She calls herself one of India’s ‘before midnight’ children. Devaki Jain—economist, feminist, author—was old enough at 14 to experience the exhilaration of Independence and grow up in an India that was still defining herself. Her memoir, The Brass Notebook, captures the optimism and idealism of those years.
Jain began her distinguished career as lecturer in Delhi’s Miranda House, but went on to do what she loved best, research. Considered a pioneer in India of ‘feminist economics’ that brings a gender perspective to the discipline, Jain founded the Institute of Social Studies Trust and Development Alternatives for Women for a New Era.
This memoir gives us insight into Jain’s life, her parents, the chances she had to travel (94 countries in 50 years), the friendships she forged (Gloria Steinem being one), and the choices she made. “How to project what can be called ‘my story’ in a landscape which was so full of originality, so revolutionary, so full of great characters who walked and scripted the history of free India?” she asks. The answer pours out in words that capture Jain’s ebullience and determination to achieve what often appeared to be impossible dreams.
Her father, Mandayam Ananthampillai Sreenivasan, was a cabinet minister in the Mysore state and later dewan of Gwalior in 1947. Jain learned to ride horses and do things not expected of girls. “I think I was born free. I did not only yearn for freedom but seized it, at every chance I got, whatever the grown-ups said: I climbed the tallest trees...did not spend my time merely envying my brothers their bicycles but riding them. I did these things disregarding the conventions that tried to dictate how girls should behave. While there was much orthodoxy in the family, there was also accommodation,” she writes.
Devaki accompanied her father, then the government’s representative on the board of Air India International, to London in 1955. She managed to convince him to let her stay on, checked into a boarding house run by a Russian émigré couple, and doggedly pursued her passion to study at Oxford. How she managed that by getting admission to Ruskin College that specialises in labour studies, and later got her degree in economics and philosophy from St. Anne’s, illustrates her determination.
Before going to Ruskin, Jain continued her tendency to break norms by hitchhiking with a 19-year-old Dane from Germany back to London. Later, in 1962, she travelled overland with friends from London to Delhi. Sadly, there are few details about this adventure.
Her friendship with Gloria Steinem, one of the early feminists in the US, led her to contemporary feminism. “Though currently feminism is being claimed by so many diverse groups, each with its own story of its birth and its definitions, my entry was through the Gloria portal. We, Gloria and I, continue to swing together…due to the grounding and belief in feminism and non-violence.”
Her belief in non-violence had been crafted during her encounters with Vinobha Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan. She describes her experiences during the Bhoodan movement and learning about the realities of rural India. She also writes about women from a completely different background from her own, whom she came to know during her research. It is these women, she writes, “who taught me much of what I have since come to know about gender. They, more than any theorist, taught me my feminism. They have shaped the themes of my research and writing, provided much of its subject matter, and it is to them and others like them that I have felt accountable.”
What makes Jain’s memoir different from others is her willingness to share her most intimate thoughts and experiences, including about her marriage to Lakshmi Jain against the wishes of her father, without a shred of embarrassment. Given that her life has been so full of encounters with so many famous and outstanding individuals, the memoir could have remained a journal about just that. But its distinction is the author’s willingness to give us a chance to see Devaki Jain as she grew up, found her way, and became the woman we know her to be today.