'Truth spoken without moderation reverses itself'
This blog is a source for intellectual exploration. It includes a list of alternative resources and a source of free books. The placement of an article does not imply that I agree with it, merely that I found it thought-provoking. There are also poems and book reviews. Texts written by me are labelled. Readers are free to re-post anything they like.
Monday, January 23, 2017
Book review: The Thrill of Discovery
Indica: A Deep Natural History of the Indian Sub-Continent Pranay Lal
Reviewed by Mahesh Rangarajan
WRITING IN Nautilus, the
popular science magazine, last summer, the freelance writer Shruti Ravindran
bemoaned the widespread resource illiteracy in India among lay persons and
decision makers alike about India’s astonishing geo- diversity. Now, while
‘biodiversity’ refers to extant creatures great and small, ‘geodiversity’ is
about the rich variety of fossils of the past that lie buried under rocks and
stones. India’s coal mines and highways are chipping away at or paving over a
rich fossil record that might yield deep insights into how life evolved over
the aeons. In particular, Ravindran wrote of the key events that led the
ancestors of whales from the land to the sea, a journey key staging points of
which lay along the west coast of what is now India.
Well, there is now a
book that is both a visual delight and treat to read that will awaken us to the
deep, aeons-old natural history of the lands that now make up the Subcontinent
of India. Pranay Lal takes us on journeys across landscapes and waters at once
most familiar and yet unknown. Again and again, he shows how the places we
think we know conceal a rich vein of history that unfolded here as life
evolved, adapted and colonised the lands, the waters and the air above.
Taking off from an
analogy of the 4.6 billion-year-old planet earth as a 46-year-old woman, he
reminds us of how just transient we are as a species. Homo sapiens arose
as a distinct species barely four hours ago, on such a time map. Even this
happened due to a mix of circumstances, the extinction of several competing
hominids such as Homo erectus occurring even earlier than the
dying out of several mega mammals, and it led eventually to the ability of some
of our ancestors to move, adapt and survive a range of places beyond their
point of origin in Africa. Yet, so small is the genetic gap with many ape
species, our not-so- distant cousins—as little as 0.3 per cent with the
chimpanzee—that we are not quite so apart from other life forms as we imagine
in our conceit.
Where Lal stands out
is the way he gives us a lens to look at India afresh. The Nandi Hills near
Bengaluru are a remnant of rocks called the Dharwar Craton that is 3.5 billion
years old. We live in a subcontinent where a journey of less than 3,000 kilometres
can take us across a span of three billion years. Stories tie in events
in the history of land with those who put the plot together. Take the case of
palaeontologists Ashok Sahni and Vijay Mishra. In 1975 in Harudi, a village in
Kutch, Gujarat, they unearthed whale fossils that lay alongside those of
grazers like rhinos and pigs. These graveyards of whales provide a small window
to the amazing evolutionary journey of which the giant mammals of today are the
Some 40 million years
ago, herbivores and carnivores somewhat familiar to us dominated north India.
The author guides us to Nahant near Ambala and onwards to the exquisitely named
Kala Amb or ‘black mango’ village. Thirty million years ago, there was an
explosion of variety. Among the inhabitants of Shivalik hills: ‘a giraffe on
steroids’, the 20 tonne heavy Baluchitherium. Early big cats
included the great Megantereon; over 150 kg, it was a scourge of
grass eaters and primates alike.
Indica is embellished with maps, illustrations
and photos and a delight to simply leaf through. Lal has the depth of a scholar
but the book has the thrill of a detective novel. It is ironical that these
treasure troves of fossils are being taken apart just when we are learning so
much from them. If the work serves as wake-up call, it will have been more than
an epitaph to our deep past.