November Issue 2008
Interview: Alice Albinia
“I think I know more about the interior of Sindh than I do about the interior of Sussex”
Alice Albinia is the quintessential traveller with her boundless curiosity, keen instincts and healthy disregard for the dangers that may lie ahead on the road less travelled. Add to this a dash of history, a passion for myth and antiquity, and the journey to the source of the Indus becomes the perfect quest.
Alice studied English, History and French at Cambridge, took off in her third year to spend time in France because she “missed speaking French,” and opted for voluntary work in a village without electricity in Nepal as soon as she left school. She then found her way to Delhi where she worked for the Centre for Science and Environment before moving to the literary journal Biblio and from there on to Outlook Traveller.
The Indus began to lure Alice to her epic journey and she equipped herself for it by going back to school at SOAS where she studied South Asian History and began an acquaintance with the Urdu language.
Empires of the Indus, her first book, won a Royal Society of Literature Jerwood Award for work in progress.
Q: When did you actually start working on Empires of the Indus?
A: Well, I had the idea in Delhi. I went back to England to do an MA and wanted to do some thorough academic research on this subject. But in terms of travelling, it was as soon as I finished my MA in the autumn of 2003.
Q: And you made more than one trip to Pakistan?
A: I made loads of trips. I first came to Pakistan in 2003. I had sat in the libraries and done that side of it, but I wanted to see what the country I was going to spend most of my time writing about was like, how the academic ideas and the literary ideas matched up with the country. So I did a trip around Pakistan, spent a lot of time in Sindh. I went to Lahore and Peshawar. Then I came home and worked on my book proposal, got the contract and returned to Karachi to begin research.
Q: How long did it take you to write the book?
A: I spent 2007 writing the book. I handed it in, in the autumn of 2007, then spent time going through it with the copy editor.
Q: And finding a publisher was not a problem?
A: I spent a lot of time doing my book proposal and at times it felt a bit crazy, because it was just an idea. I spent months working on it. And that was time well spent because I could pretty much follow the plan in my proposal.
Q: But did you end up collecting more material than you could actually use?
A: Some chapters required me to be at a place for ages and you don’t really find out things until you spend time there. Other chapters were much more straightforward in terms of doing a particular journey or going to a particular place.
Q: Have you already launched the book in India?
A: Yes, I have just come from India
Q: And the response?
A: It was really interesting. One Indian journalist said to me, “There are so many great Indian rivers. Why did you choose the Indus?” I said the Indus does run through India, but it has been forgotten about in India. This portion of the Indus is so far way, in Ladakh.
Q: There is a generation in India that came from Sindh.
A: There is this story in my book about L.K. Advani, then the BJP Home Minister of India, who goes to Ladakh and is shown this river. He says, “What river is it?” And they say, it is the Senge Tsampo, which is a local word. He says, “What’s that?” And they say, “It’s the Sindhu.” He says, “What is that?” And they say, “It is the Indus.” Finally he gets so excited by this river that he’s forgotten about that he creates a Sindhu Darshan festival. Now Hindus go to this festival in Ladakh in the summer, carrying some Ganges water and they pour it into the Indus to purify it just before it flows into Pakistan.
Q: We don’t think about it either, that the river too was divided.
A: This river gave India its name. So much of early Indian history is on its banks, the Rig Veda, Moenjodaro. In India, in the early 1950s, they began looking for Indus Valley era sites on the banks of the Saraswati. The Indus is the important river in the Rig Veda, not the Saraswati. There was some controversy about whether the Saraswati even existed, but satellite mapping indicates it probably did at one time and has dried up since.
This search began because India had lost the Indus, Moenjodaro, Harappa, the antiquity of India had all gone. The BJP funded crazy, pop historical research.
Q: Did you actually follow the course of the Indus?
A: Yes, more or less. My last trip was to Ladakh in Tibet. I doubled back sometimes when there were things I needed to check. I did a lot of trips to Sindh.
Q: Did you need an interpreter for Sindhi?
A: In Sindh, I relied on Urdu, basically. In a way that was easier than to speak with a pure Urdu speaker. It was their second language, which I picked up. They were not speaking too fast, too pure, too poetic, too Persian. So it was quite easy to communicate.
Q: Do people in Sindh still revere the Indus?
A: Yes, and they feel passionate about its disappearance. Everywhere I went in Sindh, people were talking about and protesting against the decline of the mighty Indus river.
Q: Will the Indus survive?
A: It will if there is a radical rethinking of irrigation policy. Rivers all over the world are under threat. The holy rivers of north India are filthy with industrial effluent and sewage; many of the rivers of North America no longer run down to the sea. It is rash to destroy a river like the Indus which has nurtured human life and civilisation for thousands of years.
Q: You travelled in the Frontier. There were no problems there?
A: It was not a problem at the time. I don’t know what it would be like now — different, I think. If I had to go from point A to B and was passing through somewhere slightly tricky, I would just wear a burqa and no one would stop the car.
Q: On most of this trip, were you travelling on your own or was there somebody with you?
