Author: Alice Albinia
Title: Empires of the Indus
I remember a time when I was momentarily seduced by the idea of following the Silk Route. It seemed like a glamorous idea, trudging in the wake of traders and adventurers who braved inclement weather, murderous dacoits, disease, illness, hunger, thirst to undertake seemingly foolhardy journeys into the unknown or nearly unknown far off lands. Men like Marco Polo, Hiuen Tsang, Ibn Batuta and many many more.
Seemingly, we are well connected with the world in these modern times. We can fly to the other side of the world, or encircle it, within a day or two. Or more, given the airline schedules. We can eat sandwiches everywhere, sip bottled water and be fairly safe. But this applies only to beaten paths. If you decide to go off the beaten paths, be prepared to live it down. Knock about in ramshackle buses, drink contaminated water, eat iffy food and miss your cozy home.
Alice Albinia undertakes an arduous journey along the banks of the mighty river Indus, starting from the Sindh delta where the river merges into the Arabian sea. She tracks the river up to its modest source in Tibet, Senge Khabab (Mouth of the Lion). The journey is daunting. It is often through dangerous parts of Afganistan, Pakistan, India and Tibet. As it is close to the borders of these countries often, the area is under military surveillance and not accessible. Alice has to take permission from the military of all these countries to be able to continue her journey.
The lower part of Indus is nearly abandoned and fisher folk living there are robbed of their fertile land and occupation because of damming on the river in upper areas. This region is populated by Sindhis who find themselves overshadowed by the rest of Pakistan. From here she moves on to the Sheedi's, African settlers who were brought here in the same manner as they were taken to America, for the purposes of slavery. She moved ahead, each stop more perilous than the last, under the shadows of the Kalashnikov and AK47. Her last journey is the most difficult of all. It is treacherous, changeable weather at high altitudes of Tibet, the most unmanned point of all.
All along the way we learn the fascinating history of the region she is in. The story is saddening and familiar. Where all was pure nature's bounty earlier, it is depletion and exploitation of natural resources by man now. The early civilisations respected nature and lived within its rules and enjoyed its bounties. Now man is in a hurry, he wants to extract the maximum out of the earth, its minerals, its flora, fauna and water. The deplorable effects of damming are seen everywhere. Politicians want to provide water for irrigation and puts up dams, harming the natural ecology of the region. Modernisation ignores the rules of nature and harms the earth in consequence. Water becomes a weapon for negotiating with fractious neighbours.
Along with the author, we mourn for the lost glory of Indus. We shake our heads thinking of the heads of government who no longer care for nature, they care only to provide short term solutions to increase the longevity of their tenure.
I will pull out one quote from the book with the reminder that it was published in 2008.
As we move along the edges of the flooded fields, the village men talk of Kashmir, unburdening themselves of their disappointed life histories. They speak bitterly of the Pakistani Mujahideen. 'Nowdays we are not so deceived by their false promises of freedom,' one man says. Nor does the Indian state offer much hope, nobody in India, they say, wants to employ a Kashmiri Muslim. The only advantage that Kashmiris have is the law which forbids Indians from buying land in the valley: 'So even poor people here have a home and farmland.'
The subversion of Article 370 puts paid to this last tenuous link to self-subsistence the Kashmiris had.
So we can perhaps 'look forward' to the hell on earth that faces us as we kill the rich fauna and flora and dry up the bounties nature has heretofore offered us. And we offer no hope or reprieve to the people displaced by the hasty ill conceived actions of our politicians, no matter what their country or affiliation.
The books is excellently written, deeply researched and each region of the Indus personally visited by the author. I admire her tenacity and dedication to this project. It is a valuable book for someone wanting to know more about the East-Asian region. Alice Albinia joins the ranks of brave world travelers who suffered privations to add to the knowledge of people like us.