Monday, 6 August 2012
Empires of the Indus by Alice Albinia
The Indus rises in Tibet, flows west across India, and south through Pakistan. For millennia it has been worshipped as a god; for centuries used as a tool of imperial expansion. Following the river upstream and back in time, Empires of the Indus takes the reader on a voyage through two thousand miles of geography and more than five thousand years of history.
It's not often I copy a summary into my reviews but in this case the back cover sums up the book perfectly. Albinia starts in Pakistan and works her way up the course of the river, meeting the people that currently live around it and also informing us of the history of the river, from the partitioning of India right back to prehistoric times. I was very excited to start this one as travel and history are two of the non-fiction genres I enjoy and I was interested to see whether Albinia could pull off a fusion of the two.
For the most part, Empires of the Indus is a very successful book. Albinia clearly loves her subject matter and is very well read in terms of the history of the different peoples and nations. I must admit to enjoying the travel parts of the book more than the history parts, mainly because Albinia could speak several of the languages of the area, meaning that she could talk directly to people and present their stories. As a woman travelling through strict Muslim and Hindu areas, she also got access to women's stories that were often just as fascinating as the men's. Albinia writes about what it is like to wear a burqa, to travel through the lawless regions of Pakistan, to arrive at a place without knowing anyone at all and having nowhere to stay. She is an adventurous traveller and one of the themes of the book was how hospitable all of her hosts were, no matter where she went. Even in the "terrorist breeding grounds" of Pakistan and Afghanistan, Albinia was greeted warmly and people were always keen to welcome her to stay in their homes and share their food with her. Would that happen in the West?
As I read this book, I realised how little I knew about some of the countries featured in it, especially Pakistan. I had always imagined Pakistan as a solely Muslim country. But Albinia uncovers other sides of Pakistan, for example the Sheedi, descendants of a freed African slave, that blend Islam with their own cultural traditions. I learned that perhaps I had been stereotyping some countries in the area, and that the real situation is far more complex than I had realised. I enjoyed the chapter that included a history of Sikhism as this is something I knew relatively little about.
Some of the history was a little dense. I knew a bit about the general history of the area before starting this but did find it hard to keep some of the rulers and invaders straight. Although the book is roughly 300 pages long, it felt a lot longer at times as some chapters were heavy on the history and required a mental slog to get through. I became used to this as I read through the book and consequently found the later chapters 'easier' than the first.
I'm going to end with my favourite passage from the book;
"I press my nose against the burqa and stare out into the world. I see a young man with a pink rose tucked behind his ear sitting on a boulder, his AK47 lovingly upholstered in blue and pink stickers. I see sand-coloured fortresses, the sky cloudless blue behind them. I see graveyard after graveyard fluttering with flags of jihadi martyrs. I see a gun on every male shoulder. And I see no women at all - not grannies in burqas, not even a little girl."
First Published: 2008
Score: 4 out of 5