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

By Zulfiqar Halepoto
This review was presented during book launching ceremony in Hyderabad on October 08, 2008 jointly organised by the Transformation and Reflection for Rural Development (TRD) and the Indus Institute for Research and Education (IIRE)

It is indeed a great honour to speak to this august house and to share few words on the book titled “Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River” written by a student of englidh litrature Alice Albinia.

So far more than 100 reviews and critiques are written on this book. From Daily Guardian to the Times of India, international media covering this book as the most unique and thrilling account of the cultures and civilizations located on both the banks of river Indus. Few call it a novel explaining the myths, taboos and religious and spirituals rituals related to mighty Indus whom Sindhis call Sindhu Daryah, Daryah Badshah, and she wrote ”

“In Sindh it is called ‘Purali’, meaning capricious, an apt description of a river which wanders freely across the land, creating cities and destroying them. For Pashtuns on the frontier with Afghanistan the Indus is simultaneously ‘Nilab’, blue water, ‘Sher Darya’, the Lion River, and ‘Abbasin’, Father of Rivers. Along its upper reaches these names are repeated by people speaking different languages and practicing different religions. Baltis once called the Indus ‘Gemtsuh’, the Great Flood, or ‘Tsuh-Fo’, the Male River; here, as in Ladakh and Tibet, it is known as ‘Senge Tsampo’, the Lion River. Today, in spite of the militarized borders that divide the river’s people from each other, the ancient interconnectedness of the Indus still prevails.”

Now the book is listed for the Guardian First Book Award 2008.

I hope like Muhammad Hanif’s book “The Case of an Exploding mangoes.” I hope this book shall also run for booker prize.

Interestingly both the books covered Sindh, its people, culture, politics and society at length. And Alice has also written a wonderful review of Hanif’s book.

More than 25 events were held on this book and this is the second in Pakistan.

This books deals with a range of issues related to the history, cultures, traditions and people of multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-ethnic region of the world. She was bold enough to take the task to explore the most complex and diverse baggage of the history of sub-continent, covering ancient, medieval and contemporary account the political and socio-economic landscape of the region.

From Rag Vedh to Sikander-e-Azam and from Kalhora dynasty to the present Pakistan-India water dispute on the rivers, she tried to cover the major bullets of the history of river and development in her book.

As she wrote in the book that she did not want to write the book sitting in any air-conditioned library in England, so she went out and starts her journey of the exploration of River Indus from its mouth at Tibet to the end source at downstream Kotri.

Traveling through unfamiliar lands and cultures, was not always easy for a single women” The Hindu, a leading Indian Daily wrote.

Though she has covered lot s of very important issues but I would like to focus only to the points related to Sindh. Though the book includes many other aspects of South Asian Society but since water or river Indus was the main theme of her book so let me quote some river and water related observations of her: –

“I was shocked, depressed and horrified by what has happened to the river. The British destroyed the indigenous canal system and built dams across the Indus. They had a “completely wrong idea about the river and how it worked” and were “desperate to make it financially productive”. The precedent set by the colonial masters has been continued in the post-colonial era, wreaking havoc on the ecology and the lives of people closely linked to it.”

She has narrated an extra ordinary account of some shrines of Sindh especially of Shah Inayat of Jhok Sharif and Bhit Shah.

She wrote an exclusive note on Sheedis living in Sindh but some of the historical notions narrated by Sadiq Musafir are not correct.

For me the most impressive point is the expansion of the idea through this book that “in Sindh Muslim, Hindu, Ahmedi, Dalit etc can sit, dine and walk together.

I think this point is the most important to capitalize in the global community that Sindh and Sindhis are the people in South Asia, who are secular and progressive and can lead the war against religious fundamentalism and extremis. This recognition in the book is a success and shall be fully capitalize by the political think tanks and intellectuals.

“Where else would you find, “a Hindu untouchable family sleeping in the Sunni mosque of a Sufi shrine dominated by Shias?” A Baloch journalist tells the author

But on the other hand she has also exposed the elite culture of existing sajjada or gaddi nasheens and the voluntary slavery or bonded labour from the children of murids as unpaid volunteer workers forever. She wrote

“But the lesson I learn in Sindh is that the descendents of saints are universally unreliable. Some sajjadas boast sweetly to me of their expensive Italian clothes, fleets of Mercedes Cars, and credit cards from American Express” page 86.

