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

I’ve come to really enjoy travelogues. Of all sorts. This was another Goodreads recommendation, based on the books I have read and rated. The description had me hooked.

EmpiresofIndus

‘One of the largest rivers in the world, the Indus rises in the Tibetan mountains and flows west across northern India and south through Pakistan. It has been worshipped as a god, used as a tool of imperial expansion, and today is the cement of Pakistan’s fractious union. Alice Albinia follows the river upstream, through two thousand miles of geography and back to a time five thousand years ago when a string of sophisticated cities grew on its banks. “This turbulent history, entwined with a superlative travel narrative” (The Guardian) leads us from the ruins of elaborate metropolises, to the bitter divisions of today. Like Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between, Empires of the Indus is an engrossing personal journey and a deeply moving portrait of a river and its people.’ says the blurb, and I just had to get hold of it.

Albinia, a British journalist, fascinated by the River Indus, and the civilizations and religions that it spawned around it, travels up the river, from its delta in Sindh, to the place of its origin in Tibet. As she travels through Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Tibet, she also narrates history, and links it up to the present world and culture. The Sheedis in Pakistan, who could trace back their ancestors to Africa and to the first African disciple of Prophet Mohammed, the life, and hierarchy of Pakistani society after the Partition, the Aryans and India as it had been. The way of life in India a few centuries ago, when religions co-existed, peacefully. Fascinating tidbits and facts – both historical and contemporary ones. There is a lot more of Pakistan than India, in the book, but that is of course a given, since Indus is almost completely in Pakistan now, but she still manages to link the common history of the region with the mighty river flowing through it, really well. A wonderful mixture of history and culture with Indus as the ever-present protagonist. The river which is mighty, deep, mysterious, divine and a lifeline to those who live by it. For centuries, Indus was more than just a river. At one point in history, conquering the Indus was equivalent to conquering India. The books spans from the Vedic times to today’s world, touching upon Kargil, the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas amongst other important recent developments that impacted the subcontinent.

The author’s meticulous research is evident in the book. And her evident interest in her subject. Conversant in Urdu and Hindi, she is able to converse with the locals, and live like them, fasting during Ramzan, living in their houses during her travel, almost becoming one of them. The author’s enthusiasm, and zeal left me amazed. The journey that she undertook, couldn’t have been easy by any standards, through one of the world’s most volatile regions, potentially one of the most unsafe regions for a woman to travel alone, is one of the bravest things to do. A lot of travelogues have the authors being enraptured by the subject, in this case, she is utterly fascinated and yet objective, fascinated enough to have researched her subject thoroughly, and objective enough to analyze it all, so very well. I just did not want it to end. I wished she could go on and on, I wished I had learnt history reading books like these.

A totally recommended read for anyone who loves travelogues and history – such a marvelous combination, handled in such a wonderful manner! Another Goodreads recommendation, that I absolutely loved.

Return to India by Shoba Narayan

Shoba Narayan’s memoir of her family’s Return to India process, after living in the US for about 20 years. I knew I had to read to read it as soon as I came across it. To add to it, Smita, heavily recommended it on one of my posts. I just had to get hold of it.

Shoba charts her journey from the time she first started to dream about going to America. Her parents are horrified at the idea, and try everything to stop her. Fate, finally, had it’s way, and she made her way to America as a student, with stars in her eyes, all set to live the American dream.

America gave her opportunities that she had dreamed about. She had come to America to pursue a master’s degree in psychology, but ended up a full-fledged art major trying to do a master’s in sculpture, For Shoba, this was the essence of America’s opportunities.

As Shoba immersed herself in America, she also develops close friendships with her fellow Indian students as well as her American friends. Living her new life, the experiences of being a student on grant in America, studying subjects that excited her, finding funding and help in the most unexpected places, washing dishes to make some money, Shoba is content. Somewhere down the line, she gets married – a traditional, arranged marriage to Ram.

