Rivers of Confusion

The best travelogues narrate the experiences of a stranger travelling to a faraway land, detailing snapshots of the local wonders, and recording the culture of the people encountered along the way. ‘The journey is the destination‘ is the traveller’s credo that elevates him/her above the mere tourist.

Faiz thi raah sarbasar manzil, hum jahaan pahunche kamyaab aaye

In an earlier post, I neglected to mention that Zaffar Ahmed Khan was an accomplished poet with published collections in Urdu. Our quest, however, was to gather English travelogues related to Kashmir to collect material for a comparative anthology of travel writing by visitors to the valley.

While that manuscript is, alas, lost to us forever, my interest remains undiminished and I have scoured the gamut of travel writing from good to bad, touristy to cringe-worthy. This post is about a travelogue that records a journey so fascinating that for the longest time I could not decide whether the author’s experiences were based on fact or fiction.

The book is Empires of the Indus by Alice Albinia. Adventure (to the point of foolhardiness), history, and culture meld into a scarcely-believable travel diary. It is the preface to the newer edition where Ms Albinia explains how she was able to negotiate her impossible itinerary that finally convinced me that her experiences were authentic.

As per the author’s website, Empires of the Indus has won the Somerset Maugham Award, the Royal Society of Literature Jerwood Prize, the Dolman Travel Prize, La Toison d’Or du livre d’aventure vécue, a Sufi Shah Inayat Writer Award and the Premio Hemingway Reportage award.

To western readers Empires of the Indus is a much-acclaimed anthropological narrative by a first-time author traipsing along the Indus from its delta at Karachi to its headwaters in Tibet, time-travelling through historical eras while physically crisscrossing borders between Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and China.

We, being native to these lands, can however sense that besides the barely-supressed islamophobia that runs like the eponymous river throughout the book, the author inadvertently reveals whiffs of other outdated -isms like colonialism, (western?) feminism, and just-fake-it-ism. Other reviewers have pointed out the inaccuracies related to their own areas of expertise but let me reveal two glaring examples of Ms Albinia transmogrifying geography to suit her chosen narrative.

Firstly though, a little geography recap. The Punjab is named after five rivers – Sutlej, Beas, Ravi, Chenab and Jehlum (east to west) – that ultimately flow into the Indus. Empires of the Indus itself contains an excellent map of the Indus Valley for ready reference. We will have to make do with this simple one:

Alice Albinia claims that the people of Harrapa traded beads, pots, pins, bangles and arrowheads with the neolithic community at Burzahom (Burzhama) in Kashmir in exchange for himalayan cedar floated downstream to Harappa through a trading post established at Manda (Akhnoor) in Jammu. Unfortunately Burzahom, Manda and Harappa just happen to be situated on three different rivers – Jehlum, Chenab and Ravi respectively! Ms Albinia apparently forgot to consult her own map 😉

At the culmination of her journey, the author declares in a definitive paragraph that from the watershed of the sacred mountain of Kailash, four great rivers of South Asia (Indus, Sutlej, Karnali, and Brahmaputra) arise and four faiths (Bon, Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism) congregate in pilgrimage. It is an impressive passage but sadly innaccurate as the Sutlej is described as flowing north-west through Kashmir. If we refer to her map again, the Sutlej is the easternmost of the five rivers of the Punjab – far, far away from Kashmir – while the one that flows (hundreds of miles away) through the valley is the Jehlum, situated furthest to the west!

Overall though, notwithstanding all its inaccuracies and biases, Empires of the Indus is a fascinating account of a daredevil journey through our part of the world.

P.S: Alice Albinia tragicomically criticising L. K. Advani for ‘his poor sense of geography’ made me smile.