Book Review: Indica by Pranay Lal


Balancing the nuanced and involved intricacies of the scientific method versus proselytizing the fantastic “factoids” of popular science is a tough act. Having to straddle this line to focus on the geology and geobiological history of the Indian subcontinent, an ambitiously multidisciplinary topic, on which there are scant accessible texts (popular science or not), is an even tougher act to follow. Fortunately, Pranay Lal manages to achieve such a balance and convey his infectious enthusiasm about the subject matter rather effectively for the most part of Indica’s ~400 pages.

It was refreshing and enjoyable to learn about new geological and paleontological information of the Indian subcontinent - a topic dear to my heart. The detailed place-markers and the McPhee-esque narratives of sites where geological features are found scattered throughout India was highly interesting. The accompanying photographs and schematics are also very nicely done. You can quickly see that Lal put in hours and hours of (non-book-based) research into Indica — it shows. It felt as if Indica was an attempt to channel Sagan)’ or Bryson or Winchester but with a focus on the history of the Indian subcontinent — a fantastic idea, and frankly, it’s puzzling that it took someone so long to do so. However, it becomes apparent through Lal’s reporting that it is quite challenging to piece together and chronicle information on such a vastly “big-picture” topic, especially, when construction, urban expansion, and apathy are on their path to eroding many of India’s geological marvels.

Lal is a geneticist by training and his disposition towards anthropology, biology, and paleontology becomes discernible as his writing on these topics shines. For example, his narrative on the evolutionary history of the recently discovered Indian purple frog (Nasikabatrachus sahayadrensis), its evolutionary ties to another frog found in Seychelles, and its parallels to the tuatara or kiwi was a treat to read. Moreover, the lengthy descriptions of India’s Phanerozoic paleoenvironment and the medley of dinosaurs that walked on the subcontinent were entertaining. The closing chapters on hominid evolution and India’s potential contribution to this story were thought-provoking.

As a downside to Indica, there are many small inaccuracies conveyed with certainty that are really more uncertain than presented. My friend Suvrat Kher has an excellent blog post on many problematic sections that dealing with sedimentology, tectonics, and mantle dynamics. I can echo Suvrat’s concerns in the paleomonsoon and paleoclimate domain where, amongst other things, Lal makes it seem as if we have a more concrete picture of the vagaries of the monsoon, its initiation, and its intensification than we actually do. Many of these points amount to more than sheer nitpicking. Ultimately, these inaccuracies are a significant downside to Indica, and I wonder about errors revolving around geobiology and other realms removed from my own field. Nevertheless, these inaccuracies did not prevent me from puzzling about them for a few minutes and moving on, driven by Lal’s ardor (one day, on my second read, I might find the time to write down my concerns as well and as thoroughly as Suvrat did).

As a closing statement, Indica is for anyone and everyone interested in the geological natural history of the Indian subcontinent. It should be mandatory reading for anyone working on the topic, and more importantly, for students/workers who do read it, I recommend trying to spot the inaccuracies and perhaps making a list.