Friday, September 26, 2008

A conversation with Alice Albinia

[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.


  1. I picked up this book after reading your review, and I am completely taken by it. It is a wonderful book and very well-written. Thanks!


  2. great interview... am going to pick up the book....

  3. thanks - both book and interview made me want to read the book

  4. Yes, I will pick up the book too.

  5. Is she just being nice,or she really didn't experience eve teasing?
    A British friend who visited both India and Pak has horrific stories to tell.

  6. Rahul: I don't understand the question. Why should she talk about eve-teasing when the subject didn't come up in the interview?

  7. Well you asked this-
    "And what was the most distressing experience?"
    Maybe its just me because I talked to my friend only last week and its fresh in my mind.

  8. Rahul: you've made quite a leap there! I thought it was obvious that the "most distressing experience" question was in the context of her river-related experiences - or something that directly has to do with the book. It would be different if this were a general travelogue about a road-trip through Pakistan, or something like that.

  9. Well what can I say, for all the traveling, researching that your author has done, she still didnt get her facts right. The main river in the Rig Veda was not the Sindhu - It was the now dessicated Sarawati. Its amazing how many people even in India know about the history of the Saraswati - Sindhu civilization. They were no aryans, there never were. They were ficticious people created by the Europeans when the concept of racial superiority ruled the roost in colonial Europe. They couldnt explain how Snaskrit was related to Latin and Greek. It couldnt be that the dumbass indians could create their own language - so maybe they were invaded by the superior European tribe who taught the stupid indians how to speak. Just disregard all the indian historical record of the purans, just a bunch of losers trying to record and propagate a false historical recod for thousands of years.

    Anyways, the Sindhu was never a major river for indian civilization. Just a divider that separated the fighting cousins from Rig vedic times - the persians and present day indians. Both civilizations had common roots and co-existed (except for minor skirmishes before islam) for thousands of years.

  10. what about eve teasing - the only outlet for the virile suppressed male whose ancestors wrote the Kama Sutra. She looked like your typical pale white chick - maybe she appreciated getting groped by some mustachioed dude. Maybe she is too shy to talk about the exhilirating experience. Maybe it took her back to the good old times of the famed sex manual!

  11. She calls Hinduism river and tree worship. I think that's misinterpreting the religion. Hinduism isn't just tree, river, monkey and rat worship. It's the worship of every atom in the universe. Because everything is a part of something so large that even God is an abstraction over it to keep things simple for us.

  12. Interesting how a conversation about a book is viewed through each commenter's personal priority.

    To that extent, the comments section is as interesting as the post.


  13. what a marvelous book.beautifully depicting the land near the river.a must read for whole of the continent.
    I live on the Pakistani part of the Indian sub continent.

  14. This is a really marvelous book. I am an Indian and am amazed at how unaware I have been about the rich history of the river Indus. This history, like the river, goes beyond the present two countries of India and Pakistan, and am really thankful to Alice for giving us this book. How wonderful it must have been for her to travel not only along the 3200Km of Indus river, but also the 4500 years of history that river has with her.

  15. engrossing interview. read the book and found it wonderful. even the comments posted were interesting. but a question does remain: how did a single woman manage this rather difficult journey. it would be interesting to know why indian women face so much difficulty going on such a trip.

  16. I picked up the book in Madras and took it on my trip to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Tukmenestan, tracing both my brahminical/Aryan roots and the path of Babur and Alexander.
    Boy! is this young lady talented. Her book on the Indus truly combines geopolitics, history and some decent politcal analysis.
    I am now a big fan and in the likes of other great Brits like Michael Woods and Dalyrymple, Alice Albania is a star in my mind.

    If she reads this and later visits the US please be my guest and please contact me. (

    Salaam to Alice...Ramdas Iyer

  17. I leave in California and had bought this book during my recent visit to India after reading a review in an indian newspaper. I am happy to have this book in my personal library. I read it and aprrecite it . It is a wonderful and great book. I hope to read more from Alice. Thank you Alice.


  18. Just read the book after it spent a long time on my shelf, and before that on my 'to buy' list. Of course, I first came across the book here. Brilliant, brilliant book.

  19. Amazing being writing a wonderful book about historically one of the the riches areas. Her understanding seems to flow from the Vedas, through the Indus into the lives of the people along the banks. Wishing her the best and expecting a lot more to come......

