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Butterflies on the Roof of the World | Peter Smetacek

Freedom song

Ever wondered where the word “butterfly" originated from? Did you know that moths are responsible for pollinating most flowers above the tree line on the southern face of the Himalayas? Are you intrigued by life in the undergrowth? If you are, then this might be the book you are looking for.

Peter Smetacek, an authority on Indian butterflies and moths, engages us with the mysterious world of elusive insects, little-known marvels of nature, through his freewheeling memoir, Butterflies on the Roof of the World.

General books on nature in India are few and far between, so this one makes for a compelling read, full of wit and adventure. It is not just a book on butterflies, but an engrossing tale rich in history and science, a travelogue spun around the fascinating world of butterflies. The storytelling is reminiscent of legendary naturalist Gerald Durrell and travel writer Bruce Chatwin.

There are stories of collectors and collections, drunken moths, caterpillars that are worth more than their weight in gold, and about the beneficence of butterflies and moths. One gets to know how butterflies use their wings to reflect solar radiation into their bodies and how each species has developed its wing shape, colour and pattern to help surmount the challenges it faces.

Butterflies on the Roof of the World: Aleph Book Company, 224 pages, ₹ 495.
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Butterflies on the Roof of the World: Aleph Book Company, 224 pages, ₹ 495.

Besides regaling us with such tales, Smetacek introduces us to a few legendary naturalists who have shaped the study of Lepidoptera. Walter Rothschild was one such towering figure who put together the largest collection of natural history specimens by an individual. His collection had a staggering 2.25 million butterfly specimens. Then there was Albert Meek, responsible for discovering Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, the largest butterfly known to man. The species was named by Rothschild, and is now found only in a 100 sq. km patch of forest in New Guinea.

The love for forests and butterflies runs deep in the Smetacek family. Peter Smetacek’s grandfather descended from the forest folk in Silesia, a region in central Europe which today covers parts of Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic. While his grandfather fought in World War I as an officer in the Imperial Austrian army, his father escaped the wrath of Hitler during World War II and landed in Calcutta (now Kolkata). Smetacek Sr later moved his family to Bhimtal, now in Uttarakhand, in the Himalayan foothills, in order to pursue their passion for butterflies.

Bhimtal is a Lepidopteran paradise, with more butterfly species than most countries in Europe. Like his father, Smetacek was bitten by the butterfly bug quite early in his life. He caught his first butterfly when he was 3. Today, Smetacek oversees the largest private collection of butterflies and moths in India and runs the Butterfly Research Centre in Bhimtal.

“A butterfly is a symbol of freedom," writes Smetacek, explaining why the well-being of butterflies is vital to us—and the time is near when butterflies will help in monitoring forests. As governments across the world address forest loss and climate change, the author leaves us pondering with these lines: “I have found this an intriguing fact with us humans. Even the champions of wildlife conservation and vocal defenders of animal rights seem to perceive ‘animals’ as mere objects. Their world view appears to be based on the premise that we are humans and everything else is either to be protected or exploited. Of course, our modern civilization is built up on the systematic exploitation of different rungs of society, so it is not difficult to comprehend where this world view originates. What is intriguing is that even two and a half centuries after we were incontrovertibly placed among the monkeys by (Carl) Linnaeus, we have failed to accept our place in the natural hierarchy."

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