Friday, May 22, 2009

The ironies, misnomers and reverberations of history

I am looking forward to reading Empires of the Indus. Alice Albinia, the author, tells us the story of the Indus River by revealing the layers of history associated with it. She does this by embarking on a journey along the river, upstream (pictures from her journey here). The Indus, of course, gave India its name, though the river itself is in Pakistan -- and its origins in Tibet. Most Indians know very little about it. I had subconsciously relegated it to antiquity along with the Indus Valley civilization when a Pakistani friend assured me the Indus still exists.

Here is Albinia from the preface of the book:
The very name India comes from the river. The ancient Sanskrit speakers called the Indus, ‘Sindhu’; the Persians changed the name to ‘Hindu’; and the Greeks dropped the ‘h’ altogether. Chinese whispers created the Indus and its cognates – India, Hindu, Indies. From the time that Alexander the Great’s historians wrote about the Indus valley, spinning exotic tales of indomitable Indika, India and its river tantalized the Western imagination.

Hundreds of years later, when India was divided, it might have been logical for the new Muslim state in the Indus valley to take the name ‘India’ (or ‘Industan’, as the valley was called by an eighteenth-century English sailor). But Muhammad Ali Jinnah rejected the colonial appellation and chose the pious neologism Pakistan, ‘Land of the Pure’, instead. He assumed his coevals in Delhi would do the same, calling their country by the ancient Sanskrit title, ‘Bharat’. When they did not, Jinnah was reported to be furious. He felt that by continuing to use the British name, India had appropriated the past; Pakistan, by contrast, looked as if it had been sliced off and ‘thrown out’.
Such are, as Albinia says, “the ironies, misnomers and reverberations of history". What an apt phrase.

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