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The unquiet Indus

Historian Alice Albinia fell in love with the river of conflict long before she had the mind and the matter to write a book about its chequered history, writes Damini Purkayastha.

books Updated: Sep 16, 2008 19:16 IST
Damini Purkayastha

Eight years ago as the then-23-year-old Alice Albinia sat in her boiling hot barsati in Nizamuddin West, reading the Rig Veda, thoughts of a cool mountain river flowing through civilizations came to her unbidden. Following her epiphany, Albinia decided to journey along the Indus and that’s how her first book, Empires of the Indus; The story of a river, came to be. <b1>

“Once I decided I wanted to explore the millennia of history attached with the Indus I looked around for courses I could study. Being in India as a journalist did not give me enough time to study history so I applied to the School of Oriental and African Studies in London for an MA in South Asian history and tailored in research on the river.” Following her dissertation Albinia approached publishers in the United Kingdom with her idea. “They loved it. They handed me money and gave me three years’ time.”

The book, based primarily in Pakistan, where Albinia lived for four years doing research, travels into Tibet, where the river was born, and Afghanistan, a civilization that called it Sher Dariya, or the Lion River. Talking about her time in Pakistan, Albinia says that what struck her first was how different reality was from the negative portrayal of the country in the British media. “But besides that, it was a lot like being in India.” Exploring the history of conquests along the Indus at a time when the same stretches of land were in conflict again, was she ever tempted to draw parallels between the past and the present?

“Parallels were always there. I remember thinking to myself do these politicians never ever read history books? Armies were marching into Kabul for a second time in history with virtually the same rhetoric!” A work of non-fiction the book is tied together with several narrative voices. “It was a conscious decision. The story didn’t need to be fictionalised. The book is about local people’s idea of history — I wanted to take my interpretation history and understand how people remembered it.

A lot of the book is actually conversations on the river bank.” Was her family ever anxious about her travels? “I hadn’t actually told my husband where all I was going in Afghanistan and he met a journalist met a back home who informed him and he was alarmed and most distressed. But my family was really pleased about my coming to India, they handed me lists, ‘this from Anokhi’, ‘that from Fab India’…” Albinia’s tryst with Asia began when she was 18. “A friend and I came to Kathmandu, to a village where there was no gas and no electricity and we tried, hopelessly, to teach English.” At the end of her six months here, she came to down to India for a while before returning to Cambridge University to pursue English Literature.

“At the end of my graduation I had no plans about what to do but I wanted hot chocolate. So I went to this end of the university where you got the best, cheapest hot chocolate and there, on a board, was a poster announcing Commonwealth Scholarships to India, and I thought, aha!” At the moment she says she has about three different ideas for her next work and looks forward to working with her husband. “He’s finishing his book at the moment and then we’ll do something together. We enjoy travelling and researching together, so let’s see.”

Albinia’s also hoping to write something about Britain someday. “I probably know the least about Britain as of now. In fact, I’ve read the Rig Veda, Koran and all sorts of other books, but I never finished the Bible.”