Indica: A deep natural history of the Indian subcontinent by Pranay Lal, publisher - Penguin/Allen Lane in 2016
Indica is an ambitious title for a book, inviting comparison with Megasthenes, from whose account so much knowledge of early India derives. But the author has risen to the challenge.
The jacket describes Pranay Lal as a biochemist and artist who works in public health and the environment, and has published on public health, global trade and "mysterious fevers". In short, he is either a gasbag, or, genuinely has an enquiring mind and wishes to share the excitement of understanding the world.
Happily, the latter is true, and Lal's book is a very lucid and accessible account of the development of the landmass of South Asia from the earliest geological times, and of the myriad life forms which have made their home here.
Indica is part of a new wave of nature writing in India, by authors whose names were previously unknown to readers here.
For instance, Geetha Iyer's The Weavers (HarperCollins), which appeared earlier this year, explored the production side of entomology - the makers of silk, lac, honey, dyes and other substances which humans have commercialised. Swedish author Helen Rundgren's illustrated children's title Stone Eggs (Tulika Books) concerns Indian dinosaurs like Rajasaurus, which also finds place in Lal's book.
And, to gladden the hearts of the people of Bilaspur, Lal also travels forward in time to bring on the huge Miocene ape Gigantopithecus bilaspurensis, and the chimp-like, tree-dwelling Sivapithecus, which lived in the Shivalik range.
But, he begins in the beginning, when the world was making itself up as it went along. The first page explores the Nandi Hills, where he urges travelers to pay attention to the ground beneath their feet, for it is 3.5 billion years old - it is "the bedrock on which the country stands".
Generations of Indian students have come away from school with vaguely unpleasant memories of the Gondwana Plate and the Deccan Traps, the world's biggest lava flows frozen in time. Doggedly soporific geography texts have extinguished interest in geology for generations, in a country with extraordinary volcanic and tectonic formations, whose earth, anecdotally, was littered with gold and gemstones in ancient times.
Accessible books like Indica are needed to restore that interest. There is a tradition of such material in European publishing, but, perhaps, because of higher production costs, it has not caught on in India.
Lal has written an accessible yet knowledgeable book, which can be read fearlessly by completely lay people who do not know their laterite from their ammonite, and by readers with a basic familiarity with geology and palaeontology. The intrepid can venture beyond, via 55 pages of notes and references.
Even children would find the book engaging, since it's tastefully littered with color plates. They would be fascinated by images of a trilobite ancestor which lived in the seas of Rajasthan 565 million years ago, and has left behind fossils in sandstone. Rajasthan also offers the tiny, button-sized footprints of the dinosaur Grallator tenuis near Jaisalmer, made on a an ancient seashore.
A photograph shows a tree fern forest of Arunachal Pradesh, and suggests that Kashmir would have looked like that 300 million years ago. Indeed, the world remains a shifting landscape - Indus Valley seal-makers could depict rhinos and elephants because they lived in a forested land, not the present arid landscape.
Speaking of elephants, Lal holds that the Geological Survey of India got its commemorative centenary postage stamp wrong - the elephant ancestor Stegodon ganesa depicted on it is anatomically inaccurate. Of course, palaeontological opinions change over time, and the depiction may have been regarded as accurate in 1951, when the stamp was issued.
Another sign of changing fashions: the primates Brahmapithecus and Ramapithecus, which engaged the imagination in the 20th century (the latter figured as the unseen watcher in the prelude to I. Allan Sealy's Everest Hotel), are now believed to be forms of Sivapithecus, and no one speaks of them any more.
Lal traces evolution across continents but gives ample attention to Indian finds, which are usually noted only in scholarly journals and disappear from public consciousness after honorable mentions in the very few newspapers which remain interested in the sciences.
For instance, he traces the descent of whales from a ferocious "wolf-like sheep", which also spun off hippos and cows, but his focus is a primordial whale graveyard in a corridor from Jammu through Kutch to contiguous Pakistan, and he writes of the Himalayan whale Himalayacetus, whose remains were found in the Simla hills.
It's hard to get away from Indo-Pak rivalry, even in the arcane field of palaeontology - for our whale ancestor Indocetus, there is a Pakicetus. How depressing.
The last three chapters concern the arrival of humans - Homo erectus, whose communities traveled from Africa via Rajasthan and Punjab down to the Narmada. Pre-sapiens fossils and tools are rare in India, but the careful reader may learn enough to make the next big find.
While entertaining readers, Lal's book arms them with basic fieldcraft tips, enough to make them interested observers of the world. Quite a few insights about South Asia's prehistory owes to amateurs - soldiers, officials, students and royals with interests beyond their day jobs. The need for such enthusiasts remains, and for books to fire their imagination.
The reviewer is Associate Editor
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