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Book review: Indica—A Deep Natural History Of The Indian Subcontinent

Pranay Lal's book on natural history gives us a fantastic view of early life in the subcontinent

The tiny forearms of the T-rex could raise loads as heavy as 200kg, and were four times as powerful as those of an adult man.
The tiny forearms of the T-rex could raise loads as heavy as 200kg, and were four times as powerful as those of an adult man.

In 1982, Ashok Sahni, a professor of palaeontology, was attending a seminar in Ahmedabad when a young man came up to him with a rock the size and shape of a coconut. This was Dhananjay Mohabey, an officer in the Geological Survey of India, and he had brought along a “cannonball", one of several discovered during blasting at a cement factory in Gujarat’s Kheda district. So plentiful were these curious spheres that the mine managers used them to line the garden path leading to their site office. When he closely examined the specimen that Mohabey showed him, Sahni discovered it was the fossil of a large egg. Unwittingly, the young geological surveyor had stumbled upon an entire nesting colony of dinosaurs. Right by what is now a state highway, gigantic reptilian females had once laid hundreds of such eggs in neat hollows of mud lined with vegetation.

Such thrilling stories abound in Pranay Lal’s Indica, which describes the first 4,600 million years of the subcontinent. The book brings to life the suspense that palaeontologists must feel when they crouch along a rock face, carefully chipping around a fragment of fossilized bone. And the triumph when they painstakingly piece together these skeletal remains in the laboratory to reconstruct creatures like Barapasaurus tagorei (big-foot lizard), the 18m-long dinosaur that was found in the Adilabad district of Telangana. Imagine the wonder of finding a huge stegosaurus with a mane of triangular bony plates running down its back in the hills near Pachmarhi in Madhya Pradesh. Or a four-storey-high Titanosaurus indicus near an army cantonment in Jabalpur, along the Narmada. These and other creatures, big and small, comprise the cast of characters in a drama that begins with the Big Bang and closes with the arrival of Homo sapiens, present-day humans, in India some 70,000 years ago.

Indica—A Deep Natural History Of The Indian Subcontinent: By Pranay Lal, Allen Lane, 468 pages, Rs999.

Lal has succeeded in travelling through this enormous territory in time and space without losing the reader. Despite my sketchy knowledge of the physical and biological sciences, my interest was kept up by Lal’s enthusiasm and his remarkably lucid way of explaining the mysteries of plate tectonics, the chemistry of air, genetics, why standing up is an advantage on land, when sex started, and what defines life. The staggering amount of reading and synthesis of research from several specialized disciplines that lies behind this work is revealed in 55 pages of dense notes tucked away at the end.

Lal’s book is also remarkable for making us think of the Indian landscape in a novel and marvellous way. Many of us know that what is now the Thar desert was once under the Tethys Sea, but imagine the wonder of finding jellyfish embedded in the sands near Jodhpur! Or conceive of interior Andhra Pradesh as a region where thousands of cow-sized reptiles “grazed and lazed in the luxuriant fern forests". Or the Kashmir Valley inhabited by hippos, rhinos and giant deer.

How we know that these fantastic creatures were indeed there is a fascinating story of detective work that would do Sherlock Holmes proud. Indica peels away layers of rock to expose fossilized plants and animals and explains how they came to be arranged along an evolutionary timeline. In this unfolding narrative, even coprolites (fossils of dinosaur dung) reveal something as important as the origin of rice, the cereal that sustains much of Asia today. Microscopic traces of pollen, the footprints of frogs and crocodiles, the telltale trail of quartz hand axes and choppers used by early humans and preserved over the ages are the intriguing clues that enable scientists to reconstruct the story of life on Earth. Lal shows us the techniques and reasoning behind such deduction, without underplaying the sometimes speculative and often contentious character of such theorizing.

While fossils provide evidence of early life, equally crucial are the rocks they lie within. The ground beneath our feet reveals an even longer history of how the subcontinent was formed, how it took shape and moved, how it was covered by ice and oceans, and how it came to have coal and diamonds and rubies. Indica excels in describing these processes and interpreting the evidence contained in different kinds of rocks and geological formations. Rounded stones found in Chitradurga, Karnataka, are proof of the glaciers that once covered this region. The distinctive rock at the tip of the subcontinent at Kanyakumari, on which a statue of Vivekananda stands, marks a critical point in India’s creation. Geologists call it the “Gondwana junction", for it is here that India, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, East Antarctica and Australia were once joined together. Just as a present-day railway junction is marked by lines that come together in order to separate, this spot is a memorial to the fractures and fault lines that sundered a supercontinent more than 118 million years ago. After reading this book, one will never shrug one’s shoulders and say, “It’s just a rock," for every stone will gleam with the hint of stirring tales of volcanic eruptions and violent upthrusts, of floods of lava and tides of sediment from millennia past.

With its vivid illustrations and clear prose, Indica shines a light on subjects that most ordinary readers don’t know or care about. But along with sparking new appreciation, it also raises apprehensions. Just as we begin to look around with a sense of wonder at ordinary-seeming places, they are vanishing from sight. Dinosaur nesting sites have been plundered, the eggs sold as curios to tourists. Places like the Pranhita-Godavari Valley, which contain fossils of the entire spectrum of early vertebrates—fish, amphibians, dinosaurs and mammals—are under threat. Strange and beautiful rock formations have been lost to quarrying and road-building in Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu. Coal mining in Jharkhand destroys fossil beds even before they have been examined. Dams encroach on the home of the Narmada Woman, the million-year-old hominid found near Hoshangabad in Madhya Pradesh.

Indica opens up a new view of our subcontinent, one that we must protect and cherish.

Amita Baviskar is an environmental sociologist.

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