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Home > Tributes and Remembrances > Remembering Alice Thorner > The Alice I knew — and her Indian commitment

The Alice I knew — and her Indian commitment

by Barbara Harriss-White, 24 September 2005

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The Hindu, August 28, 2005

Alice’s son, whom I have never met but feel I know, gave me the news this morning in a gentle and restrained way. Our department, Queen Elizabeth House, is moving site after 50 years; and the day after Alice’s death was the day of the much-opposed death of our departmental library. I have spent it thick-headed, moving from one task to another unable to concentrate, finally settling on some mechanical work `as she would have wished’ but imagining she would have wanted me to get on with my grief.

I feel too sorrowful to write an obituary or a tribute to her work and life. My younger daughter understands: ``I realised it couldn’t be bad news from the hospital. When granny dies you won’t react like this.’’ Even at 87, Alice’s death feels premature. I am in need of condolence and such is Alice’s legacy that many other people will also be feeling like this. Alice had a great gift for love and friendship so I would like to send everyone feeling bereaved the kind of sympathies normally reserved for family members. All I can do is to explain what my friendship with her has meant personally.

I have no idea how we came to meet, but over and above her intellectual sharpness and her impact as an inspiring mentor, the Alice I know stands for triumph over loss and for self preservation through a constant engagement with the big questions.

She came into my life nearly two decades ago at a time when I was in difficulties. We met in London and talked — in a way that was halted by something quite arbitrary — about the Byzantine process of publishing Daniel [Thorner]’s edition of Chen Han-seng’s atlas of agrarian structure , the `Ecological and Agrarian Regions of South Asia circa 1930’ in Karachi of all places; but from the start our conversation kept flying off at personal tangents. She came into her own for me in 1998 after the sudden death of my husband Gordon. I was about the age she had been when Daniel died. She taught me how to re-make life as a widow, how to bear this and other kinds of loss, and the proper way to age. She also taught me some - but not enough — good recipes.

Having moved from being a student of psychology to being an accomplished sociologist of the metropolitan city, she was a living example of what we now call `development’ and gave continual encouragement to transcend disciplines if needs must. Again and again we met and would talk into the night, over her excellent food and well chosen wine, telling our stories in a way that is the age-old prelude to love. "Like teenagers’’ she would say, amazed at the hour. Occasionally, it would cross my mind to wonder whether she told her life history in such meticulous detail because she wanted me not only to know it but also to write about it when she was no longer here. Well acquainted with death, she had a matter-of-fact attitude to it and knew how Daniel was living on in young minds. And, because I found the thought that she would not live forever and would one day join the ranks of my losses very hard to bear, I never retained more than the outlines of facts that are well known.

Authoritative review

We certainly began in 1998 with the question of regions of capitalist accumulation and her sweeping, authoritative review of the debate on the mode of production in agriculture which Daniel and she had triggered. Long before Krishnaraj’s tragic death, she also talked frequently about the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) and its unique achievement, with pride at the regular supplements on women edited with Maitreyi Krishnaraj and with concern about how EPW would shape up in future. She was soon to take issue with my conclusion that there was much more occupational continuity stratified by caste than modernist social scientists allowed for, arguing that, while throughout most of Indian history most people of whatever label had been agricultural labourers, the economic organisation and social significance of caste must be continually changing. I then learned that she had waded into her friend of 60 years, Andre Beteille, for not having paid sufficient attention to the movement and migration of peoples in the forming of contemporary caste.

In 2000 she generously gave me the run of Daniel’s library to work on a chapter on the implications for the Indian economy of their being a plurality of religions. `All these books for a retirement that did not happen... ’ And she kept a close critical watch on the development of this project. We also discussed how private libraries might most usefully be transferred into the public domain. I developed reasons for regular seasonal swoops on Paris and we made complicitous sorties to art galleries, cinemas and food markets. Civilised meals. Trips for both of us to London. Long, unstructured, animated conversations. Stretching exchanges about the Indian novel in English. Children and grandchildren. Prabhat Patnaik on Alice on Sweezy. Capitalism and entropy. The search for her family’s roots in Riga with Kirsten Westergaard for company. The many reasons why Noam Chomsky and Isaiah Berlin never got on. Her admiration for Elizabeth Whitcombe. Sujata [Patel] and the politics of development in Mumbai.

Visits to Oxford

She made visits to Oxford in turn to meet the people I talked about and for her to meet and take the measure of my Tasmanian mother. In Paris Alice introduced me to an entire circle of French Indianists across the generations whose work I came to know through her and which now illuminates mine. She was the nicest and most skilled networker I ever met, rescuing the practice from its sullied overtones of instrumentality and making it an essential and exciting craft. She proposed me for the only real sabbatical leave I have ever had, distancing myself from Oxford for a month at the Centre d’etudes de `CEIAS/EHESS. It was a liberating time of almost uninterrupted research and writing in the perfect conditions of a big light studio flat in the Maison Suger. She was away for most of it and was pleased to find me established in my quartier on her return. It was hard to leave.

Her wonderland

Alice had an irresistibly lovely home — a 19th century town house inside a courtyard that leaned up against a high wall on the other side of which she said the Curies discovered radium. A much lower wall enclosed her garden whose lawn was covered in ivy, the whole effect finished off by a sheltered clump of bamboo and a fine chestnut tree — which recorded the seasons. This was not just Alice’s harmonious territory, until recently it was that of Pensee, her celebrated cat, too. A cat called `Thought’. While the basement was full of piles of EPW and Monthly Review, amongst which one was invited to browse, the top floor of the house had two rooms. Through the chambre des etudiants flowed generations of student helpers - great youngsters whom one might unexpectedly meet all over the place — following careers in the ILO in one case, trade union law in another. Through the other bedroom, the chambre des invites, must have flowed not only her American family but also a stream of cosmopolitan scholars, champions of India’s original project of secular and democratic socialism — plus some with other vocations or who disagreed. Many of them were no doubt reciprocating Alice’s own winters in India, which are the stuff of legend.

In this setting, Alice grew very old in years, frail in body but undaunted and obstinate at heart. Elegant, stylish, and beautiful, she knew how to pace her day and how to live. As well as people, she liked objects with stories, was not afraid to preserve her history around her and seemed to have total recall. Resolutely committed to India’s Independence, from the 1940s, thereafter to the original project of Indian modernity and later to feminist causes, continually angry at the state of the world, interested in the way the ideas of young people are being shaped, scornful of folly, full of fun, imagination and resourcefulness, she had a gourmet appetite for life.

As her health failed this year, she summoned me several times and must have done this with others. She spoke often and graphically on the phone. Her grandson and Sujatha Patel both sent coded signals that it might be good to go and visit. But Alice will surely last forever. My elder daughter, currently in Pakistan, seized the chance to occupy the chambre des etudiants next year. Alice then emailed and demanded my presence in the nicest possible way. However, this year’s work has been gruelling and my mother’s descent into being hospitalised, bedridden and now demented has always had first claim. Alice understood this.

(Professor Barbara Harriss-White is Director of Queen Elizabeth House, Oxford University.)