The American social scientist, Alice Thorner, died in Paris last month. She was eighty-eight and in failing health for some months. The end therefore was not altogether unexpected. Even so, the pangs of sorrow felt by friends are hardly diminished. To them, Alice defined the left-over civilization of this world. Her not being around is going to cause to disintegrate, henceforward, the coordinates of their daily existence.
Alice Thorner held an American passport and was proud of her American identity. And yet, she perhaps would have claimed, with great candour, she was as much a citizen of France where she had lived since 1960, and, above all, of India. She was a global citizen much before globalization, so-called, had hit the neighbourhood.
Alice's childhood coincided with the nadir of the economic depression in the United States of America. She learnt much from the school of life in that grimy, gloomy period. The gloom was however succeeded by a dazzling sunshine. Roosevelt's New Deal with its rich social content turned things round: the advent of social security, various welfare schemes for unemployed farmers and artisans, work programmes for artistes, writers, painters, actors and sportspeople, liberal bank loans for the underprivileged, gushing new ideas in sponsored public projects. Alice met her beau, Daniel, in this exciting period. It was truly a marriage made in heaven. They had a common set of dreams; they set about to build their world of flesh and blood around these dreams.
She was a sociologist; he, an economic historian. The young scholars sailed across the Atlantic and found themselves in the milling crowd in London's Aldwych. The London School of Economics was at the zenith of its charm and influence. 'migr's from Nazi Europe crammed the corridors. They were supplemented by cadets from the US as well as the British colonies and dependencies, particularly India. The Thorners were bowled over. Bonds of friendship were forged, sustained through the long succeeding decades. Ideas too evolved and matured, ideas apropos of social formations invested with attributes of welfarism. The world, the young ones in British universities were convinced, belonged to the underdog; citizens from affluent parts of the world owed it to themselves to organize their activities, scholastic or otherwise, for the furtherance of this goal.
Some of the brightest and the best in the London crowd happened to be from India. The Thorners were learning fast; anti-imperialism was added as an essential item in their Walt Whitman-esque ideology. Daniel was busy giving finishing touches to his opus on the rail network the British laid in India, investment in Empire; Alice was an active member of Krishna Menon's India League.
The Second World War intervened, friends and comrades scattered in different directions. At the end of the war, the Thorners were about to re-acclimatize themselves in what they thought to be the tranquillity of American academia. A rude shock was awaiting them. Rooseveltian liberalism was over. The MacCarthy-McCarran savagery blew like an evil whirlwind across the great US. Alice and Daniel were hounded out of their university slots because they refused to tell on their friends. America was unsafe, it was high time to seek refuge elsewhere. The Thorners did not take even a minute to decide upon their choice. It was India, the country many of the comrades they had befriended in London came from. It was the India which had only recently become free; while scarred by Partition, it was still territory, they thought, giving concrete shape to their dream of egalitarianism and social justice.
Once settled in Bombay, an instant, natural shift took place in their identity. From that moment onwards, they were as much Indians as Americans, never mind how their passports described them. The problems of India became their problems; the commitment was total. Alice and Daniel took pride in India's achievements, they assumed an almost personal responsibility for India's failings. They waded, with ferocity, into the country's raging economic and social controversies. In no time the Thorners discovered Sachin Chaudhuri's Economic Weekly and Sachin Chaudhuri and the Economic Weekly discovered them. There was a convergence of passion irrespective of whether the theme concerned an issue of history or economics or politics or sociology or international relations or demography or, for the matter, the specificities of agriculture, industry or services. The Thorners took it upon themselves to explain India, including its warts, to the rest of the world. A reverse role too came easily to them. They enjoyed themselves explaining to Indian friends problems convulsing Europe and America. Great bridge-builders, they also persuaded friends from other shores to write for the Economic Weekly (later the Economic and Political Weekly).
There was something else. Alice and Daniel carried with them the remarkable American attribute of lack of snobbery. India's rigid social structure they took as datum and yet defied it with a charming indifference. They cultivated friendship at all levels. They cracked the age barrier too: a budding young academic, ignored by the local feudal satraps, would suddenly be surprised by a letter or a telephone call from either of the Throners congratulating him or her for an incisive piece of research he or she had published in an obscure journal.
The Thorners moved to Centre D'Etudes D'Asie Du Sud in Paris in 1960. It was qualitatively a vastly different sort of climate: increasingly affluent western Europe, economies of the different countries rapidly integrating with one another, the grace and charm of Parisian living and a continuous stream of visiting academic eminences from the US, from Australia, from the rest of west Europe, from eastern Europe, from Latin America and Africa and, of course, from India and the rest of Asia. The Thorners fitted snugly into this ambience and received duly deserved social and academic recognition from appropriate circles. There was no question of forsaking India though; their Paris household became an extended outpost of India. Daniel passed away nearly thirty years ago, Alice however continued as ambassador-at-large for India, preaching the country's cause whatever the occasion. Young Indian scholars bound for different universities and research institutions in Europe would stop in Paris, billet with her, eat the food she cooked for them and be introduced to the French academic crowd; in their turn the latter too got to know India much in the manner Alice wanted them to know. The Thorner address ' 9 Rue Guy de la Brosse ' turned into a grand clearing house of knowledge and scholarship.
Alice, like Daniel when he was alive, was as comfortable in the Paris surroundings as any average upper-class French citizen; she admired the elegance of French cuisine, savoured the flavour of the Left Bank literary debates, followed closely the trajectory of French politics. Judged in this light, she was every inch French. The amour for India was still surpassing all else. Every year in late October, she would leave Paris and arrive in India, divide her time between Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta and some of the lesser places, breathing the Indian air, tasting Indian food, immersing herself in India's social controversies, worrying over the traces of ficklemindedness in India's political perambulations, and, more relevantly, meeting Indian friends, dozens and dozens of them.
This lady, Alice Thorner, straddled three civilizations, the American, the French and, above all, the Indian. She believed in all the three and continued to hope that the blessings of each one would somehow find their way to add lustre to the other two. In that sense, she was a hopelessly romantic person.