On page 26-27 she wrote that she went down to the harbor at Karachi and ask a fisherman Baboo to ferry her from Delta of Karachi along the mangrove coast and up the river to Thatta. He said in Urdu “No Water. The Punjabis take all the waters. Between Hyderabad and the Thatta the river is dry”

She also covered the very important period of history when the British ruled the continent and major irrigation and water development schemes were carried out. She in details wrote on the concerns of the people of Sindh on upstream projects and their impact on agriculture, fishing etc. (see pages from 40-49)

She attended a Fisherfolk rally and enjoyed the following slogan

“Musharraf you big cheat,

Shame on you a hundred times,

Pakistan has bowed before America,

And you are trying to rape our river”

During the rally a fisherwomen Fatima showed to her a bottle of polluted water and said “We have sent this water to the Senators and said to them “Would you drink this?” page 51.

She has used very extraordinary quotes at the very start of every chapter, which shows her beautiful esthetic sense and great interest in art and literature. I quote two of worth reading quoted here:-

“Every wave is filled with rubies, water perfumed with musk, from the river waft airs of ambergris” Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai. Chapter 4: River Saints- page # 79.

The other is: – “Once the water of Sindhis crossed, every thing is in the Hindustan way”

Emperor Babur. Chapter 6-Up the Khyber-page # 130

Two very good books are already written on the same pattern, one is written in Sindh “Jit Jar Wahey Tho Jar” by a young and dynamic researcher and academics Amar Laghari, who wrote an anthropological account of the cultures and traditions of downstream Kotri.

The other book is ” Meera Sindhu Saeen” written in Urdu by a prominent Seraiki writer Dr Abbas Burmani, who travels from Skardu to Bhambhor and wrote an excellent account on the cultures and civilizations runs through river Indus.

Let me conclude my paper with the following quote from the book

“One of the longest rivers in the world, 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. Today it is the glue of Pakistan’s fractious union.

Empires of the Indus follows the river upstream and back in time, on a voyage through two thousand miles of geography and five millennia of history, through a landscape where the past still resonates today.”

Thank you very much.

Indus case is political, not technical: scholar
Bureau Report

HYDERABAD, Oct 9: Ms Alice Albinia, author of the “Empires of Indus”, which has won the Royal Society of Literature’s special prize for non-fiction work, has said that survival of the people of Sindh is dependent on the Indus River and the case of the river is not technical but political.

She said at the launching ceremony of her book at the Sindhi Language Authority on Wednesday that almost all the people with different schools of thought she had met during her research were unanimous in their opinion that the river was the only source of survival for the people of Sindh.

She said that she had travelled across the coastal belt of Badin and Thatta and up to Tibet and Himalaya to gather material and information on the river, which revealed that Sindh was the only region in the subcontinent where people of different religions lived in harmony and believed in secularism.

She said that frequency of references to the Indus River in the ancient history of India inspired her to write a research book on the river.

TRD chief Zafar Junejo said that the book had been written specially for the English speaking world and to a very great extent it truly highlighted Sindhi society’s outlook on secularism and non-violence.

Prof Aijaz Qureshi pointed out some factual mistakes in the book and said that it was wrong to say that the name of Indus was “Porali” though the river did have a tendency of Porali (changing its course periodically. )

He said that many chapters of the book were very important and suggested that they be translated into Sindhi.

SDF leader Zulfiqar Halepoto and Ms Rozina Junejo also spoke at the ceremony, which was jointly organised by the Transformation and Reflection for Rural Development (TRD) and the Indus Institute for Research and Education.

5 thoughts on “Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River by Alice Albinia”

  1. Must be a good account of the Indus – I would like to read the book. It also reminds me of the book I read lot of time ago “Indus the Lion River”.

  2. It sure is a mammoth task that the author has attempted in this book.Look fwd to reading it.
    May I just point out that the ancient Hindu text is the Rig Veda and not Rag Vedh as mentioned above.

  3. i m looking for the book in local store at Larkana, Sindh but can’t find it here to buy.

  4. Alice by writing this book, has realy taken us to wonder land of Indus, with all emotions of happiness, sorrow and disbelive, the apathy …………….. I must confess that I while reading the book wept on several occassions.

    Thanks to Alice and all the people how still blief that Sindhu is the greatest thing in this world.

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