HISTORY: A passage to India – one woman's quest to discover her roots . Butler is the granddaughter of Stanley Henry Prater, a legend amongst those interested in the study of animals in India and a member of India's Contituent Assembly
Alison Butler, a Labour Party councillor in London, is eagerly planning her trip to India next year. But her visit will be much more than the usual sightseeing and sampling of local cuisine. She is excited because she will soon be seeing the "sites related to her grandfather". Butler is the granddaughter of Stanley Henry Prater, a legend amongst those interested in the study of animals in India. Moreover, he was also a member of India's Constituent Assembly that deliberated upon the country's Constitution – a fact not many would be aware of.
Prater was a remarkable figure who, due to family compulsions, shifted to the UK leaving his "beloved India" in 1948. An orphan, he was born in south India and was brought up by Jesuit priests, who took charge of his studies at St Mary's High School in Mumbai. He developed a liking for nature and went on to join the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS).
According to ornithologist Salim Ali, Prater had joined the BNHS right after he finished school in 1907. In his early days, Ali himself trained under Prater and P.F. Gomes, the two assistants of Sir N.B. Kinnear, the then curator of BNHS. Sir Kinnear had recognised the brilliance of the young man during his apprenticeship as museum assistant and field collector. However, his lack of higher education came in the way of his appointment as a scientific member of the staff. So consequently he was sent to tutor under Father Blatter at St Xavier's College to fill the lacunae of a formal degree in biology. Ali, who was studying zoology around the same time, recalls picking up Prater from his "miniature terrace flat at Elphinstone circle on the pillion" of his little Douglas.
Prater went on to become the Curator of BNHS and Prince of Wales Museum. Paying tribute to the genius of Prater, Ali says in his autobiography 'The Fall of a Sparrow': "He had a retentive memory and gift for digesting complicated technicalities and reducing pedantic professional jargon into simple language. Prater's forte was popularisation of zoological knowledge. Most of his writings bear witness to his mastery of the art. He wrote in humorous and pleasing style."
'The Book of Indian Animals' that the naturalist authored in the 1940s reveals his mastery over the language and attention to detail. No doubt, it was this book that got Butler interested in finding out more about her grandfather. "He died when I was just a baby. As a child I knew little about him except for the 'granddad' things," she says. That changed when she chanced upon the book. "I was told that it was a popular book in its time. However, an Internet search revealed it is still in demand."
It was not as if Butler was completely unaware of her India connection. But it mostly centred on the fact that in the 1960s and 1970s she and her siblings "must have been some of the only children then in our area that regularly had proper curry and rice every Saturday, cooked by Nan (grandmother)". When she grew up, Butler naturally got caught up with work and children and by the time Butler decided to probe her grandfather's past, her grandmother had passed away.
Butler continued in her quest to gather more information by connecting with people looking for roots in the Indian sub-continent. Using the Internet as a tool she also realised that her grandfather was not just a prominent leader of the Anglo-Indian community but a member of India's Constituent Assembly. Moreover, he was a Justice of the Peace as well as member of the Legislative Assembly for 17 years.
Prater's achievements are manifold. "I think what really got hold of my imagination was how a young boy who had been left in an orphanage by his father went on to achieving so many things," says Butler. As per her research, Prater's mother died while giving birth to him and his father left him in an orphanage.
In his youth, Prater travelled to London, New York and Chicago to train in taxidermy and other techniques of natural history exhibitions. For more than two decades he remained Curator of BNHS and Prince of Wales Museum. An excited Butler also informs us that her grandfather had even "had tea with Gandhi". When Gandhi was killed Prater had already moved to the UK. He wrote a letter to his friend Frank Anthony, the famous Anglo-Indian representative in the Indian Parliament. "Prater was a typical Anglo-Indian. He wrote me a deeply moving letter. In his words, he wrote that letter with tears not only in his eyes but in his heart," writes Anthony in his book 'Britain's Betrayal in India: The story of the Anglo-Indian community'.
Prater's life is perhaps an apt narrative of the existential dilemma of Anglo-Indians of that time. Those who came to UK and considered it “home” found they didn't quite belong here, that they were different –probably the same feelings that had made them leave India. Butler believes that while Prater was generally happy to be with his family he probably longed for his very different life in India. Unfortunately, he lost his job at the Natural History Museum in London due to a cut in government spending. "Somethings don't change," Butler says, hinting at the current austerity drive in the country. Later, he developed Parkinson's disease and passed away in 1960. What is disturbing to Butler is that her "grandfather never received the recognition (in UK) he had in India and this saddens me".
As a Labour worker, who rose to become an elected councillor in Croydon, Butler was thrilled when she found out only recently that Prater too was a member of the Labour Party in Streatham. "My two passions are art and politics and I like to think I inherited them both from my grandfather.
She is disappointed that where it has been far easier to follow her grandmother's ancestors, she has drawn a blank with her grandfather's. Hopefully, she will get more clues upon her arrival in India. (Women's Feature Service)