Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River by Alice Albinia

I’ve come to really enjoy travelogues. Of all sorts. This was another Goodreads recommendation, based on the books I have read and rated. The description had me hooked.


‘One of the largest rivers in the world, the Indus rises in the Tibetan mountains and flows west across northern India and south through Pakistan. It has been worshipped as a god, used as a tool of imperial expansion, and today is the cement of Pakistan’s fractious union. Alice Albinia follows the river upstream, through two thousand miles of geography and back to a time five thousand years ago when a string of sophisticated cities grew on its banks. “This turbulent history, entwined with a superlative travel narrative” (The Guardian) leads us from the ruins of elaborate metropolises, to the bitter divisions of today. Like Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between, Empires of the Indus is an engrossing personal journey and a deeply moving portrait of a river and its people.’ says the blurb, and I just had to get hold of it.

Albinia, a British journalist, fascinated by the River Indus, and the civilizations and religions that it spawned around it, travels up the river, from its delta in Sindh, to the place of its origin in Tibet. As she travels through Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Tibet, she also narrates history, and links it up to the present world and culture. The Sheedis in Pakistan, who could trace back their ancestors to Africa and to the first African disciple of Prophet Mohammed, the life, and hierarchy of Pakistani society after the Partition, the Aryans and India as it had been. The way of life in India a few centuries ago, when religions co-existed, peacefully. Fascinating tidbits and facts – both historical and contemporary ones. There is a lot more of Pakistan than India, in the book, but that is of course a given, since Indus is almost completely in Pakistan now, but she still manages to link the common history of the region with the mighty river flowing through it, really well. A wonderful mixture of history and culture with Indus as the ever-present protagonist. The river which is mighty, deep, mysterious, divine and a lifeline to those who live by it. For centuries, Indus was more than just a river. At one point in history, conquering the Indus was equivalent to conquering India. The books spans from the Vedic times to today’s world, touching upon Kargil, the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas amongst other important recent developments that impacted the subcontinent.

The author’s meticulous research is evident in the book. And her evident interest in her subject. Conversant in Urdu and Hindi, she is able to converse with the locals, and live like them, fasting during Ramzan, living in their houses during her travel, almost becoming one of them. The author’s enthusiasm, and zeal left me amazed. The journey that she undertook, couldn’t have been easy by any standards, through one of the world’s most volatile regions, potentially one of the most unsafe regions for a woman to travel alone, is one of the bravest things to do. A lot of travelogues have the authors being enraptured by the subject, in this case, she is utterly fascinated and yet objective, fascinated enough to have researched her subject thoroughly, and objective enough to analyze it all, so very well. I just did not want it to end. I wished she could go on and on, I wished I had learnt history reading books like these.

A totally recommended read for anyone who loves travelogues and history – such a marvelous combination, handled in such a wonderful manner! Another Goodreads recommendation, that I absolutely loved.

Culture Comfort Zone

Every so often, in a group here, somebody, while relishing their dinner, will remark, ‘I can’t understand how these Goras eat their bland food. They have no taste. There is nothing like Indian food’.

I call it the ‘Culture Comfort Zone’, where we believe that everything we like, or what we have grown up with is the best. And it happens to the best of us, doesn’t it? For instance, piercing of ears of young children is so common in my culture. We normally have a ceremony on the 28th day after a baby is born and if it is a girl, her ears are pierced. It is said to be easier, because the tissues are softer and apparently the child does not feel the pain, as much(we can never be sure of that, can we?). My mother had her ears pierced at the age of 8 years, and she remembers it vividly, and felt that it is much better to do it at a time when the child is less likely to remember.

Something that is common and totally acceptable in my culture might come across as horrible, and cruel to some others, who believe in letting a child decide when she is older whether or not she wants pierced ears. They might think that we are barbaric to even think of doing it to such a young child. That is again, because of the culture one has grown up in. I am so used to the concept that I did not even have second thoughts about piercing daughter’s ears.

