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Troubled waters

Empires of the Indus, by Alice Albinia

21 January 2009

12:00 AM

21 January 2009

12:00 AM

Empires of the Indus Alice Albinia

John Murray, pp.366, 20

Empires of the Indus, by Alice Albinia

When Alice Albinia set off for the source of the Indus she was not embarking on a quest for the unknown: she knew where the river rises. She wanted to start her journey at its mouth, the delta on the Arabian Sea, to travel upstream to Tibet and tell the story of the river which gives India its name. Empires of the Indus covers a 2,000-mile journey and 5,000 years of history.

Albinia’s prize-winning first book is a personal odyssey through landscape and time, fed by scholarship. Her pages resonate with great names: Timur, Genghis Khan, Alexander, Aurangzeb. But before that we have the conquest of Sindh, the botched finale of the British Raj, Independence, and the horrors of Partition. Most of the Indus, sacred to Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, now ran through the newly created Islamic republic of Pakistan. Trouble followed.

Travelling on, Albinia dredges up history — the importing of African slaves by Muslim traders and the unenviable place their descendants occupy in today’s society; the changing forms of slavery that persist: unpaid temple workers; debt-ridden peasantry, subjugated women. From a token headscarf to a chador exposing her eyes, Albinia dons a burqa with mesh panel that gives her 20 per cent vision and renders her reassuringly invisible to Muslim males.

Her enthusiasm is insatiable, her disregard for danger alarming: she risks her life, slithering down vertical hillsides in old trainers, battling snowstorms, frequently lost, crossing a turbulent stretch of river in a crate strung on a wire between a cliff and a mulberry tree. If a villager mentions ancient rock carvings or mysterious stone circles, she hauls him off to help her find them. She makes illegal border crossings, enters the Khyber…

Meandering like the river, her narrative conjures up Sufi saints and marauding conquerors. She visits the birthplace of Guru Nanak who founded Sikhism. Once this Punjabi landscape was thick with forests where lions, tigers, leopards, bears and wolves roamed, but, ill-conceived British irrigation projects and ‘trigger- happy officials’ eliminated the wild animals. Pesticides and dams did the rest: today, it is a dry and dusty plain.

Leaning over the ramparts of Attock fort where, 500 years ago, Emperor Barbur crossed the river, down from Samarkand, she sees two rivers meet: the Kabul, brown with silt, and the Indus, ice-blue with snowmelt. Behind her are the plains and women in bright headscarves; ahead, the Afghan hills, Kalashnikov-toting smugglers, women shrouded in burqas.

She relies on the kindness of strangers, squatting to share the family meal, ripping apart a goat’s thigh with her fingers, drinking yak-curd and salty tea, bedding down with the women of the house. She munches a lump of majoon made from warthog testicles, sparrow’s brain, deer musk, honey and opium. When nothing better is available, she accepts diluted sewage as drinking water. These encounters, often sad in their implications, sometimes hilarious, offer a heart-lifting example of human generosity transcending differences of faith and culture.

She treads her way through the debris of the near and distant past — crumbling citadels, rusting green rocket-launchers, abandoned Russian tanks and Buddhas smashed by the Taliban. Her narrative progress is sometimes slowed down by the weight of history, but the journey remains a spellbinding blend of discovery, elation and frustration.

Her determination never falters: blocked by Indian and Chinese bureaucracy, she makes a 4,000 kilometre loop to the nearest legal crossing point into Tibet. When she rejoins the river she sees only caked earth, an abandoned boot and a bicycle tyre. The Chinese have cut off the water to meet their own requirements for hydro-electricity and irrigation. The concrete dam ‘looms up from the river-bed like a vast wave frozen in mid-air. I stare at it in disbelief, fighting back tears.’

The source itself still lies ahead in the mountains and she persuades a smelly, drunken Tibetan to be her reluctant guide. Whipped by sudden snows, wrapped in plastic sheeting against torrential rain, she sets off. But there is no sense of triumph: throughout we have heard the warning note. By the end it is a lamentation:

The river is slipping away through our fingers, dammed to disappearance … One day, when there is nothing but dry riverbeds and dust, when this ancient name has been rendered obsolete, then the songs humans sing will be dirges of bitterness and regret.

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