Stones Tell Their Own Story

  • Nigel Hughes (right) during a discussion at Chitrakatha 2019. Photograph courtesy Nigel Hughes
  • The book cover of Nigel Hughes' 'Monishar Pathorer Bon'. Photograph courtesy Nigel Hughes

U.S. Fulbright-Nehru Academic and Professional Excellence Scholar Nigel Hughes talks about collaborating with Indian counterparts on various creative projects on geoscience and paleontology.

Nigel Hughes, U.S. Fulbright-Nehru Academic and Professional Excellence Scholar, and a professor of geology at University of California, Riverside’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, has been involved in geoscience outreach to children and young adults in eastern India. He is also engaged in efforts, in collaboration with other paleontologists, to design and construct The Indian Museum of the Earth (TIME) in the National Capital Region. His latest venture is an animated story about fossils on top of Mount Everest and the geological history of the subcontinent.

Excerpts of an interview with Hughes.


How did you get interested in geology and also in the Indian subcontinent? 

I was born in the United Kingdom and educated at a school with a strong natural history society. So, I grew up following natural science as a passion. A sister of a friend in my school lived in Bangladesh. In 1982, I was invited to visit Dhaka. We also visited Kolkata, Darjeeling and several other parts of northern India and Nepal. In Dhaka, I was introduced to Rabindra Sangeet, Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s musical creation, which I liked very much. In 1985-86, I spent eight months as a foreign casual student at Santiniketan, where I learned a little Bengali. I have been lucky enough to blend my career as a geologist with my interest in the subcontinent. I moved to the U.S. in 1992 and became a citizen in 2007. 


You are also involved in writing books like “Monishar Pathorer Bon” for children and young adults, in collaboration with Bengali writers. Could you tell us a little about this collaboration? 

My time in Santiniketan permanently changed me and I made lasting friendships, which are some of the most important in my life. In particular, I met local artist and concerned citizen Shyamali Khastagir. Among many other passions, she loved the natural world. So, telling a story that involved the local natural history of Santiniketan, seat of Tagore’s dream university, and involving friends with various artistic talents was consistent with her vision and, of course, Rabindranath Tagore’s. 

The book, “Monishar Pathorer Bon”, is a story about a village girl, Monisha, and her ultimately successful quest to find a natural explanation for the gach pathor, fossilized wood, common throughout much of Bengal. This strange material, which looks like wood but is made of stone, has generated various myths to explain it. In our story, Monisha wants to understand what the Earth itself says about how the gach pathor formed. Her success in this venture is rewarded by a trip back five million years to the time when the trees and the animals of that era were alive. It was published in 2012 by friends in the Monfakira press and the Geological Society of India.


Can you tell us about your Fulbright-Nehru Fellowship project? 

During my Fulbright-Nehru Fellowship in 2019-2020, we worked on other geoscience outreach projects. Through Santiniketan, I became connected with Sekhar Mukherjee, director of the National Institute of Design, Andhra Pradesh, and Chitrakatha, the biannual student design festival. We are now working on another project, called “The Ocean on Top of Our Mountain,” an animated series about fossils on top of Sagarmatha [Nepalese and Sanskrit name for Mount Everest] and India’s amazing geological journey as a continent, from the supercontinent of Gondwana to the crash of India into Asia and the building of the Himalayas. 


Could you tell us a bit about your work related to The Indian Museum of the Earth?

The Indian subcontinent has a unique and spectacular geological history. It is the story that the land says of itself: a dramatic story that every citizen of the subcontinent, regardless of region, class or religion, can be equally proud of. But few citizens know of this history. I am, thus, fortunate to have been included in a team of persons who are envisaging what the TIME institution will look like, and how it can be made accessible and valuable to as wide a swath of the population as possible.


How has been your experience in these scientific collaborations with counterparts in India? 

I have long collaborated with Indian scientists on geological research projects as well as educational outreach ones. Our geological collaborations have been fruitful. Indian geologists have the great advantage of proximity to the field and, thus, the opportunity to see many places–something that’s generally difficult for foreigners to do. We also sometimes have vigorous debates, but that’s all part of furthering shared learning. It has been a great pleasure and privilege of my life to work in geological research in India.


Ranjita Biswas is a Kolkata-based journalist. She also translates fiction and writes short stories.