From her happy existence in America, her perspective on living in America starts changing after she became a mother. She slowly started thinking about the ‘India Question’, with more and more of her friends and people around her talking seriously about moving back to India. The country that she had fought to leave, was now, beckoning to her. The culture and society that she had once tried to avoid, was the one she started trying very hard to inculcate in her daughter. There are some hilarious episodes mentioned of how hard she tried to make her daughter ‘Indian’. She calls herself a ‘born again Hindu’, when she drags her family to the temple, she had never before visited, or tried to wear a sari the whole day, for a month, just to make it familiar to her daughter. In her own way, trying to bring India or being Indian, closer to her American born and bred daughter.

While she was passionate about moving back, her husband Ram, was more resistant to the idea. He was less bothered about the parenting worries that Shoba had. She was quite worried about how to parent her daughter, the American influences worrying her tremendously, while her husband believed that with the right values, their daughter would be fine anywhere. They had their discussions, their disagreements, and their concurrence on the ‘India Question’. Finally, after a few years, things fell into place and they did indeed move to India.

So, how did I find it? I really enjoyed her perspective on life in America(or abroad anywhere, for that matter). Her observations of how people behave, some reject India completely, while others become born again Indians. The way she herself changed after her daughter was born, is quite interesting to read. In some places cliched – just the way, we have heard of NRIs behaving, and in some places interesting.

When I started reading this, I couldn’t help wonder if I would find similarities in my situation with what she recounts, but I have to say, her situation, and her reasons for moving back were quite different, so I did not really relate to her story much. It was just reading her story than reading a story that I could totally relate to. Probably because we had not lived abroad for so long, nor had we ever planned to live abroad. Returning to India was a given for us, rather than a ‘question’. Also parenting worries of the sort she had, somehow, does not bother me. Influences of all sorts, would be there in any society, in my opinion. My daughter’s childhood cannot be exactly the same as mine, even if I went back to the town I grew up in, and did everything my parents did. But that is entirely my opinion.

An interesting read, in some places very cliched, but pacy and gripping all the same. The way her priorities changed over the years with changes in her circumstances is very interesting to read. I would recommend it to anybody who likes memoirs although I think I enjoyed her first book – Monsoon Diary more. Would I recommend it to someone who is relocating/planning to relocate to India? I don’t know. Mainly because I could not relate to it at all, but perhaps if you are in a similar situation as her’s you might relate and enjoy it much more. Other than that, as a memoir, it is an interesting read.

Antharjanam: Memoirs of a Namboodiri Woman by Devaki Nilayamgode

I came across this book last year, when I was in India, but could not get hold of it. Since then it was on my must-read list of books.

The book is an English translation(by Radhika Menon and Indira Menon) of a Malayam book written by Devaki Nilayamgode, a 75 year old Namboodiri woman. She recounts the life of a Namboodiri woman from childhood. Namboodiri women are called, ‘Antharjanam’, which literally means, ‘People who live inside’. After the age of 6 or 7, Namboodiri women are confined indoors, and not seen even by their own fathers or brothers. Those days, it was common for only the oldest son in a family to marry within their caste. The other sons would do a ‘Sambhandam’ with Nair women, and the Nair women and their children would continue to live in their house and not in the Namboodiri illam. It was common for the eldest sons to practice polygamy for various reasons. There were instances where a man on his death-bed would marry a teenager. Illams traditionally would have unmarried girls, married women and widows of the Namboodiris.

The author recounts her own childhood in a prosperous illam. She grew up in a prosperous illam, and yet her childhood felt almost inhuman. The hierarchy is clear right from the beginning of life. A girl child was never welcomed with happiness. She talks about how they did not even have a comb to brush their hair. Nobody cared about such things. She talks about how her mother never encouraged her or her sisters to have any sort of freedom, as that would not bode well for a life where they would have to live under the shadow of others. Rituals, traditions and rules, made their lives. Some of the things she describes are heart-breaking. Namboodiris could get polluted by getting touched by other castes. During deliveries, Nair women would be attending to the Namboodiri women, so after the delivery, the first thing the poor women had to do was go and have a bath in the pond, to purify themselves. Already weakened by the delivery, they had to make their way to the pond, have a bath before they could be rest at all. As Nilayamgode mentions, nobody spared a thought that often the water would be muddy during the monsoon, and having a bath in that condition might attract infection in the already weak women. Traditions were the most important thing, so had to be followed.

