Butterflies teach us how to live; how to savour the moment.
Kal pe sawal hai, jeena filhal hai.
(Tomorrow is a question, the business of living has to be done today; famous lines of a song).
We should live, not just exist, say the wise ones. But it is easy to forget that in the daily tussle of life. There are deadlines to be met, money to be earned, both financial and emotional debts to be repaid. Life flashes past us and we don’t always get to savour it. And by the time we get to savour it—we may even have forgotten how to do so.
In the madness of life, a butterfly can show us how to cherish the moment. Butterflies will come to your garden if you plant the right species. You will also find them in forests, which are nature’s gardens. Watching a butterfly is therapeutic. They seem to live in their own dreamlike state, floating, dipping, fluttering, even as the rest of the world crashes, burns and fights. They are colourful to a point of psychedelia, a beautiful rush of a feeling. Colour is like an emotion. And colours and emotion also stand for India. No other country is so colourful and invoking so many emotions at the same time as ours. A bit like the butterfly. The butterfly wears its riot of colours, and it stands for so many emotions—it is stunning but fragile; it spends its life with flowers, yet it’s a life that gets over in a blink. Depending on the species, butterflies live for just a few days or a few months.
Butterflies seem to live in their own dreamlike state, floating, dipping, fluttering, even as the rest of the world crashes, burns and fights.
But we have to live today. So we should pay attention to our wild butterflies.
Recently, I was in Pench tiger reserve in Madhya Pradesh. We were looking for tigers, and we were ready to note the stripe patterns and facial marking so we could identify the individuals. It was a long and hot day, the air burning with heat that felt like an assault. As is often the case, we didn’t see the tiger. I had returned to the rest house, listening to the sounds of the forest, so lively and yet so different from the sounds of a city. A mango tree was in inflorescence, and so a refreshing, subtle smell lay over the 100-year old forest rest house. I was looking at the distance, absent-mindedly, trying not to feel disappointed about the day.
And a Crimson Rose butterfly floated into my life.
The Crimson Rose is a large butterfly, coloured red and black and white. It looks like it has scarlet flowers on its body, like an old-fashioned roseate chiffon saree. It flutters its wings delicately as it gets poised on a flower – this is to keep balance. You may mistake it for a small bird; but then birds fly, they don’t float like mango-blossom smells or butterflies.
It was a love story in compact. The butterfly on the flower seemed so fully complete. To see a butterfly you need vision, to observe it, you need to be fast, and make the seconds count. Suddenly, my sense of time had changed—I was noticing every little thing, the wings beating together, the tiny scales on the butterfly’s body, the way it uncoiled its long proboscis (tongue) to drink nectar from a flower. It was gone, in a matter of a few minutes. But it had gifted me with gratitude that lasted much longer.
Not every butterfly is as large and showy as the Crimson Rose. But all are impressive, with specific preferences for flowers and plants they lay their eggs on. The Commander butterfly looks like it is wearing a line of medals on its open wings. The Lime Butterfly, coloured off-white, black and beige, has patterns of circles and waves. The blue family of butterflies have dull colours on the underwing, but their open wings reveal jewel blue colours. The peacock pansy butterfly looks like the tail of a peacock. The less bright butterflies are a masterclass in pattern. The Mormon butterfly has pied colours—black and white; but arranged such that the wings look like they have a pearl trim. It seems the butterfly is trying to match the colour and pattern of flowers.
While we still have flowers everywhere, butterflies are changing their range due to climate change. Their sensitivity to variations of temperature and rainfall has led scientists to label them as a indicators for climate change.
As parts of the world become hotter and drier, one wonders where the butterflies will go. It may not be obvious, but they need moisture and patches of clean mud—they take nutrients from wet soil. Because cities are getting more concretised, butterflies try to take salts from roads; where they are crushed in hundreds by cars. And because some places do not care for trees and gardens—building play-spaces in malls and gyms, some children may grow up never seeing a butterfly float past her playground.
If just like a butterfly, India is a khichadi of colour and feeling, I want to see an India where a young child looks out for a butterfly, and finds it.
It would be the coexistence of a girl and a butterfly that makes India wonderful.
And it would also be living life in the moment. But that’s not my quote. It’s the butterfly’s.
This first appeared in my column in Gaon Connection.