17 August 2009

Empires of the Indus by Alice Albinia

Palla fish, the Sukkur barrage, and other icons of a lost homeland
This is not just a travel book, it’s also a history book and a geography book. It’s a book not just backed by formidable research but also well written, easy to read and strewn with the most charming, profound and funny anecdotes.
The region around the Indus may be inhospitable and dangerous today – but we learn here about its links with Islam, Sufism, the Sheedis, Sikhism, Buddhism, Alexander, the Hindu gods – and more.

For me, this book was even more than one of the best books I’ve read in the last ten years. It also hit some strong emotional notes. I was reading about the land of my ancestors – a land lost to me forever – and learning things I had never known before. There were stories, descriptions and historical facts about the region from which my mother’s family escaped with their lives, and nothing else, soon after Partition when they realized with growing horror and dismay that they could not stay here any more. In all the years I was growing up, my mother never spoke about her childhood. She never told us the stories her grandmother had told her. We never saw through her eyes the countryside or the towns and cities in which she grew up. There were some memories of the trauma, but it seems that she had put everything aside and focused on adapting and moving on. Reading this book, and imagining a place where Sindhi was spoken on the streets did something very special to me, which I can’t really describe. It was a coincidence that I read it just a few days before her 75th birthday and was able to buy copies as presents for her siblings. And I consider myself fortunate that the earnest, scholarly and very talented author of this book spared the time for a few question-answer sessions with me.
Alice Albinia told me that she had got the idea to write this book when she was living in Delhi ten years ago. She returned to London and studied for an MA in South Asian history at SOAS, which became an MA on the history of the Indus. After that she began travelling in the Indus valley, but always coming back to libraries in Pakistan, India and Britain in between. After her first trip she began writing a book proposal, and got a publisher's contract very soon. The book was going to be an exploration of the history of the river as well as a journey. She had begun learning Hindi when she lived in Delhi. At SOAS, she took courses in both Hindi and Urdu, and once she started going to the Indus, often spent months speaking very little English: "The river passes through many places where English is not the mother tongue," she told me. "Urdu and Hindi have different scripts, of course, and there are variations in vocabulary. But I spoke the same language all the way along the river - and was politely complimented for my Urdu in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and for my Hindi in India and Tibet."
I asked Alice Albinia, on behalf of Open magazine, why she thinks the Pakistan/Afghanistan area had become such a heartland of terrorism, what she thought it was that made it so male-dominated, and what she thought would be its future. You can read her response in the 8 August issue of the magazine, or on Alice talks to Saaz.

Here are a few more of the questions I asked Alice Albinia, along with her answers:

How long was the trip, how did you travel, and how did you carry all your luggage? You’ve mentioned you had a copy of the Rig Veda with you … how big is it, and what other books did you carry?
The journey was made up of many long trips over three or four years. I travelled by boat, or bus, or train, or by foot - by whichever mode of transport seemed best at the time. I left books and clothes and possessions in friends' houses in Karachi and Islamabad and Lahore and Delhi (I still have an array of tin trunks of my belongings in many of those cities). Often, on longer journeys, if my clothes wore out and began to look shabby I used this as an excuse to visit the tailor and have some new ones made; I grew very fond of my shalwar kameez collection. The copy of the Rig Veda which I carried during the journey through the Northern Areas of Pakistan was a paperback which I brought with me from England, but I love books and made many book-loving friends along the way. As a result I now have a big library at home in England, comprised of volumes I bought or was given in the Indus valley. It's not as big as my friend Irfan's library in Karachi, however. That is world-famous for its size. Though I believe the cataloguing system is quite esoteric and contained only in the head of one man.

You’ve written about the British East India spy Alexander Burns, about the damming of the Indus at Sukkur that destroyed the delta, the way in which Sindh was conquered, and the infamous divide and rule policy in a bit of a disapproving tone. What do present-day Britons feel about the Raj? How would you say history has impacted the relationship between our two countries?
Well, I think it depends who they are. Some British people actually remember the Raj, others, like me, weren't taught about it at school and thus grew up with but the vaguest idea of what colonialism entailed. When I first went to India as a teenager I remember being worried that Indian people would hate me for being British; while I was in India and Pakistan writing this book I met young British people with ancestors from the subcontinent, who had a very complicated relationship to their grandparents' homeland. If the history of India was altered by immigration from England, then in a very different way, immigration from the Indian subcontinent has had a big impact on British culture. This isn't just a post-colonial phenomenon, but one that began centuries' ago. (The introduction of shampoo to these shores is an event whose importance should not be underestimated, either.) For all these reasons, I think that the people of these two very different places will continue to evince a mutual interest in each other for a long time to come.

