Under my byline

Time and tide

Posted in Books, Profiles by Rrishi on 20 September 2008

Alice Albinia (c) her publisherAlice Albinia travelled the length of the Indus from mouth to source, to learn the story of the river that made India

Alice Albinia has clearly mastered the subcontinental handshake — that brief and unemphatic meeting of palms. But her palm is so long and narrow that my hand automatically curves around to grip it, and I glance down in surprise. On her wrist she wears a striking bracelet of unfamiliar design, a bulky but light-looking lattice of fine silver wires articulated into square sections, and tarnished black. Its provenance is Bosnian, she says, adding something about travelling into Bosnia to deliver relief materials after the 1990s war which I don’t quite catch.

It is the most noteworthy thing about Albinia’s appearance, apart from her eyes. Bluish-gray and magnified with a thin line of kohl (the irises are visible even when she looks down), her eyes show curiosity, a hint of challenge and also impatience — perhaps with this whole interview thing, so much less interesting than the travel which preceded it.

This time she has flown down from London, but the last time her husband and she came by train — all the way. “It’s a really nice journey,” she says, and one of which her husband thoroughly approves. “His point is that you don’t get jet lag, and he’s right.” Which goes to show that the two of them are well suited.

The travels on which her book are based, however, she did by herself. Working in India (for CSE, Biblio and Outlook Traveller in turn) soon after college, and reading to educate herself, Albinia realised that the roots of Indian history lay in Pakistan, in the Indus valley, rather than in India proper. So she went back to England, studied the cultural history of the river at SOAS, learnt some Urdu, wrote a proposal, raised money and then came fortified to Pakistan to scope things out.

“I’d kind of mapped out the book that I wanted to write before going to Pakistan,” she says, “before going to the Indus.” That first visit “was very much an exploratory trip… and then every time I went to the Indus it was with a different agenda — this chapter or that chapter.” Gradually it all came together; the whole project took four years.

Empires of the Indus is novel in style as well as structure, and both flow from Albinia’s purpose: “I was really interested particularly in how [formal history] corresponded with how history was viewed in the land that is now Pakistan, in the Indus valley,” she says, so “It was very important to talk to a lot of people who lived in Sindh, in the Punjab, in NWFP, Afghanistan, Tibet, and see how they viewed the different myths and legends and stories and what they thought was important about their history.”

Talking to people more than scholars, Albinia very quickly found that, outside the cities, orthodoxy had never defeated heterodoxy. So she spent many months living with and getting to know, for instance, the Sheedis of Sindh — descendants of African slaves brought over in the centuries preceding Britain’s annexation of Sindh in 1843 — and the Sufi followers of dargahs dotted along the lower Indus. Indeed, she writes, the role of the Indus as a millennia-old meeting point, from pre-Harappan times onwards, of people and cultures, made it impossible to maintain ideological purity of any kind.

“I’d never lived in such a religious culture before,” she says. “It was striking, that strength of faith.” Brought up in a church-going Catholic Scots family, although she’s not religious herself “I have a kind of sympathy with people — I can understand why people are religious.”

Of necessity, the book, which Albinia intends as primarily a history, is at least equally a travelogue. There are few Westerners (and regrettably fewer Indians) who would brave a trip through such unfriendly lands, and virtually none who would do it on foot and often unescorted, while simultaneously being female. Albinia crosses riskily back and forth over the Pakistani-Afghan border, tracing the routes of such incoming military adventurers as Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni and Alexander the Great — who gets a whole chapter to himself.

“In fact it’s his… closest point of contact with the Indus. So he comes down from Afghanistan, and he’s trying to vanquish the hill tribes… and they refused to play ball according to his rules of engagement and he chases them up through the hills and they have this last battle on [a mountain] that the Greeks called Aeolus and it’s now called Pirsar, and so I walked from Swat [in northern Pakistan] all along the route — it took two weeks — with [Aslam,] a friend of mine, and that’s the journey which really lives on in my head.”

“There’s something about walking,” she goes on. “It’s slow and you meet people.” They talked as they walked, fended off anxious offers of bus rides and money (“There’s this crazy foreign lady and she wants to walk it,” Aslam told interrogants), and every night they stayed not in tents (“That’s not the Pathan way”) but in the homes of people they met.

In those houses, “I was really treated as somebody who moved between both worlds,” Albinia says, “so Aslam and I would arrive at [a] house and even though I was a woman I’d be taken into the hujra [male guesthouse]. I’d be wearing a headscarf and we’d sit down and have a conversation with the men, and then at one point somebody would be called and I’d be taken into the house to meet all the women… There were aspects of the journey I could only have done as a woman, probably as a foreign woman, because I didn’t really count — fish out of water, really.”

This march is among the few parts of the book where the reader gets a sense of the writer as traveller, perhaps because the walkers were the only constant, apart from the Indus, in a changing landscape. As for the rest, “I suppose I didn’t really want to talk too much about me at all — I was just there [as a device] because people were telling me various things, as a conduit for various different bits of information. It’s not really a memoir.”

This oddly self-effacing principle is paradoxically manifested in the spectacular signature she inscribes in my copy of her book. First she strikes out her name, printed in the middle of the page, then writes it lower down in a wild, spiky scribble like a line of mountains, through which a fast, curving penstroke cuts, like a river passing the last spurs of a range before it enters the plain.

(Visit Alice Albinia’s website, or read a review of her book.)

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