A must-have guide for every nature enthusiast, Pranay Lal’s Indica encourages readers to dig deep in their own backyards.
The story of the Bruhath-kayosaurus (Sanskrit for ‘huge-bodied lizard’) and the Dravidosaurus may well be as fancified as Michael Crichton’s theme park for cloned dinosaurs. As Pranay Lal recounts in Indica: A Deep Natural History of The Indian Subcontinent, the Bruhathkayosaurus was once hailed as the largest dinosaur ever, although, there is little evidence to prove it existed.
Indica sets the tone for such revelations with facts 3.5 billion years old about local sites such as the Nandi Hills, in Karnataka. The book opens with the preface, “A long, long time ago, but in a place not too far away…” and goes on to unravel discoveries about India’s natural history, which don’t
figure in regular science journals. The most compelling tale is of a dinosaur named Rajasaurus, claimed to be more ferocious than the T Rex. Indica doesn’t read like a textbook either, and is more of a guide to begin exploring one’s own surroundings. Eventually, it might even make it into a movie, says the author in an email interview.
Turns out, you’re a storyteller too, apart from a biochemist and artist. Did one interest play into the other?
I like understanding life from the molecular level, and both biology and drawing adhere to symmetry and patterns. I think visually, and I like to breakdown complex ideas into bite-sized interconnected facts. I like to simplify complex science and make it accessible to everyone.
The book reads like a travelogue, rather than an encyclopedia. How did you work on the tone of voice?
I try talking my thoughts aloud. I remember this line spoken by Denzel Washington in (the 1993 movie) Philadelphia: “Talk to me as if I am six-years-old”. This is what I’d like to do with complex science. I keep the audience in mind. I want readers to feel that although we talk about billions and millions of years ago, geologic and evolutionary events occurred right in their backyard.
How much of existing documentations do you believe to be accurate? How immediate is the need for our textbooks to be updated?
All science needs to be verified and validated. In India, we believe that textbooks are the final word, but most of them are made for rote
learning, and not for sparking creativity or inquiry. Many textbooks have not been updated for decades. Academic papers are often dry and lack elegance, and seem to be written for an incestuous set of peers or a select audience within sub-disciplines. This problem is global, though the malaise of poor science may be more widely prevalent in India.
For example, among the first animals to venture on land 540 million years ago, is the beautiful velvet worm, and several species are across Southeast Asia. It was seen in the undergrowth of the dense fern forests of northern Arunachal Pradesh, back in 1911, by a British expedition. But, there have been few attempts to discover this enigmatic creature. I think most scientists lack this sense of discovery.
The history of India is a constant subject for retellings. Do you believe there is a lot left to be recounted?
This may be true for history and mythology, but much more for the sciences. The sciences are inherently built for testing
hypotheses and null hypotheses, quite like counterfactual history. Where different sciences meet, the ‘sangam’ (confluence) is amazing, and each science attempts to explain the workings of the other. In effect, all sciences contribute to the understanding of natural phenomena from different perspectives. In that sense, there is a lot to be discovered.
The line between scientific readings and collectively accepted beliefs, in India, is often blurred. Did you face any resistance in your research?
That’s entirely true. I think this is so true for medicine, climate science, toxicology, and several other sciences. I believe that the biggest deterrent for good science in India is the lack of encouragement given to the quest for knowledge. I did not face any resistance. In fact, sometimes, social and cultural sensitivities preserved the sites and evidence that would otherwise have been lost forever, as was the case with dinosaur eggs in the temple complex of Jabalpur and Dhar, or wonderful prehistoric paintings, sacred groves in Tamil Nadu, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, where new species of cycads (seed plants) have been discovered.
Many of these revelations seem strangely familiar. It’s like, hey, we knew this! Why weren’t these facts uncovered earlier?
I am not sure why these facts were not written about earlier. My incessant quest, to find the answers to questions swirling in my head since I was a child, led me to write this book. The object of Indica is to document how we got here.
I believe that every phenomenon that makes up this land, the rivers that cut through it or life that exists on it, can be explained using different scientific disciplines. The evolution of minerals on Earth, the role of the Deccan volcanoes in the extinction of dinosaurs, or how the rise of the Himalayas triggered the evolution of modern mammals, can all be explained using biology, chemistry, geology and other sciences.
Describe how it felt to be making such discoveries, in your own backyard, as it were?
There are discoveries waiting to be made everywhere. Each piece of rock, every pinch of soil and every drop of water from your backyard pond tells a story. I would often embark on my personal journey to see a phenomenon for myself. And I would go back to researchers and ask them questions. Quite often, this lead to fascinating insights.
Would you rather make an educational film than a big banner sci-fi movie?
If I make a film, I would like to make a big-budget extravaganza, quite like nature itself!
Indica: A Deep Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent, Penguin Random House India, Rs 999