Considering I have perfect vision, I wonder if my brain has weird synapses that perceives the world in a different way from the normal folk; and this feeling is reinforced by my habit of looking for signs where they are none. Dear reader, tell me I am not alone.
A year ago I bought a copy of the ‘Outlook Traveler’ magazine and was highly intrigued by an extract from Alice Albinia’s book “Empires of the Indus”. But it was only recently while browsing through a bookstore at Mumbai airport I came upon the paperback edition and bought it immediately. But my reading of this delightful book got delayed and it was only yesterday that I sat down to read the book that included two of my biggest passions: Travel and History.
Alice Albinia’s book is the best book in the travel literature genre that I’ve read in recent times. Wanderlust, astonishing sense of adventure, and a never-ending hunger to gather little known facts and the history of every place she visits is what makes her such a brilliant travel writer. A lot of research has gone into the making of the book, and it is evident from the numerous journals, books and ancient scripts she quotes to emphasize her findings. It’s the best kind of book with such a delightful mixture of travel, descriptions of the people, the culture, the history, the flaws, the merits, the geography, the architecture, the political scenario, quaint facts and trivia about every place she sets foot on while tracing the course of Indus.
She traces the Indus from it’s delta in Sindh, Pakistan and reaches up to it’s source in the mountains of Tibet and travelling through Afghanistan, India and China in between. I won’t mention the details of the exhaustive list of facts she unearths during her travels, but here is a glimpse of few intriguing facts that the book describes.
1. Pakistan’s current political, cultural and social scenario through the eyes of a foreigner who is well accustomed to their language and mingles effortlessly into their customs. An in-depth view of the delta region to swat valley. She brings into light for us the various tribes, their cultures, their living conditions within the country…Sheedis in particular, who claim to be descendants of Bilal, an Ethiopian man who was Prophet Mohammed’s companion.
2. She traces and co-relates the origin, rise or fall of various religions on the banks of the Indus. Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Christianity, all evolved through centuries and highly influenced by invasions and pilgrimages on the Indus valley. Hinduism proliferated during the early eleventh and tenth century A.D. and has persisted through the centuries despite invasion by Muslim rulers in the Indus Valley. She describes the Sadhubela temple in Pakistan, the Hindus worshipping Uderolal or Jhule Lal, the river God of Indus who travels on four palla fish. And then there was the spread of Buddhism mainly by King Asoka as far as the borders of Afghanistan. The Buddhist stupas, the Bamiyan Buddha, the Buddhist people of Ladakh and Tibet, Chinese pilgrims tracing the routes of spread of Buddhism centuries ago…everything comes alive in Albinia’s descriptions. Then Islam came with Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni, whose plundering of the famed Indian treasures is a historical legend. Mughals followed but with varying tolerance for other religions, from Emperor Akbar’s exemplary tolerance to Aurangazeb’s zilch religious tolerance.
Then Sikhism started out in 15th century, with Guru Nanak’s birth in the Indus valley, and the spread of Sikhism throughout the centuries by the rest of the ten Gurus, Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s rule, and the holy place Nankana Sahib still in Pakistan. She also visits the Golden Temple in Amritsar, on the banks of the tributaries of the Indus. Christianity came late with the British invasion of India, and it’s spread by Christian missionaries. The influence of British on the people and the customs of this region, the tactics followed by the British to spread their empire are wonderfully detailed too. Right up to the Independence of India.
3. She deals with the Partition of India, the after-effects, the large-scale migration, and the horrible massacres in the name of religion and the geographical boundaries which were peacefully cohabited by the same people for ages. The “divide and rule” policy of British culminating in the Partition of India, the thoughts and arguments of the Indian and Pakistani politicians who witnessed, welcomed or argued this change; a valuable insight is provided by the book.
4. She also describes the people and their varying customs in every place with perfect detailing; the Pashtuns, the Sheedis, the Ladakhis, the Dards, the Kalash being the most interesting. The Kalash have their own religion, resides in mountainous Northern Pakistan, a community whose customs have remained unvaried through thousands of years, believed to be the original Aryans, has the custom of burying people in open coffins, and the women enjoys the kind of freedom which is rare in the country. She also writes about the polyandrous communities of Ladakh and Tibet, where women have dominated men throughout the centuries. The polyandry is more out of necessity than personal choice, the limited resources makes traditional marriages a no-no because inheritance problems will arise in the little provisions the families have.
