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Empires of the Indus by Alice Albinia (thoughts)

February 6, 2012


For someone who adores travelling and reading nonfiction, you might be surprised to learn that I very rarely fall in love with a travelogue. There’s something about most of them that just fails to convince me, and I’d rather read books by academics who lived in an area for awhile or books by actual ‘natives’ of the country. I’m especially skeptical of those written by European authors dealing with former colonies, which means I approached Empires of the Indus by (British) Alice Albinia with a mixture of hope and wary skepticism. However, she won me over quite quickly, and I spent the book in a state of perpetual delight.

Why did I end up loving it? First of all, she can speak with many of the people she meets in their own language, which I think makes a huge difference. Secondly, she mixes her own journey up the Indus with the history of the various empires that have been based there, and she does it all with style. Albinia is definitely a compelling story-teller, which is a must for a travel writer! Finally, she’s a woman. I’ve noticed that I tend to prefer women travel writers to men (not that I don’t enjoy any male authors; I love Peter Hessler, for instance), in large part because they don’t dismiss gender issues out of hand as ‘cultural differences.’ She talks about what it feels like to wear a burqa, or be the only woman out of doors in an entire city, and when she’s in remote villages she can chat with the women as well as the men, giving me as a reader a broader perspective on lives there (a male traveller would not be allowed access to women in purdah).

Of course, the book is more than just a sum of these parts. Albinia’s love and respect for and curiousity about the various cultures she meets really shines through; at no point did it seem like she was ‘looking down’ from a high Western perch. She’s also full of fascinating information! I had no idea that African slaves were brought to the subcontinent, and that they’ve passed on various legacies to their modern descendents. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg! Her journey covers so much ground, in both the literal and figurative sense, that it seemed much more epic than its length (barely over three hundred pages) would imply. I highly recommend this to all kinds of readers; those who prefer their nonfiction to have a strong story content, those who love learning about different cultures, history buffs, and yes those who are bigger fans of the travel genre than myself. I just hope Albinia produces more nonfiction books in the future (this was her debut, and now she has a novel out).

Suggested Companion Reads

  • Country Driving by Peter Hessler (Since I mentioned him! This is his latest book, and he traces the Great Wall of China in much the same way Albinia follows the Indus.)
  • Eating India by Chitrita Banerji (Banerji, from Calcutta, goes on a cross-country Indian culinary adventure.)
  • Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh (A wonderful, powerful novel about Partition, a subject which comes up as Albinia explores the Indus and Punjab.)
  • After the Dance by Edwidge Danticat (Danticat made a trip back to her native Haiti during Carnivale; this thoughtful, history-laden book in the result.)
  • Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin (A ferociously smart book that combines travelogue aspects with a history/description of Burma.)
  • Himalaya with Michael Palin (Ok, so this isn’t a book but a BBC-produced travel miniseries, but he covers somethe same ground as Albinia, so you’ll get to see the landscape come to life.)
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12 Comments leave one →
  1. February 6, 2012 7:48 am

    This sounds great! I agree that I tend to gravitate more toward female travel writers. But often the areas of the world I want to read about have way more male travelogues than female.

  2. February 6, 2012 8:11 am

    This sounds wonderful, Eva, and I am adding it and some of the others to my TBR list.

  3. February 6, 2012 9:35 am

    I was never really attracted to travel books. I guess because I feel too envious of the writers :P That being said, I loved everything I’ve read by William Dalrymple. I know he has a book on India (City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi), but haven’t picked it up yet.

  4. February 6, 2012 11:23 am

    I just watched Himalaya with Michael Palin on TV a few weeks ago, so that’s what immediately came to mind when I saw the title of this book/post. I find that area fascinating because of a few personal stories I’ve heard. A few years ago, a great friend of my father’s took his son, his son’s friend, and the friend’s father, and traveled along the Indus River to find its source. They captured the whole journey on video and it aired on PBS.

    However, I haven’t done much reading on the subject, so I’m adding this one to my to-read list. I’m glad to hear that Albinia writes well and doesn’t succumb to stereotypes.

  5. February 6, 2012 12:36 pm

    It’s interesting that her forthcoming work is fiction: perhaps that familiarity with narrative contributed to her ability to make the stories in her non-fiction leap off the page. I’ll watch out for this one!

  6. February 6, 2012 6:27 pm

    I love travel writers in theory SO MUCH, and in practice I often get tired of them after two chapters. They don’t always tell the good kinds of stories, is what the problem is. But I’m adding this to my list, especially since she speaks languages and talks about gender issues. I love both those things too!

  7. February 6, 2012 10:37 pm

    Ooh, this sounds fantastic! I LOVE THE COVER, also. I didn’t think, based on the titles, that it would be a travelogue, but a new book about the great and mysterious history of the ancient civilizations there. This seems good, too, though :-)

  8. February 7, 2012 12:15 am

    Ooooh! This sounds fantastic and there’s something about that cover that I just absolutely LOVE :D

  9. mahnaz permalink
    February 7, 2012 11:13 am

    I read this and loved the respect curiousity and investigative writing she did for each indignenous culture she encountered. Her detailed responses to the myriad of challenges and people she met was gripping stuff. However, I did find her treatment of Islamic history and Islam quite 2 dimensional and lazy. On points of Islamic religiosity she quickly took the current imperialistic view that Islam and the muslims themselves caused the current decay and Islamism in the society today. instead of questioning the West’s role to play, she often hailed the West and defenders of freedom in that region, which I found quite patronising and naieve.

  10. Liz permalink
    February 7, 2012 5:43 pm

    This book sounds fabulous… Not familiar with the writer, but love to read about places that I will probably not visit in this lifetime. This sounds like a winner, so thanks for the tip! I do City of Djinns on the TBR pile, but this sounds more appealing to me. :-)

  11. February 7, 2012 10:48 pm

    This book sounds amazing. Love travelogues myself.

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