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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Book Review: Butterflies


A world of winged wonders
KS NARAYANAN | New Delhi, June 21, 2013 13:42
Tags : Peter Smetacek | Butterflies | Book Review |

For most of us colourful butterflies mean how we chased them when we were young and  tucked them inside a textbook as a prized trophy for months and years.

Then there are people who make better sense of lesser mortals and study, understand and preserve animals and birds. There are a few who take up entomology, the study of insects. One such person is the author of Butterflies: On the Roof top of the World, Peter Smetacek, veteran butterfly collector and chief custodian of the Butterfly Research Centre in Bhimtal, Uttarakhand, who spent his life chasing moths and butterflies. His journey began when the author learned to walk, explore the landscape and its dangers like Mowgli of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. At the tender age of three he caught his first butterfly.

Peter takes us on expeditions deep into the mountains of the Himalayas, the high desert landscape of Ladakh, leopard and bear infested forests of Kumaon, and scenic meadows of Garhwal. The book acquaints us with Indian moon moths,  Orange Oakleafs, Painted Ladies, Golden Sapphires, Sword Tails and other such captivating creatures.

The journey into this enchanting world of butterflies began for Peter even before he was born. The author begins the book by saying that forests run in the family. His father left his native Sudetenland, erstwhile Czechoslovakia, to become a seafarer, escaped the Nazis by jumping ship at Calcutta and married an Indian Muslim woman descended from Tipu Sultan. With World War II raging and people dying of starvation on the streets of Calcutta on account of the Bengal Famine in 1943, Smetacek’s father eventually settled with his family in the Bhimtal area that bore a close resemblance to “the Central European hills he had known”.

Like other naturalist writers, Peter attempts to not only capture fascinating creatures but also invests them with human qualities. He writes how drunken moths behave no differently from their human counterparts when they are tipsy.

Despite financial constraints and sleepless nights, Peter has several research papers to his credit on the subject. The book is laced with humour and witty prose that makes it both entertaining and informative and fills the reader with a sense of adventure and a desire to pack the bags and set out on a quest to explore these butterflies in their natural habitats.

Peter, on a motorcycle tour of Western Nepal, was suspected of trafficking women because “butterfly”  is a euphemism for a “saleable girl,” in that area. The tour, incidentally, failed to yield a single butterfly.

For those interested in the world of Lepidoptera, Peter who owns the largest private collection of butterflies and moths, provides both known and unknown facts about their shapes, colours, swings and behaviour and dwells on the depths of butterfly catching techniques, defence mechanisms used by these creatures, successful and failed experiments, the science of naming butterflies and moths...

One shortcoming in the book is the absence of colour pictures. May be that would have made production of the book significantly costlier. Yet, it would definitely have made a world of difference to the impact as a quality photograph is worth a thousand words.

A few pearls of wisdom from the guardian angel of butterflies on how they use their wings to reflect solar radiation into their bodies are featured.

Explaining why the well-being of butterflies is vital and how it will help in monitoring forests, Peter observes; “A butterfly is a symbol of freedom.

As global debates rage over deforestation and climate change, Peter helps us ponder over posterity when he says: “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.”

Surely such an awakening is awaiting all of us. Just read this book.


Author: Peter Smetacek

Edition: Paperback

ISBN: 978-93-82277-05-7

Pages: 224

Price: Rs. 495

Publisher: Aleph

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017