5. Architecture and heritage sites are a prominent feature in this book. The Harrapan and Mohenjo-Daro civilizations, the Buddhist statues and stupas, the numerous caves and stone circles populating the Indus banks, the temples and mosques dating back thousands of years, and stone carvings some dating back to 80,000 years, she encounters them all. But is dismayed by the indifference these architectural jewels are treated by people and little has been done for their preservation by the archaeological societies.
6. Albinia writes beautifully about her final and highly adventurous journey to the source of Indus in Tibet. But she’s in for a terrible shock when she realizes that the Chinese had dammed the Indus a few months ago and she had actually been following the tributaries of Indus all along. The construction of dams altering the course of a river, that originated far earlier than humans arrived on this Earth and had flowed without anyone disturbing it’s course, for purposes like generating electricity and irrigation has altered the entire geography and as a result the lives of the people inhabiting that region. Poorly planned and injudicious construction of dams by all the countries through which the Indus flows is highly condemned in the book. By construction of the dams in India and Pakistan, Punjab has the best irrigated fields but the people of the delta have to drink diluted sewage water or the highly saline water. Agriculture is impossible and only fishing in the ocean remains the only source of livelihood there. The aquatic animals have suffered too, by dams blocking their routes of migration.
7. She describes the Indian and Pakistani border military camps, the Kargil war, the sentiments of the people involved, Kargil now, and the issue of Kashmir, the object of dispute since Partition.
I’ve left out a million details, but I highly recommend this book to everyone if history and travel even remotely intrigues you.
Books and Travel are two interests that I pursue passionately. And to merge them both is heaven on earth for me. Travel literature is a genre that I intend to explore avidly this year. The experience of a traveler is always a delightful read. Travel literature is not a log of dates, popular tourist destinations, best food and shopping destinations. It’s the narrative of a wild-eyed tourist who explores little known destinations or well known ones with a new insight. It can be factual accounts or tinged with fantasy. It’s not mandatory to deal with a particular region; it can be cross cultural or trans national. It can document explorations, exotic adventures, voyages, and the different in places. It may describe the geographical territory, the history, the culture, the people, the political scenario but with a pithy narrative and poetic vision. I adore travel literature, fact or fiction, because it often brings forth a fresh, new perspective of a destination, the journey, the experience, the joy of travel. I enjoy travelling a lot and after reading outdoor literature the desire to explore new places only gets heightened. It’s almost orgasmic for me to read the classics of travel literature. Ever since the time I read Lewis Carroll’s “The adventures of Alice in Wonderland” and Swift’s “Gulliver’s travels”, when I was around this high, I was mesmerized by the ability of authors to take us on wonderful, fascinating journeys through the medium of literature. In the past couple of years I’d read Pico Iyer, Paul Theroux and Amitav Ghosh, his “Sea of Poppies” being my most recent read of his nautical trilogy. I not only want to read the books by contemporary authors but also of those who lived a long time back. The rare travel accounts of the medieval times or even a couple of centuries back are something I hope to read someday. Those were the days when travels were rare and adventurous journeys were taken to far lands. Soldiers during battles, vikings during plundering, traders during voyages carrying spices and silk, historians documenting the rise and fall of dynasties, pilgrims and missionaries visiting holy places, the common workmen crossing countries in search of work, explorers in search of a new land, royalty in search of new regions of conquest… I want to devour all these travel accounts. Right from Marco Polo to Patrick French.
The following are a list of books on my wish list this year. I don’t know whether I would find them all, and more importantly afford them all! And I would be grateful if readers of my post share any information about the availability of inexpensive used copies of the following books. On my student budget, these gems of travel literature seem a distant dream.
Here are the collected and edited excerpts from book reviews of each book which intrigued me to put them in the reading wish list for the year:
1. A Barbarian in Asia- Henri Michaux
It’s an interesting look at 1930s Southern and Eastern Asia through this Frenchman’s eyes. He traveled through India, the Himalayas, southern India, Ceylon, Malaya (from Malaysia to Bali), China, and Japan. Strongly recommended – though natives of these lands might take offense. An original and stimulating refraction of the Orient through a very special personality.
2. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey through Yugoslavia, by Rebecca West
A well-educated, upper class Briton, West a professional writer and literary critic, not to mention H.G. Wells’ mistress and mother of his son, traveled widely throughout Yugoslavia during the mid- and late-30s. It is extremely insightful, as West unravels the often extraordinarily intricate relationships among the various ethnic and religious groups, and the often torturous reasoning behind some of the political developments in the region. Beyond the descriptions of people, culture, and history, it is West’s details about the places she sees that are the most moving and alluring. One wants to wander through the former Yugoslavia as she did, seeing the beauty of the land and cityscapes. But this book isn’t just about Yugoslavia. It is also about Europe on the brink of war.
3. A Journey in Ladakh- Andrew Harvey
A classic among readers interested in Tibetan Buddhism and pilgrimages of the spirit of all kinds, A Journey in Ladakh is Andrew Harvey’s spiritual travelogue of his arduous journey to one of the most remote parts of the world the highest, least populated region in India, cut off by snow for six months each year. Buddhists have meditated in the mountains of Ladakh since three centuries before Christ, and it is there that the purest form of Tibetan Buddhism is still practiced today.
4.Hindoo Holiday- J.R.Ackerley
The double ‘o’ in Hindoo Holiday immediately signals that we are returning to another time. An era that was tragic, perhaps, in its essence, but comic in its particulars; a time of unspeakable wealth and inconceivable poverty, continual cultural misunderstandings, unfettered whimsy, and cruelties large and small: the age of the British Raj and the Indian princes. In the 1920s, the young J. R. Ackerley spent several months in India as the personal secretary to the maharajah of a small Indian principality. In his journals, Ackerley recorded the Maharajah’s fantastically eccentric habits and riddling conversations, and the odd shambling day-to-day life of his court. Hindoo Holiday is an intimate and very funny account of an exceedingly strange place, and one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century travel literature. Ackerley is hardly impressed by any monuments or traditions and his focus is people.
5. In Patagonia- by Bruce Chatwin
In this travel book on Patagonia, Argentina, Bruce Chatwin gives us a delightful account of his trip, taken in 1977. The structure of the book is different from most other travel books – Chatwin goes off looking for one thing, gets sidetracked on to some other and then on to something else. We are given history pertaining to the area; Chatwin’s research is simply astonishing. He travels incessantly and doesn’t hesitate to go the distance to ferret out the story. From looking for the Patagonian creature mylodon to stories about *** Cassidy and a lot of Argentine and Chilean folklore, this is a great book.
6. Shadow of the silk road – Colin Thubron.
He’s the dean of British travel writers. This is his ninth travel book and it chronicles his 7,000-mile journey in 2003 and 2004 (begun when he was about to turn 64) from Xian, China, to the Turkish coastal city of Antioch. The Silk Road Thubron travel is not one road but a “fretwork” of trade routes dating back to 1500 B.C. From the east on the Silk Road came Chinese gunpowder, printing and paper, the astrolabe and compass, silk and Buddhism. From the west came woods, fruits, metals, musical instruments and Christianity. And that was just for starters.
7. Tibet, Tibet- Patrick French
In 1999, French decided to go on a trip covering Tibet from west to east. The purpose of this trip was to demythicise and deromanticise Tibet. Although this is a land adored for peaceful spirituality, it reveals a surprising early history of fierce war-making and its equally fierce monks aka. Dob-dobs. What makes this book so engaging is that Patrick French writes this as a part memoir, part history book, part travelogue, part narrative and part political analysis. The author also reminds readers that the Tibetan empire once stretched as far as Afghanistan and its soldiers laid siege to Samarkand. As Tibet’s influence waned, its king was dragged in shame through the streets of Baghdad, like, French writes, ‘a downed American pilot.’
As a travel writer he paints us a picture of Tibet as a harsh, remote untouched land and nearly the most sparsely populated. A land of blue sheep ringed by snow peaks and impassable high-altitude deserts, dropping to fields of jasmine and turquoise lakes…quite seductive.
