The rocks upon which history rests

Sudhirendar Sharma | Updated on January 12, 2018
Upward mobility: A peninsular agama at the foothills of Yercaud, Tamil Nadu. Indica studies, among other things, the way species evolved in the Indian subcontinent. Photo: E Lakshmy Narayanan

Upward mobility: A peninsular agama at the foothills of Yercaud, Tamil Nadu. Indica studies, among other things, the way species evolved in the Indian subcontinent. Photo: E Lakshmy Narayanan   -  The Hindu

Indica; Pranay Lal; Non-fiction; Penguin Random House India; ₹999

Indica; Pranay Lal; Non-fiction; Penguin Random House India; ₹999

A recent book on India’s natural history is a must-read for both the layperson and the enthusiast

Pranay Lal’s Indica is an audacious undertaking, an exploratory journey in search of geological footprints; proof of the Indian landmass’s evolution. Trapped within these footprints are fascinating details about the interplay of forces that shaped nature and its products, fuelling a renewed sense of appreciation in dead rocks and inert sands. For example, movie buffs know that Samba’s abode in Sholay is a massive rock. But few would know that it is the rock formation on which the country stands, formed some 3.5 billion years ago.

Indica is packed with revelations that take readers back in time, but with a string connecting the spectacular past to our questionable present. The imposing Vivekananda Memorial, resting on the ancient charnockite rock formation at Kanyakumari, is actually the place where, some 180 million years ago, India, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, East Antarctica and Australia were joined together at the ‘Gondwana junction’. And at that time, dinosaurs freely roamed the landscape, from Gujarat in the east to Tamil Nadu in the south.

In his search for the grand story of India’s formation, Lal leaves the reader bedazzled with details about why rocks in one place are different from those elsewhere, why a particular place houses a particular kind of forest cover, and why the majority of peninsular rivers flow west to east.

As one goes through the picture-littered pages, one realises there is more to everything than meets the eye. No surprise, therefore, that the book makes a compelling case for revisiting many places one may have visited without getting a deeper sense of their outward appearance or contemporary relevance.

Revisiting Jaisalmer in Rajasthan would top the list. Those magical bowls made of ‘Habur’ stone that curdle milk without addition of any culture, are worth a closer look. The stones are actually fossilised, microbe-rich remains of shelled creatures who inhabited the crescent-shaped beach that Jaisalmer once was. But this was 120 million years ago, when Greater India was a large island, and in place of towering mountain ranges there was a seashore that extended from Rajasthan in the west to Manipur in the east. The excitement of the fossiliferous limestone’s magical properties notwithstanding, the challenge today is to protect this geological treasure from indiscriminate mining.

It is to Lal’s credit that he has dug out some essential lessons in contemporariness from the country’s rich natural history. At the Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh, there is a 30-ft statue of Lord Vishnu reclining peacefully beside a pool. More than the statue, it is the green cover on the pool that holds a special message. The top few inches of water is dominated by cyanobacteria, the oxygen-producing bacteria that made complex life possible over several millennia. The fact that these bacteria produce 60 per cent of the world’s oxygen even today is reason enough for us to protect ponds and lakes. Only if more such bacteria thrive can Vishnu rest in peace.

Spread over 11 chapters, Indica concludes the four-billion-years-long journey of the planet with the arrival of homo sapiens on the banks of the Indus. But it took another 50,000 years before the first human civilisation arose along its banks. From then on, humans have only tried to assert control over nature and natural processes.

But in the story of evolution, no living beings, including humans, have had any clear direction. Had natural processes not wiped out our competitors and predators, none of us (or our ancestors) would have been born. After all, human beings are the most recent entrants in the evolutionary scene: a mere 2,00,000 years old.

Eloquently written and profusely illustrated, the book offers a multi-disciplinary narrative on India’s complex natural history. The enthusiasm with which the author has shared his two decades of tireless pursuit makes a lay person connect with it as easily as a more discerning reader. The easy-to-read text offers a lucid and accessible account of the science of evolution, as insightful as it is gripping.

Indica has the potential to trigger a renewed interest in geology and palaeontology, subjects that have lost their sheen due to over-specialisation. Lal’s achievement here is much like what the legendary David Attenborough did with the Life on Earth series. This is a book that deserves to be on every shelf.

Sudhirendar Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and academic

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Published on June 02, 2017
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