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Book Review: Alice Albinia’s ‘Empires of the Indus’ April 3, 2012

Posted by sandygordon in : Gordon, Sandy, Pakistan , trackback

Sandy Gordon

Alice Albinia, Empires of the Indus: the story of a river (New York, London: Norton and Company, 2008)

Enter this book and you are within a magic circle of history, geography and personal account.  You are a traveler in time and space, borne along by Albinia’s quirky, fascinating story.  On one level it is a travel book, with all the rich panoply of characters, oddities, near-miss adventures, courage and determination of the best of this genre – think Chatwin, Thubron and Theroux.  Like the best of travel writers, Albinia’s journey is an account of innocent amateurism  – at least as it applies to her travel rather than her scholarship.  On another, it chases the great empires of the Indus, from the Indus Valley Civilization, through to the Gandharans and on to Alexander the Great, the Lodhis, Sikhs, Mughals and British.  It also provides some brilliant insights into contemporary Pakistan, particularly the people of the underclass such as low caste Hindus and the Sheedi community, which originated from the African slave trade, only terminated with the coming of the British in the nineteenth century.  Finally, it is a sad history of the river itself, a river that no longer even flows in the dry season into its own creation: the largest deltaic fan in the world.  It also tells us that the tension over the Indus waters is as severe, if not more so, between the riparians within Pakistan, especially between Sindh and Punjab, as it is across international borders .

 Alice Albinia

From the first graphic description of a dripping head emerging from a sewer in Karachi to the last pages in which Albinia fights through the Tibetan highlands in an early winter seemingly with no better gear than a plastic poncho, one is constantly surprised.  Surprised by her courage and determination to travel alone, ‘on spec’ and on foot through some of the most difficult and daunting regions of the globe; and surprised by the erudition and depth of her reading.

This is a wonderful book, but it could have used some solicitious editing.  It seems to jump bewilderingly between centuries and places: one minute one is in Harrapa on the banks of the Ravi in 2600 BCE, the next in Kashmir today.  True, there are attempts to provide segues, but they are often obscure.  Another complaint: the pictures and map in my paperback version are grossly inadequate and there are quite a few typographical errors and on one page a major stuff-up in the rendition of the text: this book deserves better.

Also, at times Albinia is inclined to indulge in hyperbole for the sake of the story (surely not a crime but nonetheless worth pointing out).  The most serious instance is her description of a dam across the Indus in Chinese Tibet.  She notes this has totally cut the flow of the river, but comments that it is for electricity and has just been completed.  Presumably it is a run-of-river dam and the river will flow as normal once the dam is full.  This is not a hanging offence, but her failure to give the full account is magnified by the fact that this dam appears to take on for her symbolic value for all that has gone wrong with the river.  But these quibbles are only minor in the context of what is a considerable achievement.  In fact, this book is a ‘must read’ for any South Asianist – or indeed for anyone interested in this part of the world.


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