Paradise lost

Written by Suman Tarafdar | Updated: Oct 5 2008, 05:51am hrs
Rivers are contested spaces, have been for long. As borders, as transporters, as providers of water, civilisation and life itself. And they have been violated, for multiple reasons. But rarely has a 3,000 plus kilometre long river been so desecreted for reasons old and new, that it no longer reaches the ocean. The earlier stories of the Indus are not tales that are of primary concern to the country it today flows through for a major part of its journey. Alice Albinias remarkable, journey traveling from the mouths of the river near Karachi to its source in Tibet makes for a remarkable read in Empires of the Indus.

This travelogue relies on history to bring out the glory of the river, for little of its rich legacy is today part of the mainstream. Neither in Pakistan, nor in India, or even in Tibet, where the Chinese have even dammed the source. She travels upstream, traveling through lands today peopled by inhabitants who are shadows of their ancestors. She visits the great bronze age relics of Mohenjo-Daro, follows Alexanders trails in the region, the places that witnessed the lives of Guru Nanak and the 18th-century mystic and socialist(!) Shah Inayat. More detailed encounters include the Sheedi (recollect Yakut from Razia Sultan), who have learnt to be ashamed of their past or the tombs of the erstwhile rulers of Sind, the Kalhoras, of whose relics she writes that such treasure would sustain an entire tourist industry. Here, they stand in a windswept desert, blown by the sand, visited only by the occasional porcupine.

As the author travels undaunted, often passport-less, through dangerous areas on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, differing facets of the river make themselves apparent. Her interest in history sees the book remain more in the past than in the troubled present, where the river which once encircled Paradise, is reduced to nothing but dry riverbeds and dust.