I am showing signs of travelogue addiction, and this is the kind of book that creates it! It’s not just the content of the book, which is marvelous and makes for a treasure trove of information, but the sheer tenacity and guts the author displays, that has made me a fan. Spanning four countries, this book is the story of the river Indus, from its source to its destination, though not in a linear way. What it succeeds in doing, like the best travelogues do, is to also allow us to travel through time, in this case, even to the time before man existed. From Hindu mythology to the Harappa civilisation to Partition and the Kargil conflict and China’s occupation of Tibet, the book is not just the story, but the history of a subcontinent (at least a part of it) and the civilisations that rose and fell.
The preface gives us an idea of the expanse of the river through its various names, given across lands and by everyone from Greek soldiers to Sufi saints.
There are nuggets everywhere right from the beginning – the comparison of the arrangements of the Quran and the Rig Veda, the integrity shown by a citizen in the early days of Pakistan’s formation, a modern day citizen blaming Jinnah for the country’s authoritarian culture, a nation’s search for identity, and the vision of its founder, who was only human. The first chapter ‘Ramzan in Karachi’ is a book in itself, and this can be said of all the chapters! ‘Conquering the classic river’ is a slice of the Company’s India exploits, ‘Ethiopia’s first fruit’ shows the amazing ‘presence’ of Africa in the subcontinent’s history and present, and the facets of their absorption into the mainstream. ‘River Saints’ is about Sufism and its modern day remnants who are not beyond politics, religious conflicts and feudalism.
‘Up the Khyber’ is about the exploits of Mahmud of Ghazni, the sexual preferences in the frontier province, and the beginning of the author’s more difficult challenges as she zigs and zags through Taliban and smuggler territory. ‘Buddha on the Silk Road’ is an awesome chapter on the meeting of 3 great religions – Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism and how they influence each other in the area, down to the destruction of the ancient Bamiyan statues more recently. In ‘Alexander at the outer ocean’, the author stubbornly walks, despite very serious hardships, the route that the Sikunder-e-azam took. ‘Indra’s Beverage’ takes us back to Rig Veda times, the Aryans and ancient Stonehenge like relics that survive to this day, along with the Kalash tribe, which follows a religion that goes back beyond Hinduism. Some areas, as the vivid prose describes them, seem to exist the same way they did in Rig Vedic times. The incredibly advanced Harappa civilisation is showcased in ‘Alluvial Cities’, though the reason for their fall is still contested. Kashmir’s archaeological treasures are the focus in ‘Huntress of the lithic’ and it’s interesting to see how the same ‘painting’ has been reinterpreted across time by various people to suit their needs. In the final chapter, the author captures the startling contrast of man’s attempts to conquer nature and at the other end of the scale, his ever decreasing ability to live in harmony. This chapter is also a testament to her commitment to the book, and the mentions of Kailash and the possibilities of Meru were extremely interesting to someone like me, who is interested in Hindu mythology. The book’s final words, which makes us wonder how long the river which spawned civilisations will be around, is a melancholic gaze into the future.
At 300 odd pages, every page of this book is packed, and there is no respite. But it’s completely worth it!