End of an engagement

Print edition : September 23, 2005


Alice Thorner, 1918-2005.

ALICE THORNER's life was lived in three continents, and her interests lay in studying the historic process of post-War decolonisation and the planned development of India. She interacted for over six decades with academics and academic-bureaucrats, who were not inconsequential actors in what Gunnar Myrdal had termed the `Asian Drama', and she too played a part in that unfolding drama. It was while visiting England on the eve of the Second World War in 1939 with husband Daniel Thorner, who was researching for his thesis on the Indian Railways at the India Office Library in London, that she met the group of enthusiastic Indian nationalists that included V.K. Krishna Menon, P.N. Haksar, K.T. Chandy and Feroze Gandhi. Many were to become her life-long friends.

Alice's engagement with India continued during the many years she and Daniel lived in Mumbai and researched the impact of the first two Five Year Plans and of land reforms on India, penning a series of penetrating essays that were brought together in their jointly published Land and Labour in India (1962), the work which was the introduction to the Thorners' ideas for many young students like myself at that time, and in The Shaping of Modern India (1980), which was also based mainly on the research of that period. Without knowing it then, I learnt a valuable lesson from Alice and Daniel's work; namely, how to scrutinise carefully the concepts and definitions used in the collection and analysis of data to avoid drawing wrong inferences. Their essay on "India's agrarian revolution by Census redefinition" was especially illuminating for me. Today, we see before us a process of `India's poverty reduction by poverty redefinition' when poverty is actually increasing.

Alice and Daniel lived in India until 1960 after which they moved to Paris where Daniel headed a department at the Sorbonne. They maintained their engagement with India and Alice continued to work on India after Daniel died prematurely of cancer in 1974. She visited India every winter for at least two months. Alice used to say that 80 years was no age at all. When their long-term friend Charles Bettelheim died, she complained that he had no business to die at such a young age. I was reminded of her words when news reached us of Alice's death at the age of 87. (Alice hated the euphemism `passed away' and insisted on calling a spade a spade.) It will remain be a matter of lasting regret that, having met her every winter for the last 14 years when she made her annual two-month circuit of India's metros, I happened to be away from Delhi and could not meet her on, as it turns out, her very last visit at the end of February this year.

Alice's family was from Latvia and they had migrated to the United States when she was quite small. She once explained that those days it was a matter of pride for immigrants to integrate quickly into the new society and so the use of the mother tongue at home was not encouraged. She told us that Daniel's family however, was from Torun (or Thorn) in Polish Prussia, and so dropped their long surname and adopted the name Thorner when they migrated to the U.S. The life of Alice and Daniel Thorner reflected the fascinating aspects of the political and social developments in the U.S. in the last century.

There was a time from the late 1920s and early 1930s, when hundreds of European intellectuals and creative artists had fled the rise of fascism to the freedom of the U.S. There was a reverse flight from the U.S. in the early 1950s during the McCarthy period when official Red-baiting and Red-hunting drove out progressive intellectuals and artistes. Some like E.H. Norman, the brilliant Marxist scholar of Japan, could not stand the strain and committed suicide. Others like Charles Chaplin left the U.S. for ever. Alice and Daniel Thorner did the same. On leave from the University of Philadelphia, Daniel was in India to study agrarian conditions in 1952, when he was informed that he would be called to testify before the notorious Senate Committee investigating `un-American' activities. He refused to return to the U.S., and what was to be a one-year visit turned into an eight-year stay since Daniel's University job back home was not renewed. The Thorners made good use of that stay to carry out extensive field work in widely different areas of India which threw valuable light on the nature of land reforms and the prospects of co-operative farming.