A lot of the simple historical facts of what happened in Pakistan right after Independence are simply unknown in India – why do you think that is?
Because of the violence and trauma of Partition, the years following independence were fraught and chaotic and difficult for people in both India and Pakistan. At the same time, there was a swift shutting down of communication between people on both sides of the border which took some of them by surprise. It was difficult to travel between the two countries - even to communicate with somebody in the other country - without arousing suspicion.

The Karachi you’ve described sounds similar to Bombay – in what ways are cities in the two countries different?
Yes, I spent months in Karachi - looking across the sea to Bombay, which I had heard about and read of many times but never seen. People from Karachi often spoke of Bombay as a more sophisticated elder sibling. Karachi was part of the Bombay Presidency for a time during British rule and when I eventually visited Bombay last year I found the two cities very reminiscent of each other. They have a similar ponderous, colonial Gothic architecture; their people share a love for the sea. In Bombay's museum there are beautiful artefacts collected from Sindh by archaeologists during British rule. Bombay has more coast, of course, and the Raj-era buildings are in better shape. Architects in Karachi have to keep up a constant battle to stop old Karachi going to rack and ruin. It is strange to think that there was once a ferry plying between the two cities; and that the terrorists who came to Bombay from Karachi entered the city from the sea.

You’ve described sights of great beauty that you saw on your journey – landscapes as well as man-made monuments of various kinds. Could you please describe for us the one that struck you most? Do you have photos of it?
I was amazed by the ancient human culture of the Northern Areas of Pakistan: the valley of monumental stone circles, the Matisse-like prehistoric rock carving of archers which I saw on a hillside near Gilgit. There are photographs in my book and more on my website http://www.empiresoftheindus.co.uk/

The journey you went on had its painful moments – extreme nausea, body odour of traveling companions, strange food, sleeping among strangers in cramped enclosures, and it surely couldn’t have been fun going to the loo. What was the worst? (Did you really come down with scurvy??)

The worst night I spent was in a pilgrim's camp in Tibet the day before we finished our parikrama of Mount Kailash. There were around twenty of us sleeping in a kind of Tibetan sarai and water dripped on me all night from a leak in the roof of the tent. I didn't get scurvy on that trip - the spinach from the monks' garden was my medicine - but I did get very bad sunburn from walking through the snow. I can still see the marks of it on my face - a memory of that strange and wonderful trek to the source of the Indus.

Has your book brought ASI attention and protection to the historical treasures you saw being systematically destroyed?

The ASI wrote to me about the rock carvings in Kashmir. I haven't been back to Ladakh since so it is hard to tell what kind of protection the prehistoric rock-carvings there are receiving. Those in more immediate danger of extinction are the ones along the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan, for they are due to be submerged completely beneath the waters of a new dam which the government is building there on the Indus River.

You’ve written about the Sufi Sajjada Nasheen and his theory that “Man is like fire, woman like cotton”. What was this experience like for you as a woman in a male-dominated land? When people asked you, “Where have you left your children? Did your husband give you permission to come here alone?” what did you feel and how did you react?
I learnt that you can never predict what a person's reaction to strangeness will be. Sometimes I had to endure lectures from men who thought I was going about my life the wrong way; at other times I had sympathetic conversations with those who were intrigued by our cultural differences. In some areas I was very glad that I was a woman - because it meant that I could meet other women; as a man I wouldn't have been able to. Also, when I was covered-up nobody knew that I was foreign and I could travel to places which it would have been difficult to visit, were I a foreign man. Frequently, though, I was treated as neither man nor woman but a person of some intermediary sex and this meant that I could cross carefully demarcated boundaries with impunity.

How did the journey and the process of writing this book change you?

I hope that I've brought some Indus valley hospitality back home with me to England

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