A: I generally made friends as I went. For instance, I spent some time in Bannu with friends I had made through somebody I met in Peshawar. I would just turn up in a place and hope there would be a hotel but there never ever was, so I had to make other arrangements. Sometimes I was on my own. If you’ve taken a flying coach from Peshawar to Bannu once, you can do it on your own after that.
In Afghanistan I was on my own a lot more because I didn’t know anyone there. In Tibet I was on my own.
It’s a different scene in the Northern Areas because you have all these people coming to climb mountains from the West, so you have backpacker style hotels. Still, I did a lot of journeys in little valleys of Gilgit, and stayed with the families that I met. A lot of hospitality went into this book.
Q: What was the most exciting discovery you made?
A: The Northern Areas of Pakistan still have many beautiful secrets. The stone circles in the valley of Yasin were awe-inspiring: monumental structures of an unknown, forgotten civilisation. And I will never forget being shown the prehistoric rock carving of the archers, in the hills above the Gilgit river. The shepherd had described the carving as a battle scene, ‘like the war between India and Pakistan.’ I was expecting a crude line carving. In fact, after walking for hours through the hills, what we beheld on the rock before us was an extraordinarily exquisite drawing — a mysteriously accomplished and beautiful representation of humans hunting for ibex (as they still do up in those hills). I hope these carvings and circles survive the next phase of road-building.
Q: Which part of the journey did you find most interesting?
A: The Alexander the Great chapter was really interesting. I wanted to walk it because I thought that’s how Alexander and his men did it. I walked with Aslam, a man from Kalam I had met through friends in Swat. Aslam said, “You will have to dress up as a Pathan woman. Get a chaadar, wear it and then walk behind me.” I did what he said and covered up. I look much less foreign in Pakistan than I do in India, I could be Pathan or something. But the policemen always knew that I was foreign. They said, “It’s your chaal. Aap ki chaal say.” And I said, “What is it?” And they said, “You walk too fast.”
We set off from Swat and then went following Alexander’s route down to Hund and Pirsas just near Bhisham, and then down the Indus.
Q: Then the journey was not pre-arranged.
A: Nothing was very pre-arranged, even in Tibet. That was more interesting, I think. Otherwise you get someone mediating between you and whom you want to meet.
Q: Were there travel restrictions in Tibet?
A: I wanted to take the western route to stay as close to the Indus Valley as possible. So I went up the Karakoram Highway over the Khunjerab Pass to Kashgar in Xinjiang in north-east China. Then from there I had to go to the capital of western Tibet, and that meant making an illegal journey from Xinjiang to Tibet. The Chinese want you to come in through this kind of jeep route through Lhasa, the tourist route.
That journey was difficult as I didn’t speak any Chinese and I had to get a bus from here to there, not knowing if I was going in the right direction. Chinese is really hard to pronounce. You try to say one word, maybe you are saying, “Please give me three bananas,” when you mean to say, “Please show me the way.”
Q: Tell us about your trek in Tibet to the source of the Indus.
A: It was the most difficult part of the journey for me. Tibet is a sad land at the moment which chafes under its colonisation by China. Then there was the unknown terrain and the forbidding climate. Discussions with complicated human beings in the plains of Sindh are one thing; negotiating with the weather up in the mountains of Tibet is quite another. I talked to myself a lot as we walked along; and round my neck I wore a broken camera with my husband’s name engraved on it (my aunt had written on it as a wedding present). It became an impromptu talisman. Human contact is an extraordinary thing. The whole mood of the journey changed once Sonamtering, a Tibetan nomad, agreed to walk with us to the source of the Indus. He knew the way; before that we had a fair chance of getting lost forever in the mountains.
Q: You have people in the family who have been to India before.
A: Yes, loads.
Q: So was there some kind of connection there?
A: Definitely. My mother went. I remember my aunt going. At age 4, I remember my aunt coming and giving presents to each of her nieces and nephews.
Q: How did your family feel about the trip?
A: It was difficult for my husband, who knew where I was going most of the time and felt worried about it. My siblings were pleased by regular presents of Sindhi kurtas and khussas, and didn’t seem to object.
Q: Do you see yourself as a travel writer?
A: Just a writer. I don’t really read travel books. I read a lot of novels and history books. Some of these history books are really useful, but they are not very interestingly written. There are only a few which really stand out, very well-written academic books, but even those were not the kind of books I wanted to write.
Q: You have to be in this middle ground…
A: It’s good to do some research and bring something new to the subject you are writing about. But what’s interesting is to have a bit of this and a bit of that and how this interacts with that. That was the kind of book I wanted to write, it was definitely not going to be a sitting-in-the library book or a pure travel book.
Q: Are you working on something else?
A: I am definitely thinking of something else. I got really distracted by these book tours, and now I am going to be distracted by my husband’s book which I am editing. We edit each other’s books. But after that I am going to start putting pen to paper. I often think about walking around Britain. I think I know more about the interior of Sindh than I do about the interior of Sussex.
I feel it is just an attitude. One goes to a new place and asks lots of questions. What I want to do now is to take that attitude back and go to Sussex, go to London, asking lots of questions.