Alice became intensely involved with the Indian Census from 1958, as P.C. Mahalanobis, who headed the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), gave her a research project to study the concepts used in the earlier Census and refine these concepts to prepare for the 1961 Census - the outcome was four papers by Alice later published in Sankhya, the journal of the ISI. She was also involved in the planning of the Second Agricultural Labour Enquiry as a visiting scholar after shifting to Paris. The Thorners consistently maintained that India was undergoing a revolution whose colour was neither red nor green, but steel grey. Their analysis of Indian industrialisation was complemented by the perception that it was stimulating the growth of capitalist farming. The subject of agrarian transition and capitalist development interested me and I had chosen it from my doctoral research in the teeth of opposition from my Oxford supervisor. I met Daniel before I met Alice, by appointment for the first time in 1968 when he was visiting Oxford, soon after he had started writing on the subject of capitalist farming. He was extremely supportive and immediately encouraged my idea of doing field work. I suspect he might have been somewhat disappointed later when I started publishing the results of the research, since he found that I used Marxist and Leninist categories of analysis, which in my view provided a most powerful and illuminating theoretical apparatus - a view I have had no reason to change and which indeed has become more strongly held over the years. From the mid-1960s, Daniel himself was involved in translating and popularising the theories of the interesting Russian economist A. V. Chayanov, who belonged to the very school of neo-Narodnik thought that Lenin had earlier roundly criticised.

When Alice asked me to deliver the first Daniel Thorner memorial lecture in 1985, I felt it to be a privilege but was also a trifle surprised given Daniel's theoretical perspective which was different from mine. Alice, however, was very independent intellectually and always knew her own mind. She had written a long, comprehensive and insightful survey of the `mode of production' debate which had raged in the pages of Economic and Political Weekly in the early 1970s, and in which many academics including I had taken part. To my knowledge, Alice did not herself use Marxist categories, but nor was she in the least prejudiced against anyone who did. Alice always looked at the substance of an argument and made up her mind on the worth of an academic position accordingly. Rectitude, objectivity and balance are increasingly rare qualities, which Alice possessed in ample measure. It was these qualities combined with a gentle but, on occasion, quite acerbic wit that made her such an interesting person to be with and talk to.

Alice was a most devoted wife, mother and grandmother and always carried photographs of her grandchildren with her. She spent a great deal of effort and time in completing and publishing Daniel's unfinished work after his death. At the same time she developed her own interest in urban studies and in gender questions, especially in relation to the categories used in collecting data in large-scale surveys and remained intellectually extremely active. She co-edited two volumes of the proceedings of a conference on the history and sociology of Mumbai. I recollect a very illuminating talk she gave in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) immediately after the Mumbai riots which had followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid, explaining how the land mafia was using the situation to evict slum-dwellers and grab land. A few years ago, JNU honoured Alice at a simple function for the outstanding life-time contribution she had made to the social sciences in India. On a separate occasion in 2002, Alice was presented with a book of essays in her honour, edited by Sujata Patel, Jasodhara Bagchi and Krishna Raj titled Thinking Social Science in India to which over 30 academics had contributed papers.

Alice had a very wide circle of friends and admirers acquired over the 60 years of her association with India but, interestingly, she always made it a point to get to know new young academics on the liberal-left end of the political spectrum. Until increasing deafness curtailed her social interaction she would probe them on the work they were doing and discuss current events. Her quaint, narrow four-storey home in Paris was always open to her friends and was a favourite meeting place for Indian academics visiting or passing through Paris. I recollect a brief but memorable stay with Alice on the occasion of the bicentenary of the French Revolution in 1989, when we went out to see the May Day parade and the sansculottes in their colourful period dress and strange caps, and Alice insisted on going to a particular strategically-located restaurant where, sitting at a table on the pavement, we had a good view of what was going on. An unexpected aspect of Alice's interests was her self-confessed fascination for modern gadgets and scientific developments.

It seems such a waste that so much experience, knowledge and kindness should be snuffed out. Perhaps Alice herself felt so, for she wrote a remarkable `lament', printed at the beginning of her own festschrift. The following lines are reproduced from the beginning and end of Alice's lament:

If it is true that in our universe no particle ever drops out of existence

But must be transmuted into new arrangements of neutrons, electrons, genes,

That a scientifically explicable process intervenes

Between the loss and some new incarnation... ... ...

How comfortable it would be to believe in a collective unconscious, a kind of electronic attic

With a programmed gate barring access to entropy but opening to our successors' sesame.

Rather it seems more probable that our missing synapses

Will resurface as spirals in a DNA chain or squawks of interplanetary static.

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