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.

2012: A Review

The past year was quite eventful for me. Here are twelve photographs and associated trivia from the months of 2012:


  In January, I returned to India after 1.5 years in the US and it was a treat to see my family and friends. Pictured here is my awesome grandmother, who takes pride in that I study 'nature' for a job.


 I was back in Austin around late January and was gearing up to get my Master's thesis on the statistics of individual foraminiferal analyses started while working on Gulf of Mexico sediment cores. Staying late in the department became a norm, after which I used to pass the UT Austin tower to catch the bus back home.


South by Southwest (SxSw) is an annual festival of music & film that happens in Austin. March 2012 was my 2nd SxSw adventure. The above picture was shot at Emo's East. High on Fire were the headlining act and there was a half-pipe where anyone with a skateboard could join in on the fun. Yes, the show was fantastic.


This is a noisy Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) in my backyard - April was a quiet, but hectic month - I got my Master's degree in geological science and was prepping to leave for the South Pacific.


In May 2012, my life changed forever when I went to do field work in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. We encountered this fisherman with his kids on his canoe, in southern Ngela Sule.


Continuing my Solomon Island field visit into June, I was spotting lifer after lifer. This pretty fellow is an Olive-backed Sunbird (Cinnyris jugularis) shot at Husuzo, Rendova.


After two months in the Solomon Islands, I came back to Texas in July - for three weeks. July was a very, very busy month. I had, amongst other things, a paper and three AGU abstracts to submit, to obtain a visa for my upcoming German trip and most importantly, I had to acquire data from the Gulf of Mexico sediment cores. Pictured above is sea-floor sediment collected by a multi-core from the Garrison Basin in the northern Gulf of Mexico


This was a gorgeous sunset at Tulaghi. Due to -ahem- certain technical difficulties, we had to return to the Solomon Islands and finish what we had started to do - coring and slabbing massive corals.


After getting back from an excruciating second field campaign, I spent all of three days in Austin before leaving for Hamburg in the first week of September. I was attending a summer school on 'Climate Change in the Marine Realm' where I spent two weeks in (primarily northwest) Germany. The sand dunes you see above are on the island of Sylt which could easily have been Frank Herbert's muse.

October and November

October and November were (happily) spent in Austin, preparing for the AGU conference. I had three presentations to prepare for which meant that there was no dearth of work. However, being in Austin, I made sure I had my fair share of fun as well.


The 2012 AGU meeting at San Francisco was a big deal for me as it was my first time presenting (though it was my 2nd time there). I had a fantastic meeting and it was great catching up with familiar faces and meeting new scientists and students alike. After the conference, a couple of friends and I stuck around the Bay Area and took a few of days off. This Rough-skinned newt (Taricha granulosa) was the coolest amphibian I had seen since the Solomons!

And with that, as I said, 2012 was an eventful year so here's hoping 2013 keeps me on my toes too! I wish you guys have an intriguing and eventful year as well!