by Alice Albinia
The book is an absolutely mesmerising journey of the author along the Indus, in geography and in time. It’s an enthralling read – both in substance and in style, and if you are a travel, history of even politics buff, you should not miss this book.
Albinia was a journalist in Delhi when she got the idea of the book – she went back to pursue an M.A. in South Asian studies to get the book in place, and what an effort it has been. Alice starts at the mouth of the Indus, where the river empties itself in the sea, and moves up – over its now dry delta, over the stories of the migrants from Africa, over the temples and masjids of Sufi Saints and Zindapir, over Guru Nanak’s legacy, surviving the Khyber Pass, recounting the spread of Buddhism, experiencing Alexander’s war path, juxtaposing the richness of the Harappan civilization with the poverty of today, the solitude and StriRajya of Laddakh on the Indian side, right into the source of the river – Senge Khabab (the Lion’s Mouth) in Tibet.
All through Albinia comments not only in the rich history of the river, the giver of lives, the source of power, the epicentre of business, and the thoroughfare through which innumerable invaders entered India – however, the way she juxtaposes the richness of the past with the destitution of the present, both monetary and cultural is what makes the book unique and brilliant. The source of the mighty Indus is tamed by numerous dams, its humongous delta now finds itself constricted, parched and impoverished, its verdant cultural and religious heritage is now restricted by the penury of current civilization. She laments the loss of culture, the wondering history of over 50,000 years that is being used as bricks in construction sites, the multi-religious tolerance of thousands of years which suddenly in the span of half a century is now under threat.
The book is a travellers treasure – all through Albinia has stayed with the locals, conversed with them, eaten with them, sat in their hujras (male guesthouse outside the house), worshipped in their dargahs, drank their majoon (herbal intoxicating confection), celebrated their festivals, lived their life. Her understanding and appreciation of the local culture and language is surprisingly accurate, her enthusiasm for going beyond the boundaries of safety in order to explore the river’s heritage, the hidden stories and poetry is laudatory – I salute her courage and her erudition.
Let me end this with a quote from Guru Nanak given in the book:
‘Lord, Thou art the mighty river,
Thou knowest and seest all things.
How can I, a poor fish, know
Thy depth and thy expanse?’
Check out the website at: empiresoftheindus.co.uk
PS: For those who might wonder, this review and blog post comes after a really long time – life’s been crazy lately, but a good kind of crazy.