  20. Madam deep regards for writing such a comprehensive book on origin of Indus Valley tribes & races & that of India. One stands enthralled by the pains that you have taken to undertake such an in-depth study of people around Indus, from its destination to its source.

    It is marvellous to say the least.

    I am an Army officer who is posted to a location 10 kms ahead of Gaik.
    After reading your book I tried in full earnest to trace the site of fifth millenia mentioned by you in line 18-20, para 2 of page 282 of your book. But unfortunately people of Gaik or around could'nt tell me anything about it.

    My biggest concern now is that job of expansion of road Leh to Nyoma has started in full swing & chances of signs of old civilisation getting lost has increased.

    Madam, if you could be kind enough to tell me the exact location, I will do everything in my power & with the help of army around Gaik to save all the heritage of prehistoric paintings. Please reply on my mail ''.

    I sincerely request the creators of this site to kindly forward this message to Ms Alice Albinia with warm regards.

  21. Thank you for writing such a wonderful book Alice, I was born in Karachi and spend 28 years of my life growing up in that city and have a lots of family and friends.The Indus always fascinating to us but thank you for bringing the facts to the World. I now live in Australia but if you are planning to go back to Karachi, we will love to have to stayed at my parents/uncle place.

  22. Most wonderful book. i got hooked right from the first page. With a lot of respect and gratitude towards all your efforts, thank you very much.

  23. I am currently reading Empires of the Indus and am utterly fascinated by the knowledge, insights, sense of adventure, courage and determination of Alice Albinia in writing and completing this riveting book.


  24. Brilliant and fascinating! My ancestors migrated from the banks of the Indus somewhere near present day Multan down to Karachi some time around 1750 A.D because the river overflowed. Later, my grandparents migrated from Karachi from Bombay due to the partition. I have always been curious about what life must have been like back then and what it must be like today. Reading this book was a fascinating experience and I hope that some day Indians, Pakistanis and Tibetans can cherish the cultural similarities and differences just like Alice.

  25. This is an important book in updating a layman about Indus.After reading through I feel touched by the author's grasp of the past and the present.If Govts of Pakistan,India and China can establish an 'Indus Trail'for the tourists,it would be a boon to travel enthusiasts.

  26. Alice, I have not yet read Empires of the Indus, though I would love to read it soon. I am reading Leela'S Book. It is so well written and so engaging that all what i do is that i think about it the entire day and look forward for the night to come when i can relax and lie down in my bed and read it attentively without anyone disturbing me. It is a master piece i believe. the way you have observed the hindu history, the behavior of the right wing hindu groups and the intellectualism of the educated indians is remarkable and impeccable. Initially i thought you were an indian as well or maybe one of your parents was. But it shocked me thoroughly to see that you were a pure Briton.
    anyways, I am so enjoying the book.
    In fact when i went to the book shop, i saw this one on a pile of books, i picked it up and read the first couple of pages, anything about indian lives attract me (though i am a pakistani), i took it to the cash register and asked the owner of the shop to tell me about it. he said that the first book of this author was a best seller but this one isnt selling that great , that is y this book is placed on the heaps of those books which are on sale. in fact it was being sold on 25% of its actual price ! but i shad made up my mind and brought it home !

    I made the right decision. !

  27. also I would like to make one thing clear that the element of religiosity in India is far more intense as compared to in Pakistan. People in Pakistan do not do not display religion that much as compared to its display in India in every shop, nook and corner, every office, hotel road side and hence everywhere. Not that I am against display of religion but i was generally making a comment

  28. I’m reading Empires of the Indus now and recommend it highly. Her appreciation of the people of Pakistan and India and their intertwined culture really shines through. Will read Leela’s Story next.


  29. I hope you are well .

    I recently studied your book " Empires of Indus" I believe which way you wrote this book no one can feel boring,
    So there is so many admirable words for that book .
    Really I tell you in a single weak studied whole your scripted and Googled about you I saw your picture you biodata I totally loved your personality.

    In last want something say about you ,
    Believe me I learned many and more historical facts and about personalities form your unbelievable written book but one thing you wrote little bit about Mohen_jo_daro hope if you come again please something more details write about Mohen Jo Daro.


    Iam from Sindh but never that kind of history firstly I was aware like you mentioned about African tribe (Shide)
    and you very well written on partition aspects so thank you for that various and precious history knowledge.

    And again I am thankful for that kind of history book which you wrote on Indus valley civilization. For a Sindhi nation this is a proud and rich script .

    Your booklet reader.....!!!
    Aashan SolanGi.