The plight of the widows were particularly sad. They had to pay for the crime of having outlived their husbands throughout their lives. Nilyamgode’s mother was a widow, the third wife of a Namboodiri, but she was respected for her abilities, so she had a slightly better life. Education was practically non-existent for women. Devaki learnt how to read and write, and that was about it. Her sisters started reading books that their brother would slyly pass to them, and that was their only source of reading. It was only when they came in touch with their sophisticated Nair cousins that they realised how different their lives were. The Nair girls would be well-groomed, well looked after, and would even treat the little Namboodiri children with affection – something they never got from their mothers or fathers. She recounts how they would give them pieces of soap, which was treasured and used sparingly to make it last longer.

Fortunately for Devaki, the family that she married it was very liberal and socially progressive. By that time, social reforms and movements had begun. They were focussing on educating women, widow re-marriage, encouraging the other sons of households to marry within their caste.

Nilayamgode writes about how her book will be the last of it’s kind, because change has ensured that there are no longer problems that are restricted just to the Antharjanams. That life today is so much better than it had been a few decades ago. The book brings to focus how much of change has happened, and how change can happen when communities decide for themselves that things have to change – when the change happens from within. Most of the change that happened in the Namboodiri community was because people themselves realized that things have to change in their society. When the society convinced their widowed sisters to remarry, educated their daughters, and encouraged their wives to take control.

I though I was shocked because I grew up in a different time. My mother started reading this book, last week, when she was here, and she was as shocked as me. She had an inkling about the lives of the Antharjanams but had no idea how different it was. My grandmother would have been 86 or 86 now had she been alive today, so around 10 years or so older than Devaki Nilayamgode. They would have grown up in villages quite near by, in families of similar financial capabilities and yet Ammamma(and her sisters) was an educated, empowered lady. So much of variation in lifestyle just because they belonged to different castes.

Isn’t it wonderful how time and progress has brought it to a point where today, everything else being equal, there would be no difference between me and a Namboodiri girl?

A wonderful book. A must read.

Shadow Princess by Indu Sundaresan

As with her other books, Sundaresan brings to life, the Mughal Era, and the lives of the royals at that time.

I had read the other two books based on Mughal history -The Twentieth Wife and the Feast of Roses, and had been dying to get my hands on Shadow Princess.

Shadow Princess chronicles the life of Jahanara, Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal’s oldest daughter, from the time her mother died giving birth to her fourteenth child. Mumtaz Mahal’s death comes as a complete surprise, and nobody knows what needs to be done. Shah Jahan goes to pieces, and the teenaged Jahanara has no option but to pick up the reigns and be strong for everybody else. The role of Padsha Begum, which in normal circumstances would have gone to her father’s other wives, fell to her, and she rises up to the occasion, and proves that she has the ability and the mental strength to handle it all. Not only does she organize everything, she also helps her dad to go back to ruling the country, something he was ready to give away to one of his sons. Knowing that her brothers were too young to take up the responsibility, Jahanara perseveres and gets her heart-broken father to become King again. She navigates through her father’s sorrowful state, her brother’s rivalry and her sister’s treachery.

Shah Jahan comes to depend upon her so much that he even refuses to think about her marriage – he needed her to support him with the ruling of his kingdom. Jahanara, slowly becomes the most powerful woman in the kingdom. The book chronicles Jahanara’s story, bringing to life, the Mughal court and it’s politics. Brothers fighting for the throne, sisters in conflict for power,alliances made for grabbing power, life as a royal, where sometimes what you really want, you never get, although you have the access to all the jewels, the money, and the power that one could possibly want. Jahanara, while she had everything, still did not get to lead a life that she wanted. As Jahanara’s story progresses, we also get a glimpse of the Taj shaping up. The monument of love, which remains the most known symbol of the Mughal Period, and the most recognized Indian monument, even centuries after it was built. While we have all read, and learnt about Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, this was my first exposure to Mumtaz Mahal’s daughter, who, from reading this book, might have been a far better and fairer empress than her father or her brother would turn out to be. One can only wonder, I suppose, of how India’s history might have turned out, had she been ruling India, instead.

