Under my byline

River of India

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 8 October 2008

Alice Albinia combines history and travel to tell the human story of the Indus

Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River
Alice Albinia
John Murray/Hachette India
xviii + 366

“No one will deny that in questions of historical authenticity hearsay does not equal eye-witness,” writes Alberuni at the beginning of his great book on India. As an eyewitness, the reporter sees what is; hearsay is secondhand. But in hearsay Alberuni includes history. If only the reporter were truly impartial, he says, then hearsay would be superior to eyewitness as a source of historical truth.

Well, he didn’t know about the modern art of travel writing. Twentieth-century literature is awash with learned travelogues, a few of which must rank among the highest achievements of civilisation. In this book on the human story of the Indus, Alice Albinia combines history and travel to make the most of hearsay and eyewitness — without, thankfully, being impartial.

Nowadays, rivers play no part in Indian civic life. But it was not so long ago that rivers loomed as large in our experience as they do in our landscape. We are an ancient civilisation, but our memory is short.

So it takes an outsider to remind us how Indians and our rivers are connected. And the Indus is the Ur-river of India, even if most of it now flows through Pakistan. Albinia came upon the Indus in an epiphanous moment, while reading Indian history — “eclectically, omnivorously and hastily” — in Delhi between power cuts. She had come to India after university to work as an editor and journalist.

Once the idea had struck, Albinia followed it single-mindedly, returning to London to study the river in history, and to raise funds for her trips to Pakistan, where she began to “map these layers of history and their impress on modern society”.

Early on in her project, Albinia settled on a narrative structure, providentially dictated by the river itself. She follows the river upstream and backward in time, from modern Karachi, a city shaped by Partition and its aftermath, to the source, an ancient spring in the shadow of Mount Kailash.

In Karachi, Albinia visits the low-caste Hindus who still keep the city’s sewers clean; they and others represent the unredeemed promise of Pakistan. In Sindh, reached by boat through the shrunken delta, she grows close to the Sheedis, descendants of African slaves shipped over in the centuries before the British seizure of Sindh in 1843, and who are almost alienated from their own history.

Next she travels upstream towards the competing Sufi shrines of Sindh, which preserve an unorthodox mix of Islam and much more ancient religious practices. Thence to Punjab, where Sikhism, Ranjit Singh and the Mughals march across the changing landscape and most of the waters of the Indus are channelled into the soil (to the anguish of Sindhis).

Then, across the Afghan border in search of Mahmud of Ghazni, Alberuni’s patron. Descending on India every year, Mahmud’s first battle was with the mighty Indus — nothing like the dammed and strangled stream of today.

Before Islam, there was cosmopolitan Buddhism, and its sanctuaries in northern Pakistan and Afghanistan. Before that, Alexander the Great — and here Albinia crosses the Afghan border illegally, to follow Alexander’s route back to Pirsar, the Indus-girdled hill in modern Pakistan where he finally defeated the hill tribes. This journey is her first on foot, and as a woman and a foreigner she is welcomed in both women’s and men’s portions of every household, thus privy to both perspectives.

From here into the disputed areas where the Indus leaves India for Pakistan. Albinia visits villages where lifestyle and ritual hold tantalising hints of Rig Vedic religion, and then encounters signs of stone-age humans — spectacular and nearly forgotten rock circles and carvings. This, and the last, arduous journey on foot to the Indus’s source in Tibet, are the most lyrical and moving portions of this book. Between Rig Veda and stone age is a short and unsatisfying chapter on the Harappan settlements.

Although Albinia intended a history book, this is, perhaps inevitably, a travelogue. Because the canvas is vast, there isn’t always space for details, for oral history or even conclusions — notably in the Sheedi and Sufi chapters. And because the reason and constant is the traveller herself, Albinia’s reluctance to place herself in the picture can leave things a little unmoored.

These are merely rough edges to a rich and sparkling gem. If only more Indians were as voracious, for history and for adventure, we wouldn’t have to depend on foreigners to tell us our own story.

(Visit the Empires of the Indus website, or read a profile of Alice Albinia.)

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