A voyage, long and strange indeed.

Review:  Indica – A Deep Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent by Pranay Lal

Publisher: Penguin Random House India, 2016, 384 pages, Hardcover

For long ages, we have read accounts of how the world came to be – from the supercontinent of Pangaea to the continents of today.  This book is unique because it focuses on the voyages and indiscretions of a small bit of Pangaea that went its own merry way and speeded through the oceans, finally crashing into Asia with a dull and rather sickening thud. This little sort-of-triangular land is India. This lovely book is about this beautiful and bounteous land.

The author takes us on a rollicking journey with India, from its origins to the present day, recounting all the adventures in between. What makes it very interesting is that this treatment has never really been done for the lay reader. God knows, it is hard to get people interested in geology but the author manages it easily.  Just see his introduction of the landscape of Bengaluru which goes like this:

“Closepet granite was formed between 3 and 2.5 million years ago and can be found in the district town of Ramanagaram close to Bengaluru. If the granite rocks of Ramanagaram, some of which seem perched precariously one on top of the other look familiar, it is because they provided the hideout of the archetypal villain Gabbar Singh in the film Sholay.[emphasis by author] “

Figure 1: Courtesy https://www.tripoto.com


What a great marketing pitch for a book on geology! Now every Hindi film fan who has a predisposition towards paleophilia is hooked. The author takes pains throughout this book to paint pictures (the illustrations are fantastic), even giving latitudes and longitudes for places so you can look them up in Google Earth/Maps if you are so inclined (I did look at them all). This makes the book even harder to just skim through.

Lest you think that Mr. Lal confines himself to geology, I would hasten to point out that this work encompasses much more than that. He takes into account all the wonderful plants and strange creatures (Rajasaurus, anyone?) that dominated the migrating landscape throughout its history. The book almost parallels the history of the planet looking from the perspective of the Indian subcontinent which further draws the Indian reader to it. The great calamities like mass extinction events are considered for the impact they caused in the migrating continent of India as are the formation events of the terrain like the Western Ghats and the Deccan Plateau.

This book is so interestingly and evocatively written that even after having read it two months ago, I am fascinated by the formation of the Deccan traps due to the rupture of the earth’s crust when India blundered into the deep mantle plume near the Reunion islands. It is theorized in some circles that this could have contributed to the great dinosaur extinction event 65 million years ago. Reading it definitely helped me make up a geologist’s pickup line which goes like this: Baby, your eyes are like Deccan traps; 4 million years of molten lava!

Hey, geologists are human too! In fact, that is one of the main strengths of this work. It is particularly written for those who wouldn’t know the difference between an igneous and a metamorphic rock. India’s geological journey, from the split up of Pangaea, to the squabbling and bitter splits with Antarctica, Australia and Madagascar, to the formations of the Giant Himalayas is narrated beautifully.

Interwoven as it is with facts about the flora and fauna that evolved and went extinct along the way, from Barapasaurus – the giant vegetarian dinosaur, to Titanis – the Terror Bird that preyed on ancient horse ancestors, add very much to this narrative. The story of how mammals evolved in India and how they migrated from or to the subcontinent (tigers are not native to India) when it joined with Asia are also very beautifully covered. I had no idea that the ancestors of early whales arose from the inland Tethys sea (which is now the large Thar desert in Western India and Pakistan).

This book really does remind one, with significant nostalgia, of the great biologist Stephen Jay Gould. He also did a lot to explain evolution and its intricacies in very simple language to all of us interested in natural history. Those who have read the famous geological texts of John McPhee, specifically “Annals of a Former World” and “Basin and Range” will notice that Mr. Lal gives the same treatment to India and its geological formations that Mr. McPhee gives to the continental United States. To some, this will also feel like a travelogue. Indeed, this book of science and travel most resembles in its humour, lucidity and vast range, “A short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson.

To all those who are interested in India’s geography, geology, fauna and human interaction with them will find this book very hard to put down even though it is a relatively long one. The reader gets that rare feeling that the author could write another book with his research material (the bibliography and notes take up more than 60 pages!). India is not done yet. It is still on the go, pushing up the Tibetan plateau on its way. I hope Mr. Lal is not done telling this story too!!




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