Empires of the Indus

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.

The Dust and The Noise … I’m Lovin’ It

First reaction after a long haul-flight — Wow, there are so many people in here :)

Over the past couple of weeks — I have observed silent sidewalks and empty elevators. Redmond is a exceptionally serene place — all roads have mowed lawns on either side with green grass glittering in the (very rare) sunshine, rows upon rows of fairy-tale wooden houses along a lake, vehicles of all shapes and sizes moving obediently, trees and leaves of all hues and a rare snow-fall. What really gets to me is that there is nobody using the sidewalks, the order and marshalling of every object, the silence on the roads, a stupid TV murmuring when you get home. It gets to me — what utter waste!

So, you can imagine, as soon as I got back, I could not wait to go and walk around the market in Malleswaram. A sea of people walking on the roads (sorry, no sidewalks), shops bulging with people, fragrances of dahlias mixing with sweat and squalour wafting around, garlands and vegetables overflowing from the wooden carts, a temple bang in the middle of the entrance of the lane with a priest alert on duty to boot, noises of all kinds — cars sqealing, men mongering, women bargaining, children chattering, the bazaar sounds — music to the classically trained Indian ears (or perhaps the right phrase is trained classic Indian ears), cars zapping around putting back your trust that driving is a skill and not a routine. Sometimes their zeal gets to them like the autorickshaw which almost stamped my feet and woke me up from my American-Cross-The-Road-On-White-Sign dream).

It’s good to see people around, hear the noises, experience India. Ah, I feel alive again!

The Ultimate Cocktail

   along with old friends. (Have I left out something? :-D)

Can anything be better?
Add Goa to that equation!
And make the trip during new year!

Goa’s own population more than doubles during this time. Hotel rooms are hard to come by, bumpy 14 hour bus rides, traffic crawls are de rigeur, prices take off into the stratosphere, Satyrs permeate every possible corner — but at the end of it, it is worth it!

Some of the notable things for those planning a trip to Goa:

  • Visit all beaches — each of them have a different flavor, Vagator is rocky, Baga is crowded, Calangute is sandy, Sinoquirm has water sports aplenty — and enjoy all of them.
  • Keep water sports for a couple of days before the 31st since that day prices increase manifold.
  • Don’t miss the Banana water ride. You are taken on an elongated boat which is toppled mid-sea. And don’t forget to take life insurance before that :-)
  • Try to stay near the beach so that you can easily freshen yourself, but keep in mind you will also have to pay through you nose at this time.
  • Bikes are a must — at least on one day. Goa is a different experience on a bike!

Goa already has some of the best beaches in India, and add to it the electrifying crowd that descends in the little state, the pervasive party atmosphere, the amazing weather, the adventure of the water sports, the breathless bikes, the momentous moment of the beginning of a new year — and to all these when you add the nostalgia of a life passed, in the company of old friends — it forms a deadly cocktail. It’s poison that liberates you from everyday drudgery. The elixir of jubilance.

Paree will put the joie back in your vivre.

joie de vivre
The Joy of Life
One of the innumerable phrases to have across the English Channel. And for no doubt. If the English are supposed to be stiff, the French stand out for how they seem to enjoy life!
When I reached Paris, one of the first things that struck me — Goddam! I have never seen so much beauty around. On both counts, I usually like to add.
I didn’t see a bare wall — everything was full of graffiti. Thankfully, no pictures of politicians as we Indians like to paint. It all seemed to be words scribbled on the walls in a calligraphic font. What was written, I could not make out. But then, it is these moments that one feels blessed for not knowing the local language — my appreciation of the graffiti would go down if the graffiti happened to be political. It’s amazing that one can just keep peeping out of the window in the RER (a train), and keep enjoying the view, the lush green glass, and whenever the concrete happens to come and block the view, you don’t feel flustered since you can appreciate the calligraphy.
What also strikes you about Paris is the "intimacy" that people don’t seem to mind displaying. At first, it almost strikes you as a culture shock! It’s probably something in the weather, since even the tourists seem to behave equally intimately! And then gradually your pupils dilate and you get used to the sudden flash of freedom, of the fact that yes, it is a difference in culture, and nobody would really mind it :P
As you walk on the streets, the history of the place, the art and architecture really strikes you. Everything is just so ornate — the roads, the bridges, the towers (eiffel!), the fountains, the lamp posts (Our very own Laloo Yadav would be happy!). Everything seems to have a story, a history that they have been witnesses to and part of, of kings and queens and soldiers and noblemen. Of great archiects, possibly artists more than architects. It strikes you as a welcome relief from the boxy cities we have started building in India, imitating the US. Glass palaces without a life. You heave a sigh of relief — art is just not sold in galleries, but on display where everybody can touch and feel it. Perhaps this is the way art should be — what’s the point of just visual appreciation?
One is thankful to the French for not having built on those pieces of art and architecture to make it look like a hap-hazard application of modern day construction to make it a pastiche which we have made our wonders in India. It perhaps reflects our confusion about what’s right and what’s wrong, what to pursue and what to leave, where our destiny lies. I hope we find it fast!
And you walk along the Avenue des Champs-Elysees, arguably the most beautiful avenue in the world, the high street of fashion. And you realize that the French have not just preserved their architectural wonders but built upon them. You seem to be in heaven — trees of different hues lining either side. Cafeterias burgeoning with people, unreachable riches on display at the shop windows, almost tempting, almost ridiculing. The street reaches its apt denouement with the famed and now fabled Muse de Louvre, the home of the Mona Lisa. You walk inside, inside a dream, the dreams of artists for centuries before you. It’s amazing to see once again how well the French have preserved the work of art of not just their own, but of cultures far and varied, of the Egyptians, of the Greens, of the Moslems. And your thoughts fall back to a king’s palace in Calcutta, tucked away in a small lane lined with spice shops. Although no comparison with the Louvre of course, in its length and breadth, it houses some exquisite paintings, sculptures of Queen Victoria almost 30 feet high, single piece Belgian glass mirrors lining whole walls, of amazing paintings, whose only visitors and admirers are pigeons and sparrows. One feels ashamed. There is a lot to learn!
In contrast is the Notre Dame cathedral, equally beautiful, equally exquisite, but which the Rector has had to open to tourists in order to meet expenses. The Sunday mass goes on, and the tourists walk in and out, admiring the walls, the stories in the windows, the shrine, clicking pictures. I almost feel as committing sacrilege, but the Father continues his sermon nonchalantly. There are candles you can light for Euro 2.00, casettes and memoirs you can buy. I haven’t been to too many temples in India, but for some reason I felt that they are more places of religion and tourism. And I felt relieved.
Back to more mundane things, the Parisian metro system is just amazing — considering the fact that a person like me who doesn’t know the place neither the language, could navigate it so easily. And your thoughts fall back on the Autorickshaws in Bangalore, with the drivers always ready to fleece you. Frustration once again!
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