Sundaresan’s descriptions transport you to that era, effortlessly. You almost feel the heat of the afternoon, the texture of the silk that they wear, and the aromas of the food she describes. The grandeur and the opulence of the court, the power play, and the way in which seemingly powerless women of the zenana controlled the kingdom in more than one way is brought to life by Sundaresan’s words.

I loved the book, just as much as I loved all her others. If you like historical fiction, you will love it too!

What the Body Remembers by Shauna Singh Baldwin

Roop, one of Bachan Singh’s two daughters, grows up without her mother. Her father, a respected however not-too-well-off a person in the village, does his best in bringing up his daughters and son.

Roop grows up believing that she is destined to a better life. When Bachan Singh gets a proposal from one of the wealthiest men in the village for his daughter, he is delighted, only to be disappointed when he realizes that it is not for one of the wealthy man’s sons. but for an already married relative of his. However, already in debt after his elder daughter’s wedding, Bachan Singh does not have much of an option but to agree. Bachan Singh might have been heavy hearted but Roop was delighted. She was convinced that she has a wonderful fate in store for her. Even becoming a second wife does not faze her. She believes that she will be a little sister to her older co-wife.

Satya, Sardarji’s wife is sophisticated, the perfect mate to the Oxford educated Sardarji. Perfect, but for the fact that she is barren. She tries hard to fight her fate, hoping that Sardarji will refuse to take a second wife, only to realize that despite his educational credentials, Sardarji is still bound by his roots. Having an heir, a son, is very important to him.

She is hit hard by the fact that the new bride has got handed all her jewellery. Everything that was hers is now Roop’s. Satya tries everything she can to ensure that Sardarji’s second marriage is ruined.

It is a touching story woven through the landscape of political landscape of unrest and eventually India’s Partition into India and Pakistan.

Roop’s initial innocence, trying hard to please everybody, believing that she and Satya would be like sisters, her compliance and her slow metamorphosis into her own person, somebody who understood that she had to fight for her rights in every way she could. She learns the ways of the world to survive, to hold on to her position, as the mother of Sardarji’s children.

Sardarji, again a complex character, educated in England, a civil engineer, outwardly a modern person, but when it came to his inner self, someone who held on to the views of his society. He tries to saddle both his worlds, wining and dining with his English colleagues, while looking down on them(just as they did him), and his life in Indian society.

Satya’s bitterness, her inability to accept her fate, trying everything she could to ensure that Roop is just a baby maker, and not Sardarji’s wife. Satya comes across as a strong person, someone who knows her rights, and tries to fight society in the way she could. A woman who argues with her husband, who refuses to be ‘sweet-sweet’ in front of her husband, a woman who believes that she is her husband’s equal.

The book is also sprinkled with instances of how underprivileged women(and girls) were in those days. At her father’s place, Roop had never tasted meat or fish – that was reserved for her brother, because the whole family’s fortune rested on him. The girls would just be married off. Roop’s unmarried aunt, who keeps planning to leave, but everybody is aware, that she will never leave.  After all, as an unmarried woman, she does not have a house of her own, to go to.

The book also deals with the way political unrest changed life as they knew it. Once Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs lived together in harmony, but with the partition looming closer, things changed, loyalties changed…Life as they knew it changed. It also reflects how Sikhs viewed the partition. While carving out countries keeping in mind the two main communities, Sikhs were the ones who were uprooted from their land and made to migrate into a new, foreign land. One stroke of the pen that made them foreigners in their own land.. A partition when one minority was almost entirely ignored…

A beautifully written story, leaves you moved, saddened, and a lot wiser. A wonderful read.

The Wedding Wallah by Farahad Zama

Another book, I chanced upon by accident. I saw it on the ‘just returned books’ shelf in my library, and I had to have it!

