Butterflies On The Roof Of The World: A Memoir
Aleph Book Company
Rs. 495 pp 224
My first encounter with Freddie Smetacek was through stories. A friend, who’d met him at his house in Bhimtal, took such delight in talking about him that Smetacek became an instant legend for me.
I had hoped to some day meet the man with the enormous bug and butterfly collection and a wall full of dirty limericks. As fate would have it, Freddie Smetacek stayed in the realm of stories for me.
This time, I meet him in a book penned by his son, Peter. Butterflies On The Roof Of The World opens with a young Peter chasing an elusive species of the winged creature through steep mountain-sides, almost Mowgli-like in his understanding of the landscape and its dangers.
The memoir is a saga of growing up, of emerging from behind the shadows of his father’s obsession and achieving a unique understanding and expertise that goes far beyond what the junior Smetacek had grown up with.
While talking about how a certain museum beetle attack destroyed his father’s collection and left him quite despondent, Smetacek writes with great clarity about what led him to choose the life of a lepidopterist, a life in sync with nature. “Having nothing to do is one of the prerequisites for observing nature,” he writes.
With that, Smetacek defines the pace of the book. The slowness of it might take a little getting used to for the average reader at times, and the long descriptions of various Lepidoptera might even seem tedious. But inside these stories of nature and its bountiful creations are nestled stories of the people who are close to the writer.
Wildly informative as they are, it is in these bits that much is revealed about the individuals who make the memories — the siblings, the father, the mother, the wife, the grandfather — and the space-time continuum that they inhabit together. This is more than a book about butterflies.
It’s a manual of sorts — one designed to prepare you for life outside the concrete jungle. Read closely, the memoir transforms into a window into a whole way of life, one where moths and other specimens of the insect population are not things that one must eliminate.
The manner in which Smetacek narrates tales of beetles and frogs and herds of monkeys, making them almost human, is enchanting. For Smetacek it is important to exist within nature, not in spite of it – and this is what makes the book significant for this reviewer.
Isha Manchanda is an independent journalist