[This Q&A with Alice Albinia is a companion piece to this earlier post about Empires of the Indus. It should have been more detailed but I discovered after the interview that something had gone wrong with the dictaphone – a scratchy background noise made transcribing very difficult in places. Had to supplement whatever I could retrieve of the conversation with the shorthand notes I had jotted down. Will add to this post later if I have the time to listen to the tape again.]
Albinia studied English Literature at Cambridge, then came to India in 2000 and lived and worked - as a journalist and editor - in Delhi for two years. This conversation took place at the British Council office in Delhi.
How did your interest in the Indus river come about?
My interest in South Asian history really began during my time in Delhi. Of course, I’d always wanted to go to India – as many people in Britain do – and on reaching here, I found there was a lot to learn. My reading was very omnivorous. There were many debates about Indian history in the media at the time – about the rewriting of textbooks and so on – and that caught my attention; the subcontinent has such a rich and complex past. I also became interested in Pakistan, which is such an enigmatic land to an outsider who doesn’t know it firsthand. But when you step down from the train for the first time it’s so reminiscent of India.
Anyway, I went back to England and to the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), which was the only place in Britain where you could major in South Asian history. That was where I initially researched the history of the Indus.
When you visited Pakistan for the first time, did you have this book in mind?
Yes, I did – I thought about it while I was in Delhi. Then, when I went to SOAS, I realised I needed a year of concentrated study and research before I could actually begin my travels. Finally, in 2003, I went to Pakistan – to the Indus – for the first time. Up to that point my knowledge of the river was literary, academic, and to actually see it for the first time – in Sindh and in Karachi – was a very different experience.
What were your initial impressions of Pakistan?
The thing that took me a long time to come to terms with was the great religiosity of Pakistan – I had never really encountered anything like that, even though I grew up in a religious Christian family. As I mention in the book, in Pakistan almost every utterance seems to be punctuated by a holy expression – even when people are simply going about their mundane, worldly tasks.
I think this showy religiousness probably came in at the time of Zia. At any rate, it was a great contrast to my experience of India, where I hardly knew anyone who was so religious. In Pakistan, even if someone isn’t particularly religious, they’d never say it out loud – you have to be really careful about these things.
How did you settle on the book’s part-history, part-travel structure – the idea of moving backwards in time while simultaneously traveling upstream?
About it being a history and a travel book rolled into one...I suppose I could have made the decision to sit in a library and write it but it would have been a very different book then – and possibly not a very good book! For me it was very exciting, having done a year of academic research on the Indus, to actually travel along the river and see how that history was still being played out today, in Pakistan.
Going upstream also seemed like the natural thing to do: it’s how the first human beings tracking the river would have learnt about it in the first place – they would have followed it all the way to its source, gradually moving out of the plains and riverside settlements and approaching the more dangerous, remote terrain in the mountains. It seemed appropriate.
Post-Partition, the Indus has been on the fringes of the Indian consciousness. Do you believe its importance to the history of the subcontinent is in danger of being forgotten – in India, in particular?
Absolutely. There’s a funny story about (former Home Minister) L K Advani, which I mention in the book – about him visiting Ladakh in the 1990s, asking his hosts “What is the river here?” and being bemused when told it was the Sindhu (the Sanskrit appellation for the Indus). He founded the “Sindhu Darshan” pilgrimage after he returned, but it’s telling that even someone whose business it is to know about these things had almost forgotten about this river.
Also, Advani’s memory reaches back to the pre-Partition days, when the Indus was very much a part of India.
Yes – so if he can forget, it’s obvious that younger Indians are much less likely to know anything about it.
It’s strange how the Indus seems to have been forgotten, given that the name of India comes from it – even “Hindu” is a variation of Sindhu. It’s the principal river in the Rig Veda, where the Ganga is relatively minor river – ancient Indians were living and flourishing on the banks of the Sindhu.
The writing in Empires of the Indus is very accessible. Would you agree that we don’t have enough of that kind of historical writing about the Indian subcontinent? That much of it is too dry and academic to engage the casual reader?
Well, I think there’s a place for dry, academic writing too – when I was doing my research for this book, I read a lot of history and that sort of writing was very useful to me, for the way in which it set down facts in a straightforward way rather than making a lot of diversions. It’s an important foundation stone for a researcher. But yes, it was very important to me that my own book be readable, that there be a narrative and an exploration and so on – I was writing about what interested me and I wanted to write a book that I would want to read.
Any particular books on Indian history that helped you?
I have to say that in India, I was helped more by the rich tradition of journalistic writing than by history books – people in the media were talking about history and discussing culture in provocative ways, and that was very useful.
One of the things I thought was sad was that here’s such an important river and the current situation is so bleak and yet there is hardly any literature available on it. A river that once sustained so many civilisations is on the verge of being dammed out of existence.
Is there a serious ecological problem there?
Yes, very much so – the way in which the river has been used has been very problematic. The British were the first to dam the river and they did so without a proper understanding of the eco-system of the delta; they thought the water going down to the sea was a complete waste.
There is some anti-dam protesting going on in Sindh these days – Sindhis feel they’ve been hard done by. And local irrigation experts in Pakistan are asking for a different kind of model. These dams can cause a lot of problems for the land in terms of water-logging, desalination, displacing hundreds and thousands of people. The whole model is problematic.
This isn’t limited to Pakistan, of course – in the last chapter of my book, I describe the shock I felt on seeing a large new dam in the town of Ali in Tibet, near the river’s source. It’s happening everywhere.
Your enthusiasm for discovery shines through your travel narratives. What was your most awe-inspiring experience during your travels?
Definitely my time exploring the northern areas in Pakistan. In general, Northern Pakistan has a very beautiful culture and history, and it’s a very relaxed place too, very different from the rest of the country. In the valley of Hunza, the literacy rate is three times that in the rest of the country.
There was a beautiful stone circle near Yasin in the Gilgit valley – sadly, it's been disassembled now, because these relics aren’t properly maintained and people keep coming and taking away individual stones. Then there was the Paleolithic carving of a huntress in the Burzahom area – I was lost for words when I saw it. Here was this barren, rocky terrain and then all of a sudden you come across this incredibly beautiful, sprawling work of perspective art, like late-period Matisse.
In Europe, the pagans have been completely wiped out – whereas in a country like Pakistan, which is otherwise known to be fundamentalist, you still have these small traces of an ancient way of living.
We do tend to have a simplistic view of our past – there’s very little we know about the Kalash people, whom you met in northern Pakistan, or the Bons – another religion with pagan associations.
Yes, and even if you properly read the Rig Veda, which is the principal book of Hinduism, it’s so strange and fascinating. Here’s something that has been passed down orally over thousands of years, almost like a recording of the voices of all these generations of priests – and they were worshipping nature, attributing godly powers to rivers and fire and so on. I find that very endearing. To actually read that book is to discover something very different from some of the mainstream portrayals of Hinduism.
Incidentally, I’m always amazed by the work being done by Pakistani archaeologists – they have minus budgets, archaeology is the lowest priority for the government, there’s very little tourism in Pakistan so there’s no direct benefit, and yet these people continue excavating and discovering new things – often things that might be inconvenient for the mainstream way of thinking.
And what was the most distressing experience?
Meeting people around the LoC was saddening – there was a village whose natural connection with Ladakh was cut off and they were in the midst of rocket fire from India. The condition of the Indus delta was sad to see as well also. And of course, seeing that giant dam in Tibet, where the Indus had been stopped.