In some cultures, a samosa is a great, delicious treat, while in others it might be fish and chips. And who is to say, that one is tastier than the other? Who is to say that I have better taste than you?

For a vegetarian, it might be unthinkable that someone could relish non-vegetarian food, while for non-vegetarians, vegetarian food might seem so uninteresting.

So many of our likes and dislikes are based on our upbringing, and the influences through our lives. Some of us love to try different cuisines and enjoy it too, while others need that comfort food. What I find difficult to understand is that blanket statement of how ‘my food is better than yours’. Of assuming that other cultures don’t know how to cook.

I know people who like only Indian food, and try to get hold of it where-ever they go, but don’t go around spouting things like, ‘Only Indian food is edible’. They find it difficult to try other cuisines, but don’t try to run them down. That, I think, is perfectly fair. Not everybody can like every cuisine, but surely, that does not mean that other cuisines are not good?

Maybe, if we remember that just as we find somethings in other cultures different, and difficult to accept, there might be things that others find totally unacceptable in our culture, we might not be so judgemental about others?

The Bad, Bad West!

If I had a penny for the times I have heard people blaming every single problem on the West, I would be a millionaire!

Starting from credit cards, teenage mothers to joint families breaking up – blame the West. Every culture has its own drawbacks and its own positives. Surely, our culture has its own problems. Why be so blind to those and blame just the West.

People talk about credit cards as if they are the most evil invention in the world. To be honest, I use credit cards, and have not paid interest even once. It is a great convenience, helps in so many ways. I don’t have to carry cash everywhere. And my card also gives my cash back. Just as any tool, it can be used in both –  responsible and irresponsible ways. So why blame the poor credit card for all the problems? Then again I wonder, why people in the wonderful east are so bothered? After all, our culture is the one which has ‘so much to teach the West’. Surely we should be the ones to show the Evil West, how their evil inventions can be used so well rather than shunning them?

Western culture breaking up joint families is another thing we get to hear so much. I can’t help wonder if some people are blind(and deaf as well). While joint families might work for some, it just might not for others. Why does it have to be the norm? Can’t people decide what works for them, without being condemned for it, or being told off for aping the West?

Credit cards are just another form of loans, aren’t they? Money lenders have been part of every culture in this world, I believe. Haven’t we all heard stories with money lenders in them? What was so different about them? They lent money, and charged people for it. In case of credit cards, we don’t incur charges, unless we don’t payoff the money in time. Loans are much worse – then, again, loans are not really a western thing, is it? I grew up in a time where credit cards were unheard of. Yet, I have heard of people making unwise financial decisions and facing a tough time. So who was to be blamed then?

As for teenage motherhood, IHM has said everything about it here. And anyway, after living here for 8 years, I am yet to meet those teenage mothers we hear so much about in India. Where, where are they all hiding? Poor me, I expected to see them at every corner!

Nothing about the west goes without being blamed. I have heard people saying that schools are useless in the West. Imagine my surprise when I find wonderful schools, where children do learn a lot- contrary to what I had heard!

And then of course, there is the convenience factor. The West believes in convenience, while we, we believe in hardship – even where it is not required. I can’t figure out what is wrong with convenience? One lady told how it is going to be very easy for her to relocate to India because she does not even use the microwave(as opposed to people like me who like to use conveniences, you see). Somebody, please tell her that we do get have things like microwaves in India 🙂 Of course, it is sacrilege to use conveniences, Indian food has to be cooked the way to was cooked 500 years ago, for it to be authentic, you see. No ovens, no food processors, no microwaves – all influences of the evil west. Only lazy people use conveniences, and of course the west is full of lazy people, who do not look after their children, or cook proper meals. Funny, isn’t it, especially when some of these people are happy to be living abroad, while pretending to look down on all aspects of the West.

Parenting in the West is another topic that I am too afraid to even get into. It will take me a whole post, and some more to talk through that.

We are returning back to India next year. I get two reactions. One, talking about how great a decision it is, how my child would be saved from the evil influence of the West, and the great things about living in our culture. The other one is about how difficult it is going to be. How everything is bound to be bleak, and how we might regret it.

