Shifting banks
John Ure
EMPIRES OF THE INDUS. The story of a river. By Alice Albinia. 366pp. John Murray. Pounds 20. 978 0 7195 6004 0.
You can read and write - and still you do not understand." This was said to Alice Albinia by a Pakistani woman whom she found throwing a copy of the Koran into the Indus River in the hope it would help her sick child. The remark was unfair: Albinia brings scholarship and understanding to her trip up the Indus from its estuary in the Arabian Sea through Pakistan, Afghanistan and northern India to its source in Tibet. Indeed, this impressive first book, Empires of the Indus, does three separate things: it attempts to unravel the complex and overlapping cultures of the life bordering the river; it places these in the context of present-day dilemmas of conflicting dogmas, loyalties and terrorist activities; and it traces one young woman's daring journey through a troubled and violent part of Asia.
Albinia draws on extensive reading and a fluent grasp of Urdu to explain the Indus River's connection with Sikhism and the kingdom of Ranjit Singh; she recounts the legends about the connection of the Buddha with the stretch of the river that runs through Swat; she explains the significance of the Silk Road in the propagation of Buddhism; she examines the Sufi shrines along the river's winding path through Sindh; she tells the story of the British penetration of the Punjab via the Indus by Alexander Burnes in the nineteenth century (on the pretext of bringing dray horses as presents to the ruler of Lahore); and she traces the legacy of Alexander the Great on his march of conquest in the fourth century bc that reached its pinnacle on the banks of the Indus.
Albinia's preoccupation with the history and ancient cultures that subsist along the banks of the Indus does not prevent her from being aware of the more contemporary problems of the region. She explains the rise of the power of the mullahs, who were given money, weapons and a heroic cause - the anti-Soviet jihad - by General Zia in 1979, and later given both Pakistan governmental support and covert funding by the CIA during the Mujahideen years, so that "the former underclass is now the elite, with foreign bank accounts, children at university in America, and votes in the polling box"; she argues that the mullahs have outfoxed the traditional ruling class. She also analyses the Indo- Pakistani dispute over Kashmir and attributes this in part to the difficulties arising from the distribution of water from the Indus - "where it seldom rains a river is as precious as gold" - and where now, instead of trading cedar wood and cotton cloth, "the only things exchanged are shells . . . not cowries but explosives". She is disturbed by the knock-on effects of the US presence in Afghanistan and the stories of a copy of the Koran being flushed down a lavatory at Guantanamo Bay - not to mention the taping over of a girl's face on a poster in Peshawar as part of the Morality Police's "blackout of images of women". In Kabul's medina bazaar, she is shown DVDs of teenage boys in sequinned dresses dancing for Afghan warlords: "Afghans certainly like their parties camp", she comments. The prevalence of smuggling also attracts her attention, as untaxed cars, illicit timber, faked passports and other contraband goods help to make the fortunes of those from Waziristan who keep their wives in "gold chokers and silken burqas". In Tibet she is shocked at the Chinese construction of a vast dam across the Indus: her very own river has been violated. In the two years or so since Albinia was there, little of all this seems to have changed.
The third ingredient of the book is, of course, the sheer adventure story of undertaking such a mission at such a time in such a place. She has the misfortune to enter Afghanistan as "the annual cross-border terrorism" is just beginning. She is spirited across the Pakistan-Afghan frontier without the proper documentation in her "shuttlecock burqa". At times she walks eight hours a day and covers up to forty kilometres. When confronted with a cliff face on which there is a carved Buddhist figure, she shins up it until her knees are shaking and her companions shriek at her to be more careful.
Alice Albinia presses on with her journey long after her chain of acquaintances and contacts has been expended, trusting people not out of judgement but from "an instinct born of exhaustion and distress". No wonder even the Pakistani generals treat her with some respect: "Alexander came here two thousand years ago . . . today it is Alice", one of them observes wryly and, on hearing that she is twenty-nine, remarks with awe that she is the same age as Alexander was.
© 2008 Alice Albinia | Cover design and artwork by Anna Bhushan | Site by Jack | Powered by