Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 55

by Pranab Bardhan

All of the articles in this series can be found here.

Among other things London School of Economics is associated in my mind with bringing me in touch with one of the most remarkable persons I have ever met in my life, and someone who has been a dear friend over nearly four decades since then. This is Jean Drèze.

I think it was in the middle-1980’s Nick Stern at LSE introduced me to Jean. I have known Nick since he was a student of Jim Mirrlees at Oxford. Once when I was teaching in Delhi Nick and my Cambridge classmate Christopher Bliss (both of them teaching at Oxford at that time) came to talk to me about any suggestion I had about an Indian village they might pick which they then wanted to study intensively. I remember telling them to choose a village that had been surveyed before so that they had some benchmark information, and directed them to the Agro-Economic Research Center of the Delhi School of Economics which over many decades carried out village surveys in different parts of north India. They finally chose a village, Palanpur, in western UP about 200 kilometers from Delhi, which had been surveyed by the Center. Over the last 50 years they and their team have studied this village intensively and repeatedly, which is quite a unique achievement in the interface of development economics and economic anthropology.

Jean after finishing his Ph.D. at Indian Statistical Institute went and lived in this village in 1983-84 as part of that research team. Apart from doing research, Jean kept notes of his life in general in that village, and on the basis of those notes his friend Luc Leruth recently wrote up a fictionalized version in a novel titled Rumble in a Village, which, of course, went far beyond the economic and social data collected, into the cultural and emotional lives of villagers—their jealousies, intrigues, corruption, and violence as much as their love, compassion, and friendships. In this context let me quote from Jean’s comments on love in Palanpur village in his preface to the novel, which, I’d say, applied in large measure to even many of the urban areas I was familiar with in my early youth:

“At one level, love is a bit of an obsession among Indian youngsters. Popular songs, for one, have few other themes. If a future historian tries to understand today’s India through the prism of popular films and songs, she will probably think that romantic love bloomed all around. The reality, however, is almost diametrically opposite, at least in Palanpur. Even as young boys and girls listen to love songs and dream of a sweetheart, the actual prospect of reciprocated love is virtually nil. In the conservative environment of Palanpur, where everyone is watching everyone else, a love adventure can be very risky, and should it be discovered, retribution is likely to be swift and brutal (especially if the love birds belong to different castes). Matrimonial arrangements, for their part, are business-like affairs that often turn sour on the very day of the marriage ceremony.”

I may add that, even in Indian low middle class urban or semi-urban life, the elderly relatives who will fondly tell you mythological stories of divine love including erotic love (say between Krishna and Radha, which has been given expression in the lyrical poetry of many Indian languages, particularly Bengali) will glower at you if you express your tenderness for the girl or the boy next door. This, I believe, is part of the economic and status insecurity of their lives; they are always afraid that youthful indiscretion and audacity by the boy or the girl may take them out of their control which ultimately may imperil the family’s economic security (in terms of old age support) or ‘honor’ in society (largely involving female sexuality). Honor killings by the family arising out of some love affair among its younger members have not been absent even in cases where the family had migrated to UK or USA.

Jean was born in Belgium in a distinguished family; his father, Jacques Drèze, is an eminent mathematical economist (his mother ran a home for battered women). We were fortunate to get an article from Drèze senior in the book on Market Socialism that John Roemer and I edited in the 1990’s. The day I first met Jean at LSE, he wanted to sit down with me and discuss a few things; I told him I was busy in the day in a meeting, and then I had a few appointments, but I’d find him in the evening if he gave me his address and telephone no. Jean flashed a large grin and said he had neither an address nor a phone (these were days before mobile phones). For a moment I was taken aback, then slowly realized he actually lived with the homeless in a nearby park (in a wet, cold London). In the mornings he’d come to LSE, take a shower, and then start his teaching and research. I became immediately attracted to this character. Next few years when he was teaching at LSE, I’d make it a point to spend some time with him whenever I passed through.

One time he told me he wanted to see the inside of a jail and find out the conditions of British prison life. How’d he get arrested, though—after all he was a pacifist, so could not commit any violence. So once in front of a policeman, he started painting a pacifist graffiti on the wall, and was duly arrested. But his court case, being on a trivial matter, kept on being adjourned by the busy judge. One time when the judge was on the point of adjourning it once again, Jean stood up and told the judge that he was definitely guilty, and would be grateful if he’d immediately send him to jail, as the summer vacation at LSE was ending and he was supposed to start teaching soon. (I was reminded of the report of a trial of Gandhi in the 1920’s in British India. After the prosecutor brought a charge against him in the court, Gandhi apparently stood up and told the British judge that his charges were much more serious and numerous than what the prosecutor had pointed out. He then made a long list of those charges himself in front of an astonished judge and pleaded guilty to all of them. Gandhi, of course, used this as political theater of colonial law-breaking).

