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Making a difference: The fossil hunter

The collection of fossils by Nirmal Rajah. Photo: R. Ashok

The collection of fossils by Nirmal Rajah. Photo: R. Ashok   | Photo Credit: R_ASHOK

“What is the oldest thing that you have seen in your life so far?” Even as I fumble for a suitable answer, Nirmal Rajah R. can’t wait. He places a small rock-like piece in my hand and asks, “How do you feel? Imagine you are in Cretaceous period and sense the powerful inspiration.” I am stumped again but Nirmal’s enthusiasm does not wane. “You are holding history in your hands. Isn’t it fantastic?” he gushes. “It is a rastellum, a 65-million-year-old fossil of an oyster’s bi-valve jaw!”

With child-like excitement Nirmal opens three boxes to show more of his fossil collection. He rattles out names and dates…trilobites, hemiclads, ammonites, corals, petrified tree, 550-million-year-old squid. He pulls out the Fossil Detectives Field Guide and matches his displays with the photos in the book.

“My parents, neighbours think all this is junk. They call me crazy because I keep them beside me while sleeping. They are so precious,” he continues.

Nirmal’s collection includes 50 different species of fossils. He has 10 to 100 pieces of each species. “I give them lot of respect. I place them in good velvet cloth on a sponge bed. I have five more boxes at home.” His inquisitiveness led to the creation of a group of fossil collectors on Orkut and Facebook. “I have been going with them on excavations since 2008,” he says. He is also a member of the 2,000-strong global network of fossil collectors.

For the next hour Nirmal talks about his love for fossil hunting. As a kid, his passion was to dig in his backyard. But he only ended up in sewer lines. “Whether I actually find any is beside the point. It is the joy of living in the positive moment to study how life changes,” he says. “Whether it is psychology or biology, evolution always has better answers to every how and why.”

First love – Palaeontology

At 23, Nirmal is visibly restless. His deep interest in social evolution made him a Zoology graduate but his parents, eager for a more productive career for their son, made him pursue an M.Sc. in Biotechnology. Working as a clinical research coordinator in a lab in Madurai now, Nirmal can’t take his mind off palaeontology. “Everybody considers palaeontology a dead science. But it is a science of wonders. I want to do a Ph.D in it,” says Nirmal, even as his parents are trying to pack him off to Dubai for a job. He is feverishly applying in universities abroad for admission and scholarship and hopes to get in this fall.

As a kindergarten student Nirmal went to watch Jurassic Park. Since then, he has seen the film 200 times and collected hundreds of books about evolution.

Nirmal has been visiting Ariyalur, the bed of limestone sediments, and some rural interior spots near Chennai and Coimbatore and the Puducherry coastal line for expanding his collection, which includes flora, fauna and marine fossils. “I use lightweight tools mostly from the dentists’ kit to hammer and scrape,” he says, adding that knowledge of chemistry is equally important in recovering and cleaning fossils. “When it is not possible to chip away a delicate fossil, some mild chemicals can be used to dissolve the sediments.”

There are ethical considerations behind fossil collection, Nirmal points out. Either they should be handed over to universities and museums for examination and certification or they should be left where they are. Many times amateur palaeontologists come across startling findings but because they lack appropriate certification and because of prejudicial attitudes, those finds remain low profile.

Fossils are also traded everywhere. “Somebody offered me Rs.3,45,000 for the petrified tree piece I have,” Nirmal laughs.

Nirmal’s regret is that he lacks a proper guide. He reads up on his own to understand his fossils. “It is a very humbling experience. It makes you feel small and insignificant because the world from the past opens in front of you.”

(Making a difference is a fortnightly column about ordinary people and events that leave an extraordinary impact on us. E-mail to soma.basu@thehindu.co.in to tell about someone you know who is making a difference)

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Printable version | Aug 7, 2020 7:16:35 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/making-a-difference-the-fossil-hunter/article3653019.ece

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