8. The Marsh Arabs- by Wilfred Thesiger
During the years he spent among the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq—long before they were almost completely wiped out by Saddam Hussein—Wilfred Thesiger came to understand, admire, and share a way of life that had endured for many centuries. Traveling from village to village by canoe, he won acceptance by dispensing medicine and treating the sick. In this account of a nearly lost civilization, he pays tribute to the hospitality, loyalty, courage, and endurance of the people, and describes their impressive reed houses, the waterways and lakes teeming with wildlife, the herding of buffalo and hunting of wild boar, moments of tragedy, and moments of pure comedy in vivid, engaging detail.
9. The Snow Leopard- by Peter Matthiessen
When Peter Matthiessen set out with the field biologist George Schaller from Pokhara, in northwest Nepal, their hope was to reach the Crystal Mountain — a foot journey of 250 miles or more across the Himalaya — in the Land of Dolpo, on the Tibetan plateau. Since they wished to observe the late-autumn rut of the bharal, or Himalayan blue sheep, they undertook their trek as winter snows were sweeping into the high passes, and five weeks were required to reach their destination. At Shey Compaa, a very ancient Buddhist shrine on the Crystal Mountain, the Lama had forbidden all killing of wild animals, and bharal were said to be numerous and easily observed. Where they were numerous there was bound to appear that rarest and most beautiful of the great cats, the snow leopard. Hope of glimpsing this near-mythic beast in the Snow Mountains would be reason enough for the entire journey.
10. The Lawless Roads- by Graham Greene
Greene wanted to examine firsthand a situation that troubled him. The Mexican Catholic Church was being systematically oppressed by the anti-clerical government of President Calles in the late 1930s. Struggling with very limited Spanish, traveling by trains, taxis and donkey-back, constantly prey to dysentery, Greene found his way to Chiapas, a state in southern Mexico whose history of oppression and rebellion continues unabated to this day. The guides sneered, the people were primitive, the relics and catacombs were cramped, barren, uninspiring. Greene’s Mexico is dusty, ailing, and acrid.
11. The Mirror of the sea- Joseph Conrad
Every sentence is a gem. Sentences deserve to be read and reread and reread. Strictly reflection, and not a novel, given love offers up the character and the characters of the sea. Rather selflessly too, given Conrad rarely uses I. Still here, in the mirror, he writes in first person.
12. Scrambles Amongst the Alps by Edward Whymper
Account of numerous first ascents and other exploratory climbs in the Alps during the golden age of mountaineering, all woven around the ongoing obsession with being the first to scale the Matterhorn. The book culminates with that famous climb and the terrible accident during the descent.
13. Roughing It- by Mark Twain
It’s not often you get to read a travelogue that takes you through such a variety of localities and events, which features amusing yet revealing personal meetings with historically important figures, such as Brigham Young, and yet has been written by a renowned author. With his usual humor, and plenty of exaggerated description, Twain leads the reader west by stagecoach to the mining fields of Virginia City in Nevada, where he spent considerable time, and thence on to California, finally even going on to Hawaii, where he meets the redoubtable queen of those islands. By turns hilarious and fascinating.
14. Dersu the Trapper by Vladimir Arseniev
Arseniev was a surveyor-explorer working for the Czar’s government around the turn of the century, and assigned to do a series of explorations in the Russian Far East, along the Pacific. He found as a guide an old native hunter, Dersu, and his tales of adventures in the ensuing years, among the forests of Siberia, and the relationship between himself, a man of the city and modern civilization, and Dersu, a true man of nature, who lived alone all year as a wandering hunter, are fascinating and often enlightening reading.
15. Over the High Passes by Christina Noble
Christina Noble spent a year in the Indian Himalaya and the plains of Punjab, with the nomadic Gaddi people and their flocks, following them and living with them as they moved from the plains into the Himalaya to their high pastures. Exhilarating and refreshingly optimistic, her narrative tells of the people with whom she lived and came to know, and of their adventures together among some of the roughest mountain terrain in the world. Well written, this book helps us understand that other ways of life are as good as our own, and that the adventures we seek are just the stuff of daily life for many people in the world.