Book>> Butterflies on the roof of the world by Peter Smetacek, Aleph, Rs 499
One sunny morning, as I was wandering about alone, my heart leapt when an Oakleaf came and settled on the path a few feet away from me. I dashed back to the house as fast as my legs would carry me, grabbed the nearest net and ran back.......... The net billowed as I swung it, but at the last moment, it struck a stone on the path. There was a flash of orange and blue as the Oakleaf made off, and I was left alone with the net. The disappointment nearly broke my two-and-a-half- year-old heart before Mother intervened and requested Father to make a net more suited to my infancy.
Peter Smetacek grew up among the meadows of Bhimtal and Nainital, in a family of foresters and passionate lepitopterists. Their family estate in Bhimtal was a haven for the local flora and fauna that flourished unabated in the hills and valleys of the Jones Estate since his father bought it in 1945 till a massive forest fire nearly destroyed it in May 1984. In planning the re-growth of the lost forest, Smetacek set out on a journey to discover the true meaning of a “forest”.
Butterflies on the roof of the world is a vivid and engaging narrative of this journey that traces the story of his rendezvous with the butterflies and moths in particular, and nature in general. The many anecdotes and experiences that the author speaks of are as vivid as the images of the red breast jezebel and rajah brook’s birdwing on the cover. The informal and personal tone of his narrative immediately draws the reader into the folds of the Himalayas, amid the flower-strewn meadows shimmering with butterflies.
Peter’s father began collecting moths after having spent twenty five years catching only butterflies. The family soon caught up with his passion, greedily awaiting the moths that flocked to the over-ripened fruit traps, attracted by the light from lamps reflecting off a white sheet of cloth set up in the lawn every night. In 1980, Peter returned home from school in Nainital and was met by the shocking scene of walls lined with empty boxes. An attack by museum beetles had reduced most of the carefully arranged lepidopterans in Bederich Friedrich Smetacek’s collection to dust. This one event shaped the destiny of Peter Smetacek, who decided to rebuild the collection, and in the process, emerged as an undisputed expert on Indian moths and butterflies. He ends the chapter 'Drunken moths' with a very modest claim: the Smetacek collection is the fourth largest Lepidoptera collection in the country in terms of species, with over 2,000 of the roughly 12,000 butterfly and moth species believed to inhabit India, as well as type specimens of over a dozen new butterflies and moths that I have described.
‘Peter caught one male on 30.11.72,' said a note in red on the margin of Butterflies of India by Charles Antram. This was about a rare find – a Spot Puffin male, which he was thus allowed to record in the book that described the species. This added to Peter’s enthusiasm for butterflies at the tender age of seven, a passion that has been his companion for life. This passion has not been limited to the capturing and cataloguing of lepidopterans, but has led to many interesting studies that Smetacek has conducted on the behaviour and ecology of these species. Yes, there are scientific names of moths and butterflies in every chapter, but for one who does not share the enthusiasm of the lepidopterist, these can be ignored as easily as Peter’s mother (herself a butterfly enthusiast) did, preferring to use the common names.
Smetacek is an engaging story-teller, holding the attention of readers through little details that enable one to conjure up images. He has a subtle sense of humour, and his memoirs are strewn with interesting anecdotes, personal experiences and scientific facts, all strung together by a seamless narrative. “In traversing the miles of mountainous terrain with him, one sighs at the life he leads, following his passion, living his dream. If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one to hear it, does the tree make a noise while falling? Would I involuntarily scream? Would anyone hear it? Far below me, life moved on; it all seemed surreal.” These lines in the Prologue gave me goose bumps, and I was happy to think that the tussocks had held and the young Peter had not ended up in pieces in a valley, his mouth full of chocolate; otherwise I would not be reading this book.
Anindita Bhadra is with the Behaviour and Ecology Lab, Department of Biological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Kolkata and can be reached at email@example.com
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