And its water that is the cause of persecution of India by Pakistan and Tibet by China.

It’s the story of a river so well told that it touches you as if it were the story of a living human.

There is much suspense till the end. Will she reach the source of the Indus? Will she see it? What’s it going to be like?

The author deserves appreciation not just for her writing but for the effort it took her to experience all that she has written about and for the physical hazards of her undertaking.
The author, a lone woman, has been most adventurous in travelling through areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan that were haunted by the Talibans and certain feared local tribes. In following the course of the river, she faced difficulties as the river coursed through terrains not easy to follow. The river sometimes flowed in valleys, around huge boulders, steep ravines and she lost sight of it but she took detours, sometimes really long so she could rejoin the river soon, so she could 'be with the river'. She has gone out of her way in her study of the Indus.

A must read for every Indian. For our roots go back to the Indus river. As the author puts it, 'the hoeland of Hinduism is not India but Pakistan'. The book is full of innumerable interesting facts.

When I reached the end of the book I wished it would go on for a few hundred pages more.

The book ends not with hope but with despair.
Perhaps there is very little hope but I wish the author had shown some silver lining to the dark cloud.

1 comment:

Rishi said...

Hi Sowmya,
I think it was in the pipeline for a long time. Difficult to Summarize this one as there is a lot of history so you did good in listing them out. The best thing about the book as you correctly said is a travelogue told like a story. The fact that it is travel along Indus in space as well as time that is really very interesting. And you feel sad in the end.
I think Author just presented the fact there is no silver lining visible at this point.