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.

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

Sheils recommended this book, and on reading about the book, I found it very interesting, and was delighted to get hold of it so quickly.

Here we drink three cups of tea to do business; the first time you are a stranger, the second time you become a friend, and the third, you join our family, and for our family we are prepared to to anything – even die.

In 1993, after a disastrous attempt to climb K2, Greg Mortenson ends up in an impoverished village in Pakistan. He is touched by the villagers kindness and shocked to realize how tough life there was. The children had no school. He was appalled to see eighty two children, kneeling on the frosty ground, working by themselves. They shared a teacher with a neighboring village, and he taught here three days a week. The rest of the days, the children would practice the lessons he left behind, in the open, in all the harsh climatic conditions.

Seeing this, Mortenson resolved and promised to build a school for the village. The book is his story of how his personal conviction and efforts resulted in schools in many of these marginalized villages. He started off with the promise to build one school, but ended up building fifty five schools. Understanding how educating girls can change the lives of the villagers, he tried to make it easier to educate the girls. He wins the locals’ confidence, becomes one of them, understands the difficulties they face, and does whatever he can to help them. The story of how one man can make a difference, if he really wants, no matter what obstacles he faces.

It is the story of one man’s determination, and grit to overcome it all, to make a difference. He has risked his life, gone into dangerous territory, gotten kidnapped.. All for the purpose – his purpose to get the people of Central Asia education, a means to better their lives. The story, of course, is not just about him. It is also about his family. His wife who understood and supported his passion. Who made do with the fact that her husband would be away for months together. In places where it would be impossible to even reach him by telephone. Not knowing when or if he would be back. And yet accepting it, because that was the man he was. It is a riveting read. Very inspiring, and very touching. I would certainly recommend it.

Disclaimer: I did read some allegations of fraud and people contending that this book is actually more fiction than fact. So I am not really sure what to make of it.. Even if it were inaccurate, it would still be a very interesting read, albeit a fictional one, rather than a non-fictional account.

The End of Innocence By Moni Mohsin

As I have mentioned before, I have developed a taste for books related to the Indian Subcontinent. I grabbed this book, based on the synopsis at the back and the fact that it was a book by a Pakistani author – a first for me.

Based in the Pakistan of 1971, with the backdrop of the civil war within Pakistan and the war with India, it is a touching story of a friendship between two girls. Laila is the eight year-old daughter of Fareeda and Tariq Aseem.  They live in the little village of Sabzbagh. Tariq’s mother lives in a neighbouring village of Kalanpur. Laila and her elder sister Sara live in Lahore during term time and are home with their parents during the holidays, as they attend a convent school in Lahore.

At the time the story starts, Laila is at home recovering from typhoid. Sara is at school. Laila is delighted that she can have Rani, her paternal grandmother’s servant’s granddaughter all to herself. Rani is older than Laila and when Sara is around Laila is the odd one out. Living in a world of her own, created by her imagination, aided by all the Enid Blytons that she reads, all she wants is to solve mysteries and have a dog. Rani, on the other hand is older, being a teenager, she is more interested in Heer, Ranjha and romantic movies and hopes to meet her own Ranjha some time.

The adults are all worried about the impending war with India.  Most of them are aghast at the idea that their beloved nation is breaking up into two. Only Laila’s dad, Tariq, wonders if it had been one nation – ever?

Amidst all this, Rani falls in love with someone, and end up pregnant. Laila understood that something was wrong, but was too young to understand much. All she wanted was to help, to be part of Rani’s team. In her zest and enthusiasm to help, she sets off in motion, something totally different.

The relationship between the two girls is portrayed beautifully. Laila’s innocence, teamed with Rani’s child-woman feelings, the various undercurrents of society. Each character, I felt was very well etched out. Be it Fareeda, Tariq, or Sister Clementine. Each character’s compulsions and reactions, like how Fareeda reacts when Sister Clementine tries to tell her about Rani’s situation.

It was a wonderful read. I found the story fascinating. The situations beautifully depicted, and the child’s mind portrayed so very well. I would give it a 4/5.