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A meandering journey along the Indus

September 29, 2008

Tishani Doshi
Express Buzz - Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
28 Sep 2008

ALICE Albinia’s extraordinary first book, Empires of the Indus, is an
ambitious project traversing 2,000 miles and five millennia of history.
Her protagonist is the River Indus in all its varying forms — the Sindhu
of the Rig Veda, the Purali of Sindh, the Nilab or Sher Darya of the
Pashtun, the Gemtsuh of the Baltis, and the Senge Tsampo as it is known
in Ladakh.

Albinia begins her journey in Karachi, where this great, ancient river
empties itself into the Arabian Sea, and she follows it upstream,
through its delta and many tributaries, cutting through centuries and
civilisations, until she reaches its mossy unassuming source in Tibet,
where the river was born millions of years ago.

During the course of her journey, which took four years to conceive,
plan, travel and write, Albinia has had many adventures. She shares a
truck journey with an ex-Taliban soldier, discovers ancient rock
carvings and burial sites, helps translate Sheedi family history by
candlelight, gets high on majoon — a drug involving hashish, warthog
testicles, sparrow’s brain and lapis lazuli, and walks miles and miles
in inappropriate footwear. There is nothing, it seems, that Albinia will
not do, in the course of her mission.

Before meeting her in person, I expect a gregarious, sturdy creature,
capable of braving her way across al-Qaeda country in a burqa, of
sleeping on village floors, and straddling mountain passes on threadbare
soles. So I am surprised when I’m confronted by her real-life delicacy.
Did she really walk in the footsteps of Alexander the Great? Did she
really bully her way through borders and high-security zones with a
swish of her salwar kameez and smatterings of Urdu? Apparently, yes. It
reaffirms something for me: that the best travel writing is about being
able to belie the senses and perform the impossible.

Albinia reveals surprising nuggets during her adventures. She tells us
it was the Indus people who domesticated the cotton plant, not the
Egyptians. She points out how Tibetan babies have slits in the crotches
of their clothes to avoid undressing in the cold. She unveils a carving
of a Paleolithic huntress, who hasn’t seen the light of day since the
1960s. “Were I an Indian feminist,” she writes, “This would be my icon.”
She shares secrets that can only be gleaned by travel, not from sitting
in the dusty archives of a library. But to reduce this book to a mere
personal travelogue would be unfair. Neither is it just a historical
account of the Indus and its many avatars.

This book is a rare thing — one that combines myth and man, politics and
poetry, geology, religion, hard fact, and pure romance — all juxtaposed
against each other to provide a tapestry as rich and layered as the
river itself. It is as Albinia writes, “Everybody’s story jostles with
everybody else’s” — the Sufi saints, Mohanas boat people, bhangi sewer
cleaners, emperors, tyrants, slaves, Sanskrit priests — all disregarding
linear routes to converge at different points in her narrative.

In one chapter she has Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni biding his time, waiting
for the river waters to subside before storming across the Khyber Pass
on his elephant. In another, the Chinese pilgrim-chronicler Xuanzang
bemoans the loss of his 520 precious sutras in his upturned boat. There
is Guru Nanak journeying along the Indus, indulging in frequent baths,
putting water at the heart of Sikhism and its rituals. And here are the
citizens of Mohenjo Daro patiently baking bricks from mud, constructing
their drainage systems, granaries and public baths.

Throughout the book, the Indus functions as the spinal cord, the
lifeblood that holds Albinia’s many meanderings together, bringing these
rich and diverse characters of history in contact with each other, and
to the modern world. Like the Sufi silsila — the thread that affiliates
the Sufi to his master, Albinia tries to show how the many civilisations
that have lived and died along the riverbanks owe their allegiance to
the river. It is a shared history after all: of Pakistan, India,
Afghanistan and Tibet. A sacred one too: for Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists
and Hindus.

At the heart of it, this is a romantic book, spurred on by idealistic
notions of rivers and river-systems. “Most stories begin with water,”
Albinia writes. Her own story — living and working as a journalist in
Delhi, post-Kargil, thinking about the enemy that lay just across the
border, and the river that ran through that land, got her thinking about
the Indus. “Perhaps to my sun-baked imagination, it was the river itself
that was most enticing. I dreamt about that river which begins in Tibet
and ends near Karachi in the shimmer of the Arabian Sea; I tried to
picture those waters, which emperors had built forts beside, which poets
still sang of, the turbulent, gold-bearing abode of snake-goddesses.”

But like all romances, disillusion is bound to set in. And while Albinia
sets forward with all the ebullience of a river crocodile, her story
quickly turns into an elegy of sorts. As she gets closer and closer to
the river’s source, after we have waded our way through political
dictatorships, water wars and pollution, and felt the life of the river
choking, swelling and diminishing; when we finally reach Senge Khebab —
the Lion’s Mouth, from which the river begins, what do we get? A few
packets of plastic Chinese instant noodles, a pristine white Chinese dam
shining in the distance.

In every Greek tragedy, Albinia writes, there is a turning point — a
peripeteia. For Alexander, it was the Indus Valley itself; leading and
losing his homesick men across its waters, pillaging and conquering,
only to die, not quite a God, far from home in Babylon, of a fever, at
the age of 32. But what about the Indus Valley itself?

Isn’t it the greatest of ironies that the river that gave India its name
now flows in Pakistan? That along these banks where Stri Rajya, or
government by women, once prevailed, where female oracles, polyandry and
fierce huntresses abounded, the fate of women is now to see the world
through the gauzy veil of a burqa? That the lands where civilisations as
ancient and sophisticated as Harappa and Mohenjo Daro once stood,
trading cotton with the rest of the world, have now reverted to
primitive gun-toting warfare?

In a sense, it is an archaic refrain: history repeats itself. If we
think of the folly of the humans that attempted to colonise the river
before us — the British in their gunboats, the many conquerors, we are
only following in their path. But Albinia urges us not to think of those
humans. She tells us to think of the pre-human inhabitants of the
river-system — the blind dolphin and the migratory birds. She asks us to
remember how the river first began, when the plates of the earth slammed
together fifty million years ago. “Today” she writes, “in spite of the
militarised borders that divide the river’s people from each other, the
ancient interconnectedness of the Indus still prevails.” We can only
hope that the river will live up to the name the Atharva Veda gives it:
Saransh — flowing for ever; that the water will continue to pour forth.

Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River
By Alice Albinia
Publisher: John Murray
Pages: 550
Price: Rs 440
Tishani is a poet, journalist and dancer.
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