It turned out to be a sequel to another series of books, but it still was easy enough to figure out the previous parts of the story.

Mr Ali runs a successful marriage bureau, while Mrs Ali runs a successful campaign against crows in her back yard. Their niece Pari who lives near them, is a widow, and has just adopted a young boy, Vasu. Mr and Mrs Ali have taken her(and her son) under their wings, while hoping that their son, Rehman would get more responsible.

Everybody is pleasantly surprised when Pari gets a marriage proposal from a very affluent lady for her son Dilawar. Everybody is overjoyed and feels that Pari should accept the proposal, while Pari herself seems extremely unsure. Pari had been working at a call centre and felt independent enough to take care of herself and her son. She also loved her husband, and is not quite sure about marrying again.

There is also Aruna(Mr Ali’s assistant) and her husband Ramanujam’s story interwoven with the story.

It was a very interesting read. I read it almost in one sitting. I loved the way the author has brought out scenes in everyday life. I loved his descriptions of the characters. Mrs Ali, and her neighbours, Mr Ali, Pari – all very real, and believable. Mrs Ali’s new cellphone and the way she handles the phone, is so typical of some of the older people I know. Aruna and her husband make a very cute and loving couple – again quite real, in the small town way they are portrayed. Dilawar’s dilemma – to follow society’s norms or to follow his heart..

The book addresses gay rights issues, the campaign in India to legalize gay relationships, and the kind of issues they face in society today from police harassing them to societal condemnation.

The story also brings to front, the Naxalite movement, as is prevalent in certain parts of India, where landlords have oppressed the poorer sections of society for ages.

The author manages to weave in the different political and social issues really well into the story. A fast paced, interestingly written story. I was a little disappointed with the way the book ended. There was something missing. But that might be because there is more in the series to come. I think I will definitely be picking up his other books.

Zohra by Zeenuth Futehally

March has been a good month for me – books-wise. I have loved all the books I read so far. Most of the time, I review only some of the books I read. This time, however, all the books so far have been review-worthy- which means that I am hard pressed for time. Sigh! But I can’t really complain – have been having so much fun reading them 🙂

Edited to add the book cover. Thanks Smita – I don’t know how I forgot, and did not even realize!

I came across Zohra, when I was searching through books on Amazon. It sounded very interesting, so I placed a request for it at the library.

Zohra was first published in 1950, and remarkably still remains very readable, even after more than 60 years of being written. Set in Hyderabad, when it was still a princely state, with Nawabs and their way of life still intact. Hyderabad has just become part of India, and the turbulent state of affairs of the state(and the country) is reflected in the people living in those times.

Zohra grew up in a Nawabi family, with her sister. Her mother and other women despaired of her interests in studying(mainly Persian poetry) because they feared that educated girls would never settle in domestic life. Although Zohra has hopes and aspirations of her own, she comes to realize that those are futile to hope for, given her background and resigns to her fate. She gets married to Bashir, an England educated young man, who comes to adore her, but fails to understand her.

She lives a normal married life, when her brother-in-law, Hamid returns from England. Despite all the years spent abroad, he seems to be the brother more comfortable on Indian soil. Both brothers clash on several issues like modes of political protest. Hamid, siding with Gandhian methods, while Bashir felt that the violent/aggressive methods would have been more effective. Hamid seems happy in home-spun Indian clothes, while Bashir insisted on wearing suits in sweltering Hyderabad.. In the middle of all this Zohra, trying to balance duty with passion. Married to the brother who loves her, and attracted to the brother who loves and understands her.

Zohra’s life, her sacrifices, and her choices make up the book. A touching story, a tragedy which just had to happen..

The story also gives an insight into the lives of the Nawabs in Hyderabad at that point in time. People who believed that their lifestyles would continue the way it had been for years. Only some like Hamid believed that change is at their doorstep. The book also reflects the conditions, confusions and mindsets of the Indian Muslims who decided that India was their land.

A beautifully written book, that cannot leave the reader untouched. A story that will stay with me for a while. A wonderful period read.