July 12, 2020
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A Lament Runs Through It

This socio-historical travel along the Indus's entire length is anchored in grittiness, and marred by persistent wonder

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A Lament Runs Through It
A Lament Runs Through It
Empires Of The Indus—The Story Of A River
By Alice Albinia
John Murray/Hachette India Pages: 384; Rs. 550
Till a few years back, when the ceasefire had not given birth to an uneasy peace along the Line of Control, military commanders in Kashmir used to say that there was one weapon mightier than their entire arsenal—if only they were allowed to deploy it.

That weapon was water.

The sprawling Indus river basin spreads out on both sides of the border, unmindful of politics. Three of its six rivers flow outwards from India into Pakistan. India has the frightening power to leave Pakistan arid. But apart from a diversion of water in 1948, the Indus Water Treaty, dividing the six streams on either side, has survived three wars.

Even during the Kargil conflict of 1999, when the military contemplated crossing the border, India did not turn off the taps. But a British historian, for whom home was a barsati in Delhi, was intrigued by the depth of anger against Pakistan. As Alice Albinia would tell a Pakistani soldier later, "Nobody liked Pakistan in those days. I think that’s one of the reasons I wanted to come here." As she dreamt of the "river that begins in Tibet and ends near Karachi in the shimmer of the Arabian Sea," Albinia set out for the country she calls the most recent political avatar of the Indus valley.

What unfolds is a determined traveller’s gritty adventure along the Indus; a journey in reverse from the delta to the source, like the book’s narrative that moves from the present to the ancient, till we are taken back 50 million years.

Empires of the Indus, part-travelogue, part-history book, is a fascinating navigation—it crisscrosses the deserts of Sindh, rummages through Punjab, moves up the Khyber Pass to the Northern Areas and finally drops anchor in the upper reaches of western Tibet. And much like the confluence of rivers brings together cultures and regions, Alice Albinia’s journey welds many different stories into an unlikely narrative.

There are the Sheedis, descendants of slaves taken from Africa to Sindh by Muslim traders, whom Albinia discovers "dancing around a chest-high wooden drum, their bare feet thumping". And she tries to investigate Karachi’s African history, only to find a denial of ancestry among those who do not want to be stigmatised for their darker complexion.

There is the musical reverie at the tomb of Sindhi poet Shah Abdul Latif which mocks the conservativeness of Wahabi Islam and its practitioners. As a Baluch journalist tells the author, where else would you find, "a Hindu untouchable family sleeping in the Sunni mosque of a Sufi shrine dominated by Shias?"

And there are the Drokpa nomads in the mountains of Tibet, who provide an oxygen-starved writer with meals of barley flour and yak butter, but not with the way to the source of the great river.

But the grand, rollercoaster ride is really fuelled by the power of lament. The running river through the book is nostalgia. The Indus, which "once encircled Paradise," becomes the metaphor for an imagined, perfect past; one in which the syncretic fusion of faiths was the cornerstone of a forgotten civilisation.

Is Alice Albinia guilty of the romanticism born of the charmed discovery of the East by the West? Yes, she is. The book suffers from trademark Orientalism. Indian readers, long used to the cliches resulting from the outsider’s gaze, will be amused at her breathless encounter with a sewer cleaner in the opening chapter. She is also guilty of the Asian travel writer’s most common vice—of forcing every cup of shared chai into a literary moment. You have to ignore the "sweet milky tea" encounter with Manmohan Singh Khalsa in Lahore, who bemoans the atrocities of "occupied Punjab" and then settles back serenely to listen to the day’s last prayer. There’s also the small issue of how far the past can move away from the grimness of the present without being labelled blind. The introduction talks about moving past the Indian newspaper cliche of Pakistan being a country of "military cowboys and murderous fundamentalists". But as we observe the real danger of implosion in Pakistan on a daily basis, it’s tough not to wonder how the author remains insulated by all its inner turbulence.

Still, there is a lot to savour in this unusual travelogue. Especially if the last time you thought about the Indus was in a badly taught class of geography.

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