Another time when I saw Jean at LSE he invited me to a dinner he’d be cooking that evening at a large abandoned hospital building he and the other homeless in the area had occupied. This was in a desolate run-down part of London somewhere near the Oval cricket ground. I found the place after quite a bit of search, it was dark inside as the building had no electricity; there were a few candles. As soon as Jean saw me he told me he had just finished cooking chicken curry (he himself is a vegetarian) and asked me to take a plate and a seat. There were about thirty other people in tattered grubby clothes and wraps and blankets, seated already, so I seated myself next to one of them at the end of a long table. Jean at the center of the table was serving everyone from a pan; in the flickering candle light and dark shadows, from a distance the whole scene looked a bit like Da Vinci’s mural painting ‘Last Supper’ with the Christ figure in the middle. (Being a film buff, my memory also flicked for a moment to a sinister caricature of Last Supper in Luis Buñuel’s 1961 Spanish film Viridiana, where the people at the table were homeless beggars, with the Christ-like figure in the middle being that of a blind beggar—this film won the Palme d’Or award at Cannes film festival, was banned in Spain and denounced by the Vatican).

While eating I started talking to the man next to me who was obviously enjoying his chicken curry, with gravy dripping from his copious facial hair. I asked him how he came to know Jean. He said he did not know him. That morning he got released after 24 years in jail (in Britain that length of jail term is for really horrendous crimes, I didn’t dare ask him what crime he was punished for); after all these years he had no friends or relatives, he did not know where to go, someone pointed him to this place, where he might get some food and a place to lie down. He then said that he presumed I too must be looking for shelter there. For a moment I did not know what to say. Later one line from a plaintive Paul Robeson song (an African-American spiritual from the Civil War era) kept ringing in my ear: “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child/ A long ways from home…”

A couple of months later in Berkeley I got a letter from Jean, saying that they had established a commune in that abandoned building; it ran reasonably well for some time, but then, as usually happens with such communes, it broke up on account of various internal tensions and conflicts. The police were now set to evict them, but meanwhile the commune had incurred a lot of debt. Jean asked me if I could send some financial help, which I immediately did. When Jean thanked me for this he enclosed a published diary on the basis of his experience of this commune, No.1 Clapham Road: The Diary of a Squat. This was an activist’s account of the inner dynamics and tensions of building cooperatives and communes, a subject in which as an institutional economist I have had a long-standing academic interest. (One of Amartya Sen’s relatively neglected articles has been on the conflictual problems of labor allocation in a cooperative enterprise, published in the Review Economic Studies many decades back).

Jean’s commune of homeless people also reminds me of the system of mutual aid that I once saw in a village of beggars a few miles away from Santiniketan. Ashok Rudra and I once decided to go and visit this small village (rather a hamlet) and observe firsthand how these destitute people managed to live. We arrived at the boundary of the hamlet and started walking somewhat aimlessly. Soon we were followed by an intensely curious bright-eyed Muslim teenage girl with a baby in her lap (by the way, India is the world’s largest country of child brides and teenage pregnancy). We started talking to her, and she was highly amused by the unfathomable craziness of city people who wanted to know about their living conditions. She immediately appointed herself as our guide in visiting the beggar households, including her own (where she served us tea in clay pots). She said twice a week they’d go in a group to the Bolpur open marketplace (haat) where they begged from the shoppers. Some of the households also had very tiny plots of cultivable land where they grew paddy and vegetables. What was remarkable was the network of mutual help among the beggar women. In one dilapidated hut we visited an elderly woman who could not go to the marketplace to beg the previous day, as she had some fever. We saw other village women bringing their cooked food to feed this ailing woman. A young girl in the neighborhood started oiling and combing the hair of the elderly woman to make her presentable to the city visitors. I still remember this touching scene and the general spirit of incredibly upbeat camaraderie, conversation and banter among these poorest of women.

The last time I saw Jean at LSE was I think early in 1991 when the Gulf War was about to begin. Jean was in a hurry, he was organizing an international group of pacifists determined to go and place themselves in between the two armies in the battlefield, the Iraqi and the American, in their desperate attempt to stop the war. Jean asked me if I’d like to join him in his trip to the Iraq-Kuwait border. I have to say I chickened out.