Thursday, June 8, 2017

The rock upon which history rests

The abode of Samba in film Sholay (see picture) is nothing but the rock formation on which the country stands, formed some 3.5 billion years ago.

This rock formation is 3.5 billion years old.
Indica is an audacious undertaking, an exploratory journey in search of geological footprints in the evolution of the landmass called India. Trapped within these footprints are fascinating details about the interplay of forces that shaped nature and its products, fueling a renewed sense of appreciation in dead rocks and inert sands. For movie buffs, the abode of Samba in film Sholay is nothing but a massive rock till one learns that it is the rock formation on which the country stands, formed some 3.5 billion years ago. And, the wriggling creature of the size of a fingernail just beneath the upper few millimeters of sand on the Marina beach in Chennai is the cause for all of us having a backbone, although this small creature has remained unchanged since it first came to life 530 million years ago and remains the common ancestor of all organisms with backbones. 

Indica is packed with amazing revelations that take the reader back in time, but with a string connecting the spectacular past with our rather questionable present. One would be awestruck that the imposing Vivekananda Memorial resting on the ancient charnockites 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 what is called the ‘Gondwana junction’. And till that time dinosaurs had freely roamed the entire landscape, from Gujarat in the east to Tamil Nadu in the south. 

In his search to capture the grand story of the formation of India, Pranay Lal leaves the reader bedazzled with details about why rocks in one place are different from those elsewhere, why forest diversity is distinct across regions, and why majority of peninsular rivers flow west to east. As one treads through the picture-littered pages of this journey, one realizes that there is more to everything than that meets the eye. No surprise, therefore, that the book makes a compelling case for revisiting many such places that one may have visited without getting a deeper sense of their outward appearances, as also for their contemporary relevance.  

Revisiting Jaisalmer in Rajasthan would top the list to see those magical bowls made of ‘Habur stone’ that cuddle milk without addition of any culture, and to get a first-hand feel of the so-called stones which are instead microbe-rich fossilized remains of shelled creatures which inhabited the crescent-shaped beach that once was this desert town. But this was 120 million years ago, when Greater India was a large island, and in place of the towering mountain range there was sea shore that had extended from Rajasthan in the west to Manipur in the east. The excitement of witnessing the magical properties of the fossiliferous limestone of Habur notwithstanding, the challenge today is to protect this geological treasure from indiscriminate mining.     

It goes to the credit of Pranay Lal for digging out essential lessons in contemporariness from the country’s rich natural history. It is for this reason that one should visit the 30-foot statue of Lord Vishnu, the Preserver, reclining peacefully beside a pool in the Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh. More than the statue, it is the green cover on the pool that holds 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 are reason enough for us to protect all ponds and lakes such that more of such bacteria thrive, making Vishnu rest in peace. 

Spread over eleven chapters, Indica concludes the 4 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 civilization arose along its banks. From then on, humans have only tried to lay control over nature and natural processes. That is indeed so, but in the story of evolution none of the living beings, including humans, have had any clear destiny or direction. Had natural processes not wiped out our competitors and predators, none of us and our ancestors would have been there. After all, humans are the most recent entrant in the evolutionary scene.

Eloquently written and profusely illustrated, the book offers a multi-disciplinary narrative on India’s deep natural history. The enthusiasm with which the author has shared his two decades of tireless pursuit can make a lay person connect with it as easily as a discerning reader. The easy-to-read text offers a lucid and accessible account of the complex science of evolution that is as much insightful as gripping. Indica has the potential to trigger renewed interest in geology and paleontology, the subjects that have long lost their sheen due to overt specialization. Pranay Lal has succeeded in demystifying the complexities of natural science much like what legendary David Attenborough did with his Life on Earth book series. Indica rightfully deserves a place on each book shelf. 

Indica: A deep natural history of the Indian subcontinent
by Pranay Lal
Penguin/Allen Lane, New Delhi
Extent: 468, Price: Rs 999 

First published in BLink, weekend supplement of BusinessLine on June 3, 2017  

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