The truth will probably be somewhere in the middle. Yes, we might love it there, but might face some new challenges. Some aspects of living in India might delight us, while some might take some adjusting to. Yes, we might miss some conveniences that we have here, but might love other conveniences there. Just the way it was, when we first moved here.

One thing I wish I could tell such people is that people make bad financial decisions every where, people are lazy in every culture, things go wrong even in families who have had no western influence whatsoever. We are all humans, after all. we make mistakes, we may or may not learn from them. No culture is perfect, and no culture is totally imperfect. We all have our imperfections, and our strong points. If only we could pick the positives, learn to adapt and balance our lives, and live life the way it works for us.

PS: On a side note, I just completed reading ‘Growing Up Osama’ by Jean Sasson. It is about Omar Bin Laden, Osama’s fourth born son, and his first wife Najwa Ghanem Bin Laden’s memories of their life with him. One of the things that came to mind while writing this post was that Bin Laden had a similar phobia of all things Western. He believed that Westernization was the cause of evil, and forbade his family from using basic things like the refrigerator – in places like Saudi Arabia and Sudan! It is a fascinating book.

Nine Lives – In Search of the Sacred in Modern India by William Dalrymple

I haven’t done a book review in a while, but as I read this book, I felt I had to write about it.

I had heard of William Dalrymple, but had never managed to get hold of it. For some reason, my library’s online search never yielded any results. One day, at the library, I managed to browse through the ‘History and Culture’ section and came across this book. I had no idea whether this was aclaimed or not, but liked what I could glean from the back cover. This is what it says

‘ In this title, a Buddhist monk takes up arms to resist the Chinese invasion of Tibet – then spends the rest of his life trying to atone for the violence by hand printing the best prayer flags in India. A Jain nun tests her powers of detachment as she watches her best friend ritually starve to death. A woman leaves her middle-class family in Calcutta, and her job in a jute factory, only to find unexpected love and fulfilment living as a Tantric skull feeder in a remote cremation ground. A prison warden from Kerala becomes, for two months of the year, a temple dancer and is worshipped as a deity; then, at the end of February each year, he returns to prison. An illiterate goat herd from Rajasthan keeps alive an ancient 4,000-line sacred epic that he, virtually alone, still knows by heart. A devadasi – or temple prostitute – initially resists her own initiation into sex work, yet pushes both her daughters into a trade she now regards as a sacred calling. Nine people, nine lives. Each one taking a different religious path, each one an unforgettable story.’

After reading the book, I have to say, I was not disappointed in any way. Dalrymple, covers nine lives, nine people, who have given up materialistic lives and turned towards the spiritual. Spiritual ways that are as diverse as possible from each other. From a Jain nun who pulls out her hair one by one, as part of her vocation, to tantriks who live on cremation grounds. Each just as spiritual, just as believing in their path to divine happiness.

The best part of the book, for me was the way it is written. The author chronicles each story with such compassion, honesty, and being totally non-judgemental. It takes you right to where the story unfolds and gives you an insight to what might be propelling people to give up their lives for what they consider their faith.  He lets their words say their story.

A fascinating account of how diverse India really is, and how beautifully all these diverse faiths and beliefs have lived together, in peace. How Hindus go to Sufi saints for blessings, and how Brahmins get blessings from a Dalit temple dancer. When trouble comes calling, people are ready to try anything that might work. This book is all about how faith intermingled with modernity, of how the old traditions are still revered and followed, even if some of the people who actually keep these traditions alive find it difficult to lead lives without taking on other jobs in order to make ends meet.

It also indicates how these practises might soon come to an end. In case of the illiterate story-teller in Rajasthan, the book talks about how education seems to threaten this ancient at of storytelling. For some reason, when people get educated, their ability to read seems to reduce their ability to remember the epics word by word. Interesting, isn’t it?

I would give it a 5/5, for being the most fascinating book I have read in recent times. I would recommend it to anybody who is interested in historical and cultural books.