Pandemic Pastimes

While the shadow of the coronavirus scourge is receding, the virus has managed to ravage large portions of humanity. Covid-19 has brought untold suffering to millions and continues to affect many millions of people even now. There is, however, light at the end of the tunnel. Vaccinations have started and life has slowly started limping back to a new normal that would have been unrecognizable to most of us just a year back. I have been fortunate enough to still have my job, have my health and also have my family safe.

Challenging as these times have been, they have provided many of us the opportunity to take a step back and do things that we have always wanted to. Things that we always set aside for the lack of time. The virus bought the gift of time for some of us. While, I don’t claim to have made the best use of this gift, I have been able to catch up on something that is second nature to many of us – reading. I like reading and I read something everyday. But it was mostly blog posts and articles that made up most of my reading. Maybe an occasional long read thrown in rarely. The pandemic and the ensuing lockdown suddenly meant that I was saving the time I spent traveling to and from from work everyday. And weekends became days when I had plenty of time at my hand. So I turned to an old habit that I had almost grown out of – reading books.

I started looking for books on Amazon and a couple of titles caught my attention. These were books written by Sanjeev Sanyal – Land of the Seven Rivers and The Ocean of Churn. Both these titles deal with Indian history and culture and are peppered with anecdotes that made me go ‘Wow’ several times. Interestingly Land of the Seven Rivers is a historical narrative with a geographical context. It takes us through places and landscapes that many of us would be familiar with but would not know their historical significance or their geological relevance. It is such an engaging read.

Books have that amazing ability to open the portals of our minds and once I was done reading these two, I craved for more. The next one I ordered was The Lost River – On the trail of the Sarasvati written by Michel Danino. This book is an investigative thriller that goes looking for the lost mythological river Saraswati. While on this journey, the author takes us through the rise and fall of the Indus Valley Civilization. By the time the thriller comes to an end, the reader is convinced that it was the Indus – Saraswati Valley Civilization. I started with books that deal with our history and culture but had a healthy dose of natural history embedded in the narratives. And I couldn’t get enough of natural history. So I bought more!

The next one I read was Wild Himalaya by Stephen Alter. Himalayas have always been special to me. I grew up in the mountains and Alter masterfully narrates the story of the Himalayas – right from the time when that piece of land was under oceans to now when they are the greatest feature on the face of our planet. He brings alive the fact that how the history of life and humans are so intertwined with the evolution of the Himalayas. From the great rivers, to the mega biodiversity, to the myriad peoples and cultures that call Himalayas their home this is a story like no other. As I became aware of the natural history of the Himalayas, my interest piqued in the natural history of the subcontinent. It was a natural transition from Wild Himalaya to Indica (by Pranay Lal). Indica is natural history like it should be told. It starts with the birth of our planet and takes us through an amazing ride on the Indian tectonic plate to our present state. On the way we encounter the formation of Madagascar and other Indian Ocean islands, the birth of the Deccan Plateau and the Western and Eastern Ghats, the rise of the Himalayas and our mighty rivers, the formation of the life giving monsoon. As the India was taking shape, so was life. These two parallel and intertwined narratives of geographical creation (and destruction) and biological evolution (and extinction) make for a gripping saga.

Just like mountains give way to valleys, geology gives way to biology in natural history. So I set about to find a book that would complete the biological perspective in this great story. And that’s when I came across You by William B Irvine. You is essentially the story of life – the story of every organism that has ever lived on this planet and it is told in a very simple and easy to understand style. It is the story of our collective core. The narrative makes you wonder and marvel at nature and it makes you conscious of your identity. It makes you realize how petty are the things that we as species dwell on. We are a small speck of creation – a dispensable arm of the tree of life. If we all knew this, it would do a world of good to our bloated egos.

The company of books have been so enriching and sharing some of what I have read with near and dear ones has been refreshing. Sometimes, it is topics like these lead to engaging discussions and bring us closer to each other. It is akin to sharing our collective consciousness and it tugs at every heart.

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