Sitting in the garden of her home in Oxford, Rani Lall is almost completely hidden among the frenzy of densely planted flowers. “I like it very busy,” she says, “very jungley.” Born and brought up in northwest India, Lall thinks the British climate is far more forgiving than the one she grew up in. “Everything is so much more lush and green here. In India at this time of year, it is quite arid, everything is parched and dry.”
The daughter of a judge, Lall, 63, was brought up in a well-to-do Sikh family, and remembers fondly her childhood in India. Being the youngest of four, she watched her two elder brothers leave home to study. At 19, when an arranged marriage broke down after only one month, Lall wanted to get away from India and re-establish herself.
“England was liberation,” she says, “I wanted to travel, which [for Indian women] was largely unheard of in those days – I didn’t want to be that girl from a broken marriage.”
In the winter of 1969 Lall came to England to stay with her brothers, who were studying at Cambridge university. “In India I had been chaperoned all the time and now there was no one to say, ‘You shouldn’t be doing this or that’,” she says. “It was wonderful.”
However, Lall discovered a very different side to England when she moved to Leeds at the end of 1970 to become a social worker, a job that involved working with deprived families and prostitutes.
“My brothers were diehard lefties at the time, so this was like seeing the underbelly of capitalism. I had thought England was the land of opportunity and education, but in the 1970s there were a lot of deprived people living here too. Sometimes I couldn’t understand what these women were saying to me,” she adds. “Received pronunciation English was one thing, Yorkshire [dialect] quite another,” she adds.
After taking a degree at the University of East Anglia, Lall came to Oxford in 1975 to read for a DPhil in Indian economic history. She remembers being immediately taken with the city. “It was such a fun place, I thought, very international and very cosmopolitan.” Did she feel at home right away? “Oh yes, Oxford was everything I was looking for, but I had no idea I would end up living here.”
It was at a seminar in Oxford not long after she arrived that she met the renowned economist Sanjaya Lall, who was also born in India. They married two years later and, by the early 1980s, had two daughters, Maya and Priya. Some of Lall’s friends were puzzled by her choice to settle down into full-time motherhood after such an expensive education. “I wanted my family to be the beneficiaries of my education,” she says.
It wasn’t as though Lall completely withdrew from the world of work either. Growing up in Chandigarh, Lall had developed a fascination for different kinds of architecture, from the Lutyens-inspired colonial house she grew up in to the Le Corbusier structures that Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, commissioned for the city. In the early 1980s, Lall put her knowledge to use and started developing a local property.
“It started out as a hobby,” she says, “but now, since the children have grown up, I have a few different properties in Oxford and it has become my main source of income.”
Sanjaya’s pioneering work with developing economies would take his young family all over the world, advising governments and multinationals on how best to compete with western hard-hitters. After spending two years working at the World Bank headquarters in Washington, Sanjaya brought his family back to Oxford, where their son, Ranjit, was born in 1987. Ranjit is now himself a budding political economist and, between semesters studying for a PhD at Harvard, spends his summers back in Oxford to take up a predoctoral position at the university.
Lall is clearly proud of her husband’s work. “When I first met him in the 1970s he was writing about third world multinationals – [his] work was groundbreaking,” she says.
Sanjaya died suddenly in 2005 of a heart attack and, in the obituaries that followed, many journalists praised his trendsetting research. Many also mentioned the couple’s hospitality.
“My husband was always having people back to the house from all over the world, and we would have dinner,” says Lall. Over the years the family’s kitchen table would be set for a range of guests, from local academics to foreign dignitaries and representatives of big business. “Perhaps there might be a Chinese vice-president of some big company over one night, or a minister from a foreign country, and sometimes they couldn’t speak English but would still help me prepare the food,” she says. “Now that Sanjaya has gone, it is those people who help fund the chair in his honour.”
In 2011 a visiting professorship was set up at Oxford in Sanjaya’s memory with the help of Green Templeton College, where Sanjaya was a fellow from 1982 until he died. Lasting for the summer term, the chair is awarded to a distinguished economics professor working in the field of development and business. Incumbents have included Robert Wade from the London School of Economics and Dani Rodrik from Harvard.
Working as a trustee and raising funds for the memorial fund occupies much of Lall’s time now. Occasionally she also opens her garden to visitors to help raise cash for the local church. Although her life is different as a widow, she still finds time to see old friends. “Oxford is a very social place, and it’s full of the most interesting people: you go to the local Co-op and up pops a Nobel laureate.”
There is one other project too. “All of those years cooking for family and friends have inspired me to start a cookbook for my grandson, Jay,” she says. “The recipes are like me – a mixture of east and west.”
Has living for so long in England changed her? “My children are all English,” she says, strolling beneath the pergola in her back garden, “I have spent most of my life in England, and now in India I am classed a ‘non-resident Indian’, therefore a foreigner.” She smiles, before adding: “Let’s just say I feel equally comfortable in both societies.”
● Oxford has beautiful architecture and scenery
● The city benefits from excellent schools and a world-class university
● A rich cultural life thanks to the many galleries, theatres and museums
● Wet weather: good for plants, bad for people
● Oxford can be over-run with tourists, especially in the summer
● High property prices
● It is a cycling city but with inadequate safeguards
What you can buy for …
£500,000 A Grade-II listed three- to four-bedroom cottage in a popular Oxfordshire village
£1m A three-storey arts and crafts style house in Banbury Road, two miles from the centre
£2.5m A five-bedroom family home with about three acres of land in Boars Hill, an attractive district two miles from the city centre