Monday, August 30, 2010

The Past, Current and Future of the Indus River

I never liked studying History in school, being averse to forced memorization instead of enjoyment of a story from the past. This meant that after finishing school and renouncing exams altogether, I didn’t naturally wander over to the History section at a bookstore. After reading Eric Newby’s travelogue last week, however, I realized that I could be hoodwinked into reading about history and geography if it was wrapped in a fictional or adventurous narrative.

Devastating and dramatic press about the unprecedented flooding in Pakistan brought to the surface a book that meets and exceeds this criterion: Alice Albinia’s book EMPIRES OF THE INDUS is an ambitious journey along the Indus River, traveling physically along it as well as historically through the civilizations, settlements, discoveries and fatalities that the River has nourished, and suffered from. Albinia tells us in the Preface that even studying Indian history “eclectically, omnivorously and hastily,” it is wildly obvious that “everywhere I turned, the Indus was present.”

The next logical step for a student of history and literature after forming such a hypothesis is to test it, of course. And so Albinia spends four undaunted years traveling on and along a river, taking dilapidated boats, befriending taxi drivers, traveling on foot, climbing mountains, descending into valleys, and squeezing into jeeps as required. She crosses borders legally and illegally, colorful in bright shalwar kameezes and stamped in anonymous black and white when burqa-clad. Her fluent Urdu wins over policemen and passersby alike and she is uncannily able to find the information she needs to round out the particular chapter she is working on.

Time and again during this journey up a river, I find that the Indus is still – as it has been for centuries – a place where people, ideas and religions meet and mingle.

The constant current of coincidence and ease Albinia encounters helps belie the predominantly weary, frustrating and at times dangerous journey this must have been, but her book is a tidy balance of history, travelogue and memoir that keeps me turning the pages.

Albinia kindles the two-dimensional history in books, libraries and articles to a three-dimensional kind. The history in the life and voice of a river, whispered in the dark around a fire, swimming in Pakistani sewers, lurking in Sufi tombs – “a torrent of colour and life” – and contained in an age-old Afghani “sex potion” (with hallucinatory side effects!). Broken boat propellers and illegal border crossings are minor obstacles to the river Albinia insists on following from the Arabian Sea back to its source in Tibet; she marvels with informed confidence at the lessons she is learning: she comments that a young Pakistani father cooking his children dinner is “a thing as rare in Pakistan as a free and fair election,” and she shares her “deeper understanding of the world of good, well-behaved, God-fearing Muslim girls” while boldly dismissing the descendants of Sufi saints as “universally unreliable” in their spirituality and sincerity.

The book’s chapters are sorted into brimming buckets of time, starting in the 19th century with the British’s confounded reactions to the river, loving and hating it as their mood to invade shifted. Next are the Sheedis of the 18th century and a discussion of early Islam and its endearment towards the generations of African slaves imported into Asia. In the next chapter about the 18th century Sufi River Saints, Alice’s name becomes ‘Ali-se’ and takes on Islamic etymology, meaning ‘from Ali,’ who is “the Sufi father of them all.” Chapter four addresses the rise of Sikhs and Sikhism in the 15th century and their five-pronged sense of identity that mirrors the Indus’ branches. Following that—moving backwards in time, that is—is the 11th century that heralds the Mughals in India, regal emperors “whose grandsire was an Uzbek.” Beyond that the book moves into the BCE, covering Buddhist dynasties; Alexander the Great’s 400-km conquest which Albinia mimics on foot; Rigvedic life and the Aryans; Indus Valley civilizations-turned-archaeological sites; and northern Kashmir and Ladakh, home to the Empire of Eastern Women and female oracles, as carvings reveal. Here, Albinia pauses: “were I an Indian feminist, this stone would be my icon,” and I like her even more.

Moving through Pakistan’s provinces, Afghani terrain, northern India, Kashmir and Tibet, Albinia collects a swath of reactions to her journey and to the life-giving Indus River. Proud British invaders boast that the ‘haughty Lords of SINDE have indeed been humbled…we have at last secured our influence on the Indus,’ and today a pious Muslim woman throws her Qur’an into the river to pray for her son’s health to improve. Albinia understands and explains how Shah Inayat, a Sufi saint, embodies “Sindh’s distinct brand of nationalism – politically socialist and religiously syncretic,” just as the Indus boat-people’s proximity to the river is correlated to how orthodox Muslim they are, which I understand as an older version of urbanization and the concentric clusters of educated people that inhabit cities.

In his famous book SIDDHARTHA, Herman Hesse writes:

He who would understand this water and its secrets, so it seemed to him, would also understand many other things, many secrets, all secrets.

Albinia’s quest to understand the secrets of the Indus and the “many other things” it afforded, carried and drowned drives her towards Tibet. She has placated army officers, dressed in disguise, won the trust of shy women and drunk men and conversed through a chain of languages, resorting to reflective silence when language is lacking. I frequently forget that she is a British woman interviewing illiterates, digging up historical texts and making 4000 km detours, thanks to her smooth writing style and the hospitable peoples she interacts with who pay her 'differences' no heed. She has melded these tributaries of history into a rippling narrative worthy of the empires she writes about, and handed me my first exciting History lesson, too.

BOOK: EMPIRES OF THE INDUS by Alice Albinia, published by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2008

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