Thursday, 7 May 2015

'Butterflies on the Roof of the World': Remembering Rabindranath on his birth anniversary in the Himalayas

"That I exist is a perpetual surprise which is life", Rabindranath writes in "Stray Birds", his lovely little square pocket-book of aphorisms that reveal the genius of his heart. Had Gurudev gone on living, he would have turned 154 today!

As it turns out, I am in Bhimtal, in Kumaon, not far from Ramgarh, where Rabindranath spent many creative weeks of his life, and where I will be staying for a few weeks with my parents later this month. 

I met a man today who  has one of the largest collections of butterflies in the country. His name is Peter Smetacek. His father Fredy Smetacek Sr., a Central European migrant from Silesia, was the original collector, Peter having followed in his father's footsteps. He gave me a breathtaking tour of the butterfly museum adjoining his hillside home (

Peter has taken the frontiers of knowledge of butterflies in this country to new horizons. He has recorded his family memories as well as his observations of butterflies in his recent book which I borrowed from my host family (Peter's neighbour and sister-in-law, Padmini Smetacek's family) bookshelf and saw today, Butterflies on the Roof of the World (Aleph, New Delhi, 2012). 

The book has a wealth of insight not only into the world of butterflies but also what the disappearance of certain insects and moths means for the ecologies of which they are an ineluctable part. In his book, as well as in this TEDx talk (, Peter has some very important insights into the surprising connections between the health of butterflies, the condition and kind of forests, the grazing pressure on the forests, the condition of streams, aquifers and other water systems. The presence or absence of butterflies is also seen by him as a "bio-indicator" of climate change.

I am still to acquire a copy of the book and read the whole of it, something I am very much looking forward to.

Sitting in Padmini's verandah, I did read the last few pages of the book this morning, where Peter makes a persuasive case for what ails the ecologies of the Sub-Continent and endangers water security for its multiple populations: an excess of cattle-grazing, related to other ecological imbalances stemming from growth. 

Coincidentally (or perhaps not?), my eyes fell too on the last line of the book, where Peter ends with an optimistic scenario of how water security will be ensured in the future: "Into this entirely feasible vision, Oh Lord, let my country awake."

Readers of Rabindranath will recognise the trace of his heart in these words. A